The Call to Transmission

March 29, 2015   •   By Madeleine Kruhly

LOOK UP THE WORD “streaming,” and you will find it defined as a method of transmitting and receiving data. This has a crisp technological tinge to it that speaks to our reliance on media, and our imbrication within a digitized environment of codes and clicks. But what of the streaming that occurs outside of the computer screen — the streaming passage of seasons, of snow geese, of light before the storm, or even of people united in revolution? In Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s newest collection these meanings meld together as she depicts a world that transmits and receives in a multitude of ways. And yet Hedge Coke does not just endeavor to show the world as it is; she encourages readers of diverse backgrounds, to resist its inherent prejudices, and to effect positive change within it.

An award-winning poet who has lived across the country as well as beyond its borders, Hedge Coke is of mixed heritage: Huron, Metis, Cherokee, French Canadian, Portuguese, and Irish — to name a few. She highlights each in these 53 poems, whether through a phrase she slips in like “sur le voyage” or a reference to Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. Her Native American roots, however, seem to hold the deepest attraction for Hedge Coke; she calls upon them in the collection’s opening poem, “A Time.” The language in this elegy for her mother is simple yet fluid: worries slide into another, as the “night” of death crawls ever closer to its victim. In typical Hedge Coke fashion, the poem also features a moment of clarity, understated yet succinct. Here, the speaker realizes that there is never enough time, putting this quiet epiphany in terms borrowed from Native American legend:

The problem —
it’s not been written yet, the omens:
the headless owl, the bobcat struck,
the red wolf where she could not be.

None of it done and yet it’s over.

Nothing yet
of night    when she called me closer
asked me to bring her crow painting
to stay straight across from her feet
so she could waken into it,
              remember her friend.

It is a haunting passage, one that uses poetic techniques such as idiosyncratic spacing and minor repetition without calling attention to them. “A Time” is firm, and precise in its account of omens and its sequence of actions. It also pauses willingly for the unknown: “nothing yet / of night when she called me closer.” The poem frames Hedge Coke’s collection in its awareness of historical erasure, and its persistent hope that what has not yet been written may still come to be. She invites us to understand our own time as one filled with “beautiful things/that lead our thoughts and give us reason.” Like the poet Joy Harjo, Hedge Coke expresses her faith in the “we.” Hers is a communal poetry, one that does not dwell only in the first person speaker, but attempts to speak to its readers as a collective.

Hedge Coke organizes time in her poems as a kind of call and response — a term that she uses explicitly in the collection. The poems move backward and forward; their events ripple out from present to past. The collection itself is divided into four sections, as well a prelude, suite, and coda. This structure recalls the form of a musical composition, a symphonic collocation of movements which, taken together, constitute a “streaming” but formally unified whole. Hedge Coke’s interludes do change the pace of the collection, but they are not as affecting or hard-hitting as the longer chapters, with the exception of “A Time” as the prelude. One of the most powerful moments comes in the second section, “Breaking Cover,” in which Hedge Coke turns to historical events, such as the Wounded Knee incident. We see her take on the latter in “1973”: “It was war by any fine-toothed measure.” She describes the “bunkers filled with fifteen-year-old horsemen” and the hiding near “Grandma’s belly.” The poem is only eight lines long, but its message is undeniable: government tanks and troops, alongside the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, brought violence to the Oglala Sioux, many of whom were left wounded and voiceless. Here, as elsewhere, Hedge Coke uses her writing to speak for those whom history has silenced.

Hedge Coke does not limit her poems’ subject matter to the United States; her work takes us to other parts of the Americas where Indigenous people have been subject to similarly catastrophic acts of violence. There is a poignant tribute to the victims of the Pando, or El Porvenir, Massacre, a 2008 ambush on Indigenous community members in Bolivia. We are also introduced to the Barrio Tricentenario and the Plaza de Banderas in Colombia — sites of execution and bombing, respectively — in “Barrio Tricentenario, Plaza de Banderas”:

Wading footsteps of murdered
in the barrio Juan calls home
we sing our songs, tell stories,
cry a bit when conquistador
reenactors dance in color.

Botero blasted away refilled
with forty sculpted doves,
in the city where from here
I love you deeply and from
there it was but a night.

