The US Grant Hotel is a study in contradictions. The luxury hotel sits in the heart of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and contains a $6.5 million art collection. The hotel is named after President Ulysses S. Grant and is owned by the Kumeyaay Indians.
One would think the first order of business would be to change the name of the hotel. After all, Grant was president during the Great Sioux War of 1876, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. However, the Kumeyaay remember Grant “as a rare soul among politicians—forthright and generous” whose efforts led to California tribes being granted sovereign status.
It’s all about the context. Context is also a requirement for unpacking the contradictions that abound in Layli Long Soldier’s new collection of poems, WHEREAS, released last month by Graywolf Press. The book is divided into two sections: “THESE BEING THE CONCERNS” and “WHEREAS.”
There is a great deal of wordplay, especially in the first half, but the poems become more stark and somber. “Left” deals with the loss of an unborn child and the strange dreams that followed.
Long Soldier’s poems resist excerpting on the page. They are marked with spaces and broken lines that insist on their own shape because “it’s the rise and fall of the voice we must capture to mean a thing in writing.”
Long Soldier’s evocative lines summon the past as easily as the present. In her searing poem “38,” Long Soldier—an Oglala Lakota Native American herself—lays out the story of “the largest ‘legal’ hanging in US history” of “thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln” as a direct result of the Sioux Uprising.
The horror of the situation (and beauty of the poem) unfurls as the context is revealed.
A trader who taunted the starving Dakota by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass” was found murdered with his mouth stuffed with grass.
“I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem,” Long Soldier says in “38.”
With the poem’s haunting conclusion, the book pivots to the second half, which is a response to President Barack Obama’s signing of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. Ironically, Obama did not read the resolution aloud nor were Native Americans present when it was signed.
In a series of what she calls “Whereas statements,” Long Soldier grapples with the contradictions inherent in an unvoiced apology issued to no one: “how do I language a collision arrived at through separation?”