Memory May Not Sustain

By Dean RaderNovember 24, 2011

Blood Run by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

LOCATED IN EASTERN SOUTH DAKOTA and Western Iowa, Blood Run is a series of 176 well-constructed ceremonial mounds built by the Oneonta. The site is over 8,000 years old, but archeologists believe it saw its peak population between 1675 and 1705, when some 10,000 people occupied the area. At that time, the Blood Run complex extended over 2,000 acres and was an important nexus for trade, culture, and commerce. Evidence suggests a huge mound serpent once slithered in its lapidary way along the site, but it too has been desecrated. The area was unprotected for centuries. At one point a railroad ran through the mounds. People also built houses among them, farmed the land. Skeletons were stolen along with many artifacts. All that remains are traces of a once vibrant locus of service and ceremony. Since 1970, 650 acres have been designated as a National Landmark Site. Some of the bones have been repatriated, most have not. We know some of what went on at Blood Run, but even contemporary scientists and archeologists are uncertain of many of the details. 

Where science fails, poetry succeeds. What time forgets, language remembers. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s beguiling Blood Run is like no other book of poems; Hedge Coke’s project attempts to recoup, recreate, and restore the energy and symbology of Blood Run, and has made me think differently about the relationship between poetry, land, history, and Indigenous America. Herself a descendent of mound builders (Cherokee, Huron, and Creek), Hedge Coke animates the spiritual interchange embodied by the mounds. More than piles of dirt and far more significant than mere ruins, they are semiotic remnants of a pulsing, vibrant polis; proof of terrestrial connection and aesthetic ambition.

One could say the same for Hedge Coke’s book. It evinces a strong connection to Blood Run’sterroir and its aesthetic scope transcends space, time, voice, and memory. Of the collection’s nearly 70 poems, almost all are persona poems spoken in the voices of all the entities involved in the community of Blood Run, and not just the people: there are poems spoken by corn, the moon, a deer, skeletons, looters, beaver, the morning star, buffalo, Clan Sister, ghosts, a tractor, and even the horizon. If you find yourself asking at this moment, really, the horizon?, you are not alone. I, too, was skeptical, but I was won over, oddly enough, by the horizon’s voice.

In particular, I liked the absence of sentimentality, as in this passage from the second horizon poem:

Often, pasts of those
who traveled on becomes
something Memory
may not sustain.

Dissolving along
perceived parameters,
sensible tangents—

The poem shares a page with a poem entitled “Memory,” and the two texts are in dialogue, as the beginning of “Memory” suggests:

When disease rode trade blankets
wove away across oceans, rivers,
my People reeled. So many crossed
into the net world, my fullness ruptured,
poured as sores upon then-tainted blistered skin.

“Memory” closes with an ominous valediction, or is it an invitation?

In the end, all will dissipate, join me.

Both the notion of dissipation in “Memory” and those who are “dissolving” in “Horizon” reference the thousands of souls who passed through Blood Run on their journeys. Memory and distance limn each other here. They are each other’s shadow.

Blood Run attempts to map a journey for which no map was ever made, just as it attempts to narrate a history for which there is no history. One way to accomplish this is to create an inclusive poetic system that connects everything to Blood Run — the cosmos, animals, humans, the elements, machinery, the sky, the dirt, the present, and the past. Hedge Coke is pretty successful at this. It’s all there. However, an additional,and far riskier project is to tell the story of this history by letting everything tell its own story, its own history. It’s a kind of oral history project/lyric poem mash-up. It was a bold decision to let a tractor talk. There are so many ways it could have gone wrong.

To begin with, the persona poem is a far from reliable form. It can come off as bad ventriloquism. And, if the gap between poet and persona is too wide, the poems will sound as though they belong in a children’s book. But, Hedge Coke, rather remarkably, is able to pull this off — in part through an unwavering belief in the lyric project as historical mouthpiece and in part through a consistent but pliant relation to form. For example, all of the poems are relatively short —two or three stanzas, in some cases only one. “Clan Sister” and “Tractor” are less than 50 words each. Each “Skeleton” poem is itself rather skeletal. The series entitled “The Mounds” features declining stair-stepped lines, so that on the page, the poems’ semiotics signifies their moundness. On the other hand, “Jesuit” finds itself draped in rather formal duds:

What lies here must be pagan,
but what pagan lies were old?
Could it be that Memory
Rules this land enriched with soul?

What roams here in the twilight?
What harkens here twofold?
What essence was it made of
When the centuries turned cold?