Here, Hedge Coke narrates the harmful acts of the “conquistador” or the colonizer. To combat the voicelessness imposed by such regimes, Hedge Coke encourages the practice of oral literature to channel the spoken roots of the written word. Her poems answer the destruction of the colonizer with songs, and stories, and “forty sculpted doves” — a unique type of call and response. And with this look to South America, Hedge Coke seems to advance what Chadwick Allen would call a “transindigenous” approach to representing the experiences of Indigenous peoples. Rather than consider each Native population’s struggles through isolated and localized readings, Hedge Coke highlights “the similarities between, and possible kinships with, Indigenous peoples in each region.” This viewpoint cannot help but call to mind the work of Leslie Marmon Silko, particularly her Almanac of the Dead, which seeks to unite the communities of Indigenous peoples across the Western hemisphere in a shared revolution. Far from advocating a loss of cultural or regional particularity, her transindigenous approach offers the possibility of a shared consciousness among Indigenous populations, a cause to which Hedge Coke’s work is devoted.

Notions of place are central to Hedge Coke’s work; she is a poet with feet in the river, even as her head rests on a mountain top. The first section is suitably titled “Navigation”, setting us among “coarse indigos” and cranes with frozen legs. There is a respect here for the will of nature. At times, we are simply observers, but we are also taken deep into the swarms of the 1934 Black Blizzard and the white ash of the 2011 Marfa fires, the outside world in chaos. “All we know is that we are not alone / and yet we are and everything is subject to fire” says the poet in “Burn.” Hedge Coke forces us to understand that many of these events are the result of human endeavors. She calls for a balance between our own strokes of action and the “streaming” of nature in her poem, “Eddy Lines”:

Sternpaddler, you
call for reason
when sometimes
water just is

The lines are lean and measured, like the cuts of the eddy. The “paddler” is defined by his desire to forge ahead, to map the river’s course. The poem’s tight line breaks foreground the issue of control, and while Hedge Coke does argue for “reason” in other poems, whether in terms of common sense or a return to morals, she also shows that our own sense of order is not always welcome. Earth, Hedge Coke affirms, has no need of the tracking and measurement systems we use to delineate our human actions.

“We are always earmarking time and space as if cataloguing our placement in the universe,” Hedge Coke says in an interview with the Poetry Society of America. Personal “placement” is explored in detail in the third section, “Where We Have Been.” We see Hedge Coke as a young child, listening to her mother’s piano and her father’s call for rain. We follow her father more closely in later poems through the nightmares of the Dust Bowl and the instances of racism he faced at a young age. The latter is explicit in “Against the Barrel,” one of the collection’s most well-crafted poems. It is a narrative poem, a form which, in less skilled hands, can become weighed-down and overly prosaic. And although Hedge Coke does fall into this trap in several other narrative-driven poems, the unusual phrasing and sense of purpose in “Against the Barrel” help maintain its taut form:

It was here against the barn, against the barrel,    Dad, as a boy, tipped forward
              leaning into something double-cocked to split-ease his pain.

Sam upon him daily, riding ridicule, hanging wooden signs upon his shoulders:
                              “Cheap Indian Labor For Sale.”

Right off the bat, Hedge Coke introduces us to the “here” — a past time, but definite place, imprinted in the speaker’s memory. The repetition of “against” emphasizes an opposition, and the compounds of “double-cocked” and “split-ease” increase the tension, like mines waiting for a false step. The father, as a young man, feels called to action, but is soon stopped by his “hero-sister.” The end of poem depicts his resolve to carry on, to weather oppression for the time being rather than seeking revenge on his tormentor: “Pick up the long barrel, lean in, put it back down.” Hedge Coke refers to this, rather beautifully, as “stilling”, a concept that reappears throughout the book. “To still, straighten,” as she writes elsewhere, represents a pause, a tempering, but it is by no means a complete stasis. The effect of “Stilling for a song, singing” occurs in Hedge Coke’s rhythms, too. She moves from a feverish build-up of words, an almost free-form association (rather like a poetic version of “Flight of the Bumblebees”) to slowed-down and stripped-back verse.

So, what does this concept of “stilling,” this refusal to meet violence with violence, mean for Silko’s transindigenous poetics of revolution? Hedge Coke suggests that relinquishing the gun does not mean forgetting the past. Her poems show how stillness itself may be a form of resistance. Some of the poems, such as the too-sweet “Summer Fruit” or “Hibakusha,” which fails to grab the reader’s attention due to its abstraction and lack of grounding detail, pale in the light of others. On the whole, though, the clear voice and impressive technical skill demonstrated in Hedge Coke’s poems do justice to her subject matter’s cultural and historical stakes. Most importantly, she composes “for our world,” a world she represents in constant flux, constantly streaming, yet leading us ”home into [ourselves] and back to reason.”


Madeleine Kruhly’s work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, and Lighthouse Literary Journal.