Flood Song, an epic poem by Sherwin Bitsui

posted May 4, 2010, 6:12 PM by Jeff Brandt   [ updated May 4, 2010, 7:09 PM ]

I compare my hands to what I imagine thought might look like
when suspended in fossilized amber,

release the captured mosquito from my closed hands,
string dimming gas lamps between rain and fall,

and insert into the knife's pale of origin--
                a twig warming the clutching hand.           (p. 37)

Arizona-born Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song (2009) -- his second book of poetry -- consists of one 71-page epic that may well drive you mad if you obsess over interpreting it. I have read no other poem quite like it.


The Navajo poet's tone is one of sheer, unrelenting intensity. The images -- often a jagged juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade -- are so odd, so beautiful, so macabre and indecipherable.

Once you feel as though you may finally have grasped one image, having read and re-read a line or stanza, Bitsui adds another layer of complexity, or transforms the image altogether. I challenge you to read his poems and try to picture the whole scene: to gather all the elements and hold them in your mind all at once, into a cohesive whole.

Take, for example, the passage on page 57:

I sensed the knife in your past,
its sharp edge shanked from the canyon stream--
a silver trickle between the book jacket
nihizaad peeled open inside a diabetic mouth.

The waters of my clans
flash-flooded--
I fell from the white of its eyes--
our fathers had no children to name their own;
no baby's cry to place between argument and arguments.

The commercial flashed a blue path
across the lakes of our veins,
the bluest glint, a rock in the ear
told our tongues entwined

that I was reaching from the cornfield inside you,
that I was longing to outlive this compass
pointing toward my skull
gauzed inside this long terrible whisper

damp in a desert canyon,
whitewashed by the ache of fog lights
reaching to unravel               my combed hair.

Like most of Bitsui's passages, this one is essentially written in complete sentences, complete with punctuation, prepositions, articles, pronouns, and the works. Due to the surreal barrage of images that don't go together in the traditional sense -- verbs forcing themselves upon unwilling nouns -- the action is impossible to follow from point to point (at least on a cold read) . . . and yet you have the connective tissue common to prose, which leaves you feeling that it should all connect. 

Is there a certain logic to Bitsui's craft? I'm not sure. There's definitely a sense of tribal rhythm and something like a formula at work, almost to the point of painstaking monotony.

When reading aloud, he does not pause for you to put the pieces together. I had the pleasure of seeing Bitsui read over a year ago at a UIUC English Department author series event, when he was still promoting Shapeshift (2003), his debut book of poems. It was an unforgettable experience, seeing this otherwise gentle man plumb the depths of humanity, transporting us to a surreal desert world where oil-soaked bird feathers smolder in the sun, turtle shells lay dormant at the edge of a highway, and old women's wooden faces haunt our memories.

Perhaps that is the best way to read these -- to let the lines wash over you and to feel the violence, the despair, the occasional gleam of hope. Either that or to puzzle over each line slowly, reading only a few pages per sitting before putting the book down in a daze. In reading Flood Song, there seems to be no middle ground. 


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