Resistance in Luci Tapahonso's "A Radiant Curve": The Application of European Poetic Form to Navajo Storytelling
Elements of defiance in the face of traditionally European ideals and practices are evident throughout Luci Tapahonso’s 2008 A Radiant Curve, most notably in her use of French- and Italian-based forms for many of her poems. Her use of the sestina and villanelle to tell various stories about her family and, on a larger scale, the Navajo people, exhibits the strength of her culture’s storytelling tradition and its ability to resound through any medium. Furthermore, the author’s non-linear structure and integration of the genres of both prose and poetry allow for a well-rounded narrative that contains not only Tapahonso’s own story but also an emphasis on the history of her people. Though each of the prose narratives within the segmented, episodic structure of A Radiant Curve offers hints of resistance to loss of cultural and individual identity, it is Tapahonso’s use of European poetic forms in a series of Navajo-specific stories that truly shows her determination to preserve Navajo culture in a changing world.
A Radiant Curve is made up of 29 individual stories that may initially feel like incomplete fragments to readers more accustomed to the traditional linear narrative of much Western literature. However, the stories, in both prose and verse form, eventually come together to a culmination of themes and images that provides a new understanding of the Navajo culture that feels, ultimately, satisfying and complete. Tapahonso achieves this effect of a larger story made up of many smaller stories from different voices by incorporated various genres throughout the text. The individual stories themselves seem to form a pattern in terms of genre; This lends itself to a sense of wholeness and an evenly-weighted collection of stories in which no single piece feels arbitrary. A Radiant Curve is made up of sections of long-form prose (sometimes considered the “short story” form), prose poems, free-verse poems of varying lengths, sestina and villanelle poems, and an interspersed series of very short poems (all within six or seven lines) that are focused on the Navajo creation myths and the cultural codes derived from these parables. Furthermore, while these very short poems share a specific focus on the passing on of morals, traditions, and instructions, the sections written in the other genres are far more narrative, delivering more contemporary stories of the Navajo people in the present day.
Tapahonso’s integration of different forms and genres, as well as her incorporation of traditional, long-established mythical narratives with more recent stories specific to her family and culture, create a sense of “many voices” throughout the collection of stories. This effect brings to mind the importance of oral traditions and storytelling in many Native American cultures, the author’s Navajo background included. That Tapahonso has cast the atmosphere of word-of-mouth and oral storytelling over a written work speaks to her talent as well as her intentions, as a modern-day Navajo in a position of influence, to preserve all aspects of her culture by making them accessible to a wider demographic.
The author’s use of the sestina and villanelle in particular – two traditionally French- and Italian-based forms that seem to have little historic connection to traditional Native American means of storytelling – establishes her application of Navajo stories to European forms as a means of resistance to the notion of the “dying Native cultures.” In “Tools of Self Definition,” Caskey Russell expands upon James Ruppert’s point that, “since Indian writers are bicultural...they can utilize the best of both cultures in an act of mediation and present a positive image of American Indians even though they may deal with tragic subject matter” (38). Russell quotes Ruppert as he elaborates on the concept of mediation: “[Mediation is] an artistic and conceptual standpoint, constantly flexible, which uses the epistemological frameworks of American Indian and Western cultural traditions to illuminate and enrich each other.” Throughout A Radiant Curve, Tapahonso certainly takes the liberty of using the European poetic forms, as Caskey Russell says, “on [her] own terms.”
Tapahonso scatters sestinas and villanelles throughout her collection of stories, evenly combining these European forms with other forms – like the prose poem, which is perhaps more inherently true to the Native tradition of oral storytelling. The poems written in the sestina form are: “Old Salt Woman,” “The Holy Twins,” “The Canyon Was Serene,” “Red Star Quilt,” “Dawn Boy,” and “Tsilii.” These fall on pages 23, 31, 51, 64, 73, and 79, respectively, falling in frequent intervals in an even dispersion throughout the collection. The collection’s only villanelle poem is “Near-to-the-Water” and comes at the tail-end of the series of sestinas, on page 71.
The first sestina, “Old Salt Woman,” retells one of the original Navajo creation myths, and the next sestina, “The Holy Twins,” tells another, though this time it is more obscure, layered beneath a personal narrative. The third and fourth sestinas shift focus to more contemporary, day-in-the-life stories, both of which could be potentially be considered autobiographical to Tapahonso’s experiences, but simultaneously could be coming from different voices – or at least different points of the narrator’s life, or from different states of mind. Regardless, the positioning of these presumably present-day stories after an introduction into Navajo creation myths allows readers to apply long-standing parables and morals to modern day situations and to see, with close analysis of these stories, that history often repeats itself and that many cultural values are timeless and applicable to a wide array of circumstances. The sestina progression is now interrupted by A Radiant Curve’s sole villanelle, and then followed by two more sestinas, the first of which is, predictably, the creation story of Dawn Bay and the next, in accordance with the established pattern, a return to the personal narrative.