With its heightened, slightly archaic diction, its old school catalogue of rhetorical questions, and its ABCB rhyme scheme, “Jesuit” feels notably different than Blood Run’s other poems, but at the same time, its clothes are cut from the same cloth. It wears memory, forgetfulness, and the heavy scars of the long forgotten.

Narrative persona poetry can be particularly salient for Native writers because it overlaps so well with oral storytelling traditions. Part of the force of the narrative poem is its ability to capture utterance, what theorist Jonathan Culler calls “performative utterances.” Prayers, sacred songs, and even incantatory language carries with it the power to alter perception and human understanding, and poetry shares this emphasis on message and loaded language. Like most of Louise Erdrich’s best poems, in which she speaks as Mary Rowlandson, John Wayne, or the German widow Mary Kröger, Hedge Coke’s personas work because they form an immediate connection with the reader, even when the personae are non-human. Both “Snake Mound” and “Stone Snake Effigy” embody actual snake mounds, using antiqued, King Jamesian syntax and a surprising New Testament Christian overlay. Once savvy readers detect Biblical diction in poems about snakes, it is a short slither over to Genesis. But, what one doesn’t expect is language of the second coming as well:

Though my body
Suffered sacrifice
To railway fill,

My vision bears
All even still.

Be not fooled.
Be not fooled.

I will appear again.
Sinuous, I am. 

(“Snake Mound”)


What is necessary surely remains so,
Regardless of hands, or hearts of man.

My purpose thus exists among needs
Of the world to this very day.

Recognize me to free thyself.

(“Stone Snake Effigy”)

One can’t help but think of Yeats’s “rough beast,” pagan, spooky, forgotten but full of potential, its hour come round at last. But, where the Yeats poem portends destruction, these suggest renewal and liberation. Not surprisingly, Hedge Coke’s poems are also lighter than “The Second Coming.” I’m not sure you’d find a Garden of Eden pun (“sin”/“sinuous”) in many Yeats lyrics. Hedge Coke’s freedom of play deriving in part from the use of the persona: if the persona wants to go Borscht Belt, who are we to heckle?

Like her Irish counterpart, Hedge Coke remains committed to making poetry occupy a political space. She is also clearly interested in collapsing the boundaries between the known and unknown worlds, between present truths and past transgressions, and between the boundaries of the natural and the human. They also share a fascination with numerology. For example, Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” that stunning poem on the Easter Rebellion of April 24, in which the first, third, and fourth stanzas each have sixteen lines, corresponding to the year. The second stanza contains 24 lines, signaling the day of the rebellion. The overall stanza count of four stands for April, the fourth month of the year. Hedge Coke’s “two stone” and serpent poems also revel in their numerology. Both poems contain 17 lines, both are written mostly in couplets but are broken up with one and three-line stanzas, creating the same number of intra-stanza gutters. Also, in each poem important statements appear on lines that correspond with prime numbers. In his fabulously detailed article “Serpentine Figures, Sinuous Relations: Thematic Geometry in Allison Hedge Coke’s Blood Run,” Native literature scholar Chadwick Allen does far more with the numerology of these poems than I can here, but suffice it to say that almost nothing in these poems is random. This attention to numerical alignment makes the structures within the book Blood Run correspond to the alignment of the actual structures of the Blood Run site. In this sense, things don’t fall apart. The center actually holds. What’s loosed upon the world is, oddly enough, order.

Ultimately, though, the book is about the voices of Blood Run. At first, I thought the book hinged on the embodiment of various elements, but the poems are less about thingness and more about communication and vocalization. They are speech acts from a community that has been waiting to be heard. By letting the various entities speak their own truths, a rather brave and remarkable thing happens: the ego and identity of the poet fades into the horizon.

Blood Run is a fine culmination of Hedge Coke’s work up to this point. Best known for her 2004 memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer and her award-winning collection of poems Dog Road Woman(1998), Hedge Coke has spent her career exploring the reaches of memory, violence, land, and identity. Like Ai, she is drawn to narrative poems that allow the reader to experience poems not as abstract exercises but modes of communication and witness. As a memoirist, she is interested in articulating how one’s identity is both tied to and informed by land and the history of that land. All of these issues get worked and re-worked in Blood Run with success. It’s not important that readers get the numerological significance of every poem; what’s important is that the readers feel the voices of those denied voice, hear the history of those without history, learn the stories of those whose stories have been lost. Blood Run is like no other book of poems. That means you might want to read it.


LARB Contributor

Dean Rader has authored or co-authored eleven books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, Landscape Portrait Figure Form, a Barnes & Noble Review Best Book, and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, is forthcoming in 2023 from Copper Canyon. His writing has been supported by fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi, and the MacDowell Foundation. Rader is a professor at the University of San Francisco and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. 


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