If you have ever watched Sherwin Bitsui recite his poems, you get the feeling he is bringing the news from some other realm—he leans hard into the microphone; his voice is forceful, commanding; his eyes move under their lids like those of someone in the midst of a troubling dream. This “otherworldliness” makes his work difficult to discuss in the language of interpretation and comprehension. But comprehension is not always the point of art. As the critic Jacques Barzun once said, “It is because I do not understand this work of art that I like it.” And on a more pedestrian but related note, the poet Chuck Calabreze once said, “Too often wild poetry gets ignored because it can't be saddled up and ridden in the fenced arena of the essay.” Rather than saddle Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song, let me point to some features of this poem as it gallops past.
From Flood Song
The song spilling seeds into your mouth
sunflowers a yield sign
crawls onto the roof pinching corn meal,
and quakes into a babble of crows.
It then speaks splintering from a polished clay bowl,
drifts onto the lake's shore-
apostrophes attached to its hemline.
Obsidian slides over the starling's nest
backhoes nearing the coal shed sputter awake,
a pebble splinters the tribe into half brothers;
the pass shrinks to a black dot behind us.
Bitsui, who is Diné of the Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tłizíłaaní (Many Goats Clan), roots his work in a Diné-influenced metaphorical understanding of the world and to a lesser extent, in surrealism—Spanish surrealism with its horses and tambourines, as opposed to central European surrealism with its umbrellas and sewing machines. His poems, therefore, resist explication, but they reward the reader with fire and mystery and scope. Bitsui's most recent book, Flood Song, is a book-length panoptic poem, a song that's also about a song that travels land and time, that has a physical presence in the world, metaphorically and literally affecting the course of events.
It's impossible to suggest the scope of a book-length poem in this space, but Flood Song is, in some sense, holographic—in that any sample both contains and contributes to the whole. In the section here, Bitsui tracks the song, the flood song that "sunflowers a yield sign"—an image that seems mystifying, unless you drive along Santa Fe streets during our current monsoon season and see the wild sunflowers that are sprouting along our roadsides. In places like Iowa City, the verbing of nouns is the mark of a poet who is the very model of a modern major versifier. Though he looks to be partaking in the trend by making "sunflower" a verb, I'd suggest that Bitsui's impulse to verb probably runs deeper: "Diné Bizaad," he has written, "is my first language. It is very imagistic and descriptive and also very verb driven; everybody in my family spoke metaphorically…and poetically about things."
The flood song, which is also the rain and the flowing water itself, is everywhere, doing everything; the song, in the current parlance, has agency—it makes things happen. In an interview in Guernica magazine, Bitsui talked about this sense of language and song: "I come from a traditional family, and I was taught to view the world metaphorically from a young age. Our physical world had to be attended to ceremoniously and often such ritual devices involved the act of 'speaking' a world into a balance. Words have power to transform or create a situation."
Bitsui is also a painter (his painting "Drought" graces the cover of Flood Song), whose largely abstract paintings, like his poems, are maps of metaphor and metamorphosis and juxtaposition much like the end of this passage, when the images, both natural and mechanical, accumulate and shift. The shift from yellow and green to black—the crows, obsidian, starlings, coal, the black dot of the pass—suggests, in Diné symbology—a movement from west (yellow) to north (black) and a flight back to the south, when the black is left behind. But perhaps the most intriguing line—"a pebble splits the tribe into half brothers"—implies something about the relative scale of event and consequence that we would do well to keep in mind these days.
Jon Davis was named poet laureate for the City of Santa Fe in July 2013 and is director of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA Summer Program.