Kent Chadwick: Review of The Business of FancyDancing and Old Shirts & New Skins

Sherman Alexie . . . is the Jack Kerouac of reservation life, capturing its comedy, tragedy, and Crazy Horse dreams—those are "the kind that don't come true."

The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts & New Skins are companion collections, which introduce Alexie's broad skill, incandescent style and moral vision. These are Alexie's first two works, the sure foundation of a significant addition to American literature.

Through a brilliant use of interlocking characters, themes and phrases, Alexie crafts The Business of Fancydancing's 40 poems and five stories into a seamless, searing tribute to the people of the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene reservations.

Alexie's writing builds upon the naked realism and ironic wonder of Blackfeet/Gros Ventre writer James Welch . . . [and] adds a surrealist twist to convey comparable irony in his poem "Evolution" . . . . By the end of the poem, Buffalo Bill has taken "everything the Indians have to offer" and then changes the shop's sign from pawn dealer to "THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES." . . .

Alexie unflinchingly documents the "halfway" existence the reservation offers. In the story "Gravity" he notes that it is to the reservation "The Indian, no matter how far he travels away, must come back, repeating, joining the reverse exodus." . . .

Comedy abounds, though, in the survival responses of Alexie's characters. In logic that Jorge Luis Borges would be proud of, Thomas Builds-the-Fire loses control of his daily story in "Special Delivery," the very story that has bored everyone on the reservation for 23 years. . . .

Then there's love, if not exactly then approximately, and Alexie knows both. He can write the impudent "Reservation Love Song":

I can meet you in Springdale buy you beer & take you home in my one-eyed Ford ..

and the tender series of "Indian Boy Love Songs." Song #2 ends with this stanza:

Indian women, forgive me. I grew up distant and always afraid.

Alexie reaches his deepest and most complex emotions when the father appears in the poems and stories. In the poem "Love Hard," the speaker wants to know why, "my wild pony of a father never died, never left to chase the tail of some Crazy Horse dream?" Hookum answers

'Your father always knew how to love hard,' you tell me, crawling over broken glass, surviving house fires and car wrecks, gather ash for your garden, Hookum, and for the old stories where the Indian never loses . . . .

In the title poem, "The Business of Fancydancing," Alexie makes striking use of the classical sestina form of Dante and the French Provencal troubadours, in which the end words are repeated in different orders through the stanzas. Alexie turns the sestina to hard-edged purposes, to cut away romanticism from the powwow dances and reveal the young men's hunger and hope. They travel with their friend who can fancydance, who is money in their pockets. "It's business, a fancydance to fill where it's empty." . . .

In [Old Shirts & New Skins this second book, Alexie continues to create a Crazy Horse poetry, a poetry built of anger and imagination. . . . Alexie's Crazy Horse poetry is a view of America from the grave, a grave that can't hold the dead. Crazy Horse keeps coming back to life. "How do you explain the survival of all of us who were never meant to survive?" Alexie asks in the final, crescendoing poem "Shoes." Crazy Horse stood when Custer fell; Native Americans have survived, but Alexie knows that they are just "extras" without billing in the film that is America.

That distance gives pain and clarity. In "Horses," an incantatory poem our grandchildren will be reading in their school literary anthologies, Alexie measures the pain in ponies: 1,000 ponies of the Spokane Indians shot by the US Cavalry and only one survived, survived to bear a colt who won the Kentucky Derby with the stolen name, Spokane. In "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a wonderful double exposure of horror film and horrible history, Alexie rends with clarity:

I have seen it and like it: The blood, the way like Sand Creek even its name brings fear, because I am an American Indian and have learned words are another kind of violence.

This poetry speaks with a bleeding tongue because, as Crazy Horse says, "your language cuts / tears holes in my tongue." Alexie explores how the English he uses, the English that supplanted the language the old women spoke, has always been a weapon of war. He knows how far to trust it: "Because you gave something a name / does not mean your name is important."

Crazy Horse poetry battles with the idolized biographies that pass for American history. Columbus keeps sending postcards to Lester FallsApart, and he gets a few in return. George Armstrong Custer indicts himself when given the chance to speak, envisioning himself almost Christ chasing his twin, his "dark-skinned Lucifer," Crazy Horse, across the plains.

Crazy Horse poetry doesn't pander to sensitive, liberal readers. Alexie's "Nature Poem" answers its epigraph - "If you're an Indian, why don't you write nature poetry?"—with terse lines describing doomed Indian fire fighters caught in a burning stand of pines. You want earth poetry? This is all that Alexie will provide:

she, who once was my sister is now the dust the soft edge of the earth from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

From Kent Chadwick, "Sherman Alexie's Crazy Horse Poetry." Washington Free Press May 1993. 

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Criticism Overview
Title Kent Chadwick: Review of The Business of FancyDancing and Old Shirts & New Skins Type of Content Book Review
Criticism Author Kent Chadwick Criticism Target Sherman Alexie
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sherman Alexie's Crazy Horse Poetry
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