Poetry We Admire: Indigenous Poets


“In sand paintings the little geometric forms are said to designate mountains, planets, rainbows – in one sand painting or another all things in Creation are traced out in sand. What I learned for myself was that words can function like the sand.”
—Leslie Marmon Silko

“We are always becoming—: from somewhere. Desire is a blood-colored worm flexing the sand sea around me.”
—Natalie Diaz

“Have you ever been to Eastern Colorado, where the Sand Creek Meets the Arkansas River?”
—Julian Saporiti

“In Nebraska, aerial photos show the Platte River, which flows across the state and empties into the Mississippi, has almost completely dried up in some locations. The river has vanished near Kearney, Nebraska, and dry sand is all that’s left where water usually flows.”
—CNN, Before and after: See how the Mississippi River and its tributaries have dropped to record lows


My friends and I filtered between Al-Jazeera & MSNBC, watching the election results come in. After becoming a citizen, one of the most striking aspects of being a participant and witness to the (decreasingly) peaceful transfers of power in this country is the almost all-consuming effect these biennial events have on the psyche. And what this tunnel vision occludes.

I mean that regardless of who wins the Senate and the House, fundamental aspects of this country will remain unchanged, and watching the numbers come in, I’m ashamed to say at time I have failed to consider this. That whoever takes Arkansas, or Colorado, or Mississippi, the residents of those states and the sovereign territories within them will wake up in a colonial regime no closer to coming to terms with its own history, discarded treaties, and ghosts. 

To come to terms with this history and begin the long work of decolonizing, Mahmood Mamdani writes, the US must first acknowledge that it is a colonial state. It must survive the myth of itself.

Anne Carson: To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.

A perilous thing, to realize that whichever Senate candidate wins in Pennsylvania, both support hydraulic fracking in the state, despite the overwhelming evidence of its adverse environmental effects.

The Mississippi is drying, revealing the flats and bones beneath. 

In Egypt the COP27 is convening to decide our future on this planet.

When the ongoing US genocide of First Nations people began, the land so many of us live on now was taken not only from its original stewards, but from itself as well; Indigenous narratives that centered the land, in which environment was germane to the plot, in which it were “as if the land [itself] was telling the stories,” (Silko, once more) were overwhelmingly replaced by narratives that centered the colonizing populations, in particular white men — this had become the prevailing storytelling tradition in the colonizers’ countries of origin, and they brought it with them when they crossed the seas.

The idea of white personhood, and in particular white american manhood, was founded and remains dependent upon this centrality.

As Dixa Ramirez D’oleo reminds us, “[N]o world is more terrifying for a white man than the one that decenters him, and, as such, destroys him.” 

This month, for Poetry We Admire, we are looking at work by Indigenous poets. Poems that decenter, that refuse stasis, that reveal the bones beneath. Like the land itself might tell them. Like Creation. Like sand.

Thank you to the poets who wrote these words, and to you who spend some time with them today.

PWA is only ever a fragment. For more extensive selections of writing by Indigenous poets, some good starting points are Heid E. Erdrich’s New Poets of Native Nations, and Joy Harjo’s When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.


to delineate one from another
is like pulling at centipede grass

from "Bird Dance"

by Tacey M. Atsitty in Shenandoah

I love this poem for the different lives it has had in my memory and on the page. The first time I revisited Bird Dance it was with an expectation of finding a confessional, only to be greeted by a poem of praise and voice. All I had remembered was how the piece made me feel, and something in this made me imagine selfhood in Bird Dance. To read this piece is to feel a special kind of joy, and to read it again is to learn (or be reminded) that joy stems not from selfhood, but something beyond.

ride with me in the shadowy afterworld
beyond the spider of a doubt

from "sky hammer"

by Julian Talamantez Brolaski in Poets

Brolaski’s poetry was first shared with me by a British pen pal in 2019. It’s the kind of writing that commands one’s attention, and I return to it often. I’m including “sky hammer” in this list of poems  because it is a new favorite, imbued with a freshness that is a quality less of the poem’s recency than the language itself, that moves “in space as a great auroral mist.” As Brolaski writes, this is a poem that works with all the tools it has at hand, in particular an inexhaustible imagination.

O firefighters of America,
Why are so many of you inmates?

from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Wildfire"

by Craig Santos Perez in Terrain

Perhaps more than any other poem in those gathered here, Perez’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Wildfire” refuses a centering, insisting from its outset shifts in perspective that generate an energy which takes on a life of its own. “Humans and trees / Are kin,” Perez writes. “Humans and trees and wildfires / Are kin.” This is a poem that listens even as it speaks.

I wished to be closer to my mother
To think of displacement in a different way.

from "Turning Back"

by Joan Naviyuk Kane in Poetry 

“I wish for my family to be its own refuge, for the sorrow to become something islandic,” writes Joan Naviyuk Kane, and I think of Eavan Boland’s “Atlantis—A Lost Sonnet,” another poem that seeks a place for grief to rest and comes up short. In many ways, in length and theme, the poems are in conversation with one another. But while Boland’s poem is about a loss that cannot be given form, Kane’s poem is about a loss whose precise form is understood all too well. “I wanted to stay near the shore of something familiar,” Kane continues, “but instead I trace the shape of tuqaayuk, sea lovage, wild celery, with something other than my tongue.” 

a brown box you braid, basket
you carve again and again, open
beneath the waves, graves

from "surrender, no, siren"

by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán in The Hopkins Review

The first time I ever fell in love with a poem for its sound, an uncle had gifted me a CD of 100 poems, read by their authors. Some T.S. Eliot poems were on there, and Rita Dove’s “Parsley”, but the reading I could not stop listening to was Kamau Brathwaite’s “Calypso“. So much of that poem, the glory of its sound, came back to me reading Bodhrán’s “surrender, no, siren,” a piece of such music and movement. “Fellows / gather with you below, blow the slapping / sounds of moons swoon crashing shores / before our finned fingers left so long ago,” the poem seems to defy time, tide, and space themselves, or perhaps more closely, do them justice, in a feeling that picks up from the title and doesn’t let up until that last line, “upon our obstinate obsidian souls.”



Benjamin Bartu