The sestina, also called the sextain, is a rigidly structured poetic form that consists of six six-line stanzas and concludes in a tercet to make up a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words is used to end the lines of each six-line stanza, albeit in a different order each time. (The sequence throughout the poem is as follows: 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531, though the last sequence must fit within three lines rather than six, so three of the six “refrain” words must fall in the middle of the lines.) Though the sestina – due to its high level of structuring – does put heavy restrictions on the creative process and the final product, writing in such a restrictive form also benefits the poet by forcing him or her to examine the subject matter in a new light. Finding a new way to communicate a specific message or theme, aside from affirming the poet’s talent and expertise and thereby establishing a certain degree of credibility in the narrative voice, also promotes the idea that the traditions within the stories, though age-old, remain applicable to this day.
The sestina form finds its origins in 12th century France, where it was written largely in iambic pentameter. Throughout the centuries, however, poets have applied their own stylistic preferences to the traditional sestina form and today, though the sestina is still widely used, the use of iambic pentameter within its rigid structure is less prevalent and allows room for creative liberty. In “Sestina! Or, The Fact of the Idea of Form,” Stephen Burt explains that “the sestina has served, traditionally, as a complaint...Contemporary artists...use sestinas to lament their diminished or foreclosed hopes for their art” (219). He goes on to say, on page 220, “At their best, [recent sestinas] meditate on the limits and frustrations of any model of poetry based in technique or in entertainment, and they complain that no other model fits.”
A closer analysis of both “The Holy Twins,” a creation myth-focus within a present-day story, and “Red Star Quilt,” a shocking personal narrative – the former located towards the beginning of A Radiant Curve and the latter coming much later in the progression of various genres and the stories they tell – will provide a deeper understanding of Tapahonso’s use of the European poetic form and the notion of resistance therein.
In “The Holy Twins” on pages 31 and 32, the six words that repeat throughout the poem are (either exactly, or in creative variations of the original): deep, inscribe, die, (rib) cage, bruise, and figure. The poem’s structure relies heavily on the use of enjambment to allow the sequence of six words to fall at the end of stanza lines. However, it is the variations on the original words – for example, the use of “describe” in the third and final stanzas in place of the original “inscribe” – that truly highlights the poet’s creativity and adds points of focus and heightened interest throughout the poem. Furthermore, Tapahonso has made a slight adjustment to the traditional sestina form by ending on the words “the Holy Twins” (of course, a return to the poem’s title), rather than on one of the six words the sestina sequence dictates.
The story the poem tells has to do with the deep sorrows of childhood and also the hopeful perseverance that comes with age and an evolved understanding of these times of youthful grief. The poem, on its narrative surface, tells of the death of an entire neighborhood full of dogs that fell victim to rabies, and the mourning process of those left behind (particularly the children, who seemed most deeply impacted by the events). Reading the last word of each line alone would leave readers with a general understanding of the poem’s tone: Word choices like “die,” “deep,” “bruise,” and “cage” echo the inevitable pains of the “loss and love” mentioned in the poem’s closing line.
Aside from an obvious focus on a connection to animals as an extension, perhaps, of Navajo cultural values, the poem also contains a number of universal truths. These put the narrator’s very specific experience into a worldwide context and cause the story itself to be very relatable. The story’s children, after a time shift, become grandparents, and they collectively realize, “That initial deep / hurt was the start, we found, of how love could die / right before us, even as we watched” (32, lines 27-29). Later, the narrator mentions a new possession of “the knowledge that such bruises / aren’t endless, and that our rib cages are not mere bones” (lines 37-39). These universal truths serve as a connecting force between generations and as a resistance to the notion of Native Americans as a large, interchangeable number of dying tribes. Tapahonso’s inclusion of “The Holy Twins” in this collection of stories shows no one, regardless of age, color, creed, etc., is exempt from death, and no one is safe from the pain of losing a loved one. These sufferings are an inevitable aspect of the human condition and carry over through centuries and across all cultures.
Similar themes emerge in “Red Star Quilt,” on pages 65 and 66, a sestina telling the story of the alcoholism that seems an ever-present force, though in different degrees, in much Native literature. This poem too combines personal narrative with universal truth and the narrator states, quite matter-of-factly, “That’s life: adrenalin, grief, and loss all patched / together with memories and blood” (lines 34-35). In addition to the heartbreaking quality to the events in the narration, the creative uses and alterations on the six refrain words do well to keep readers involved in the story, different as it may be from their own past experiences. Here, the repeated words are “breath,” “space,” “water,” foreign,” patch,” and “drink,” and one particularly interesting stylistic choice comes at the beginning of the fifth stanza. Tapahonso replaces the original “foreign” refrain with the word “reign,” which immediately brings the mind to “rain” and echoes the “water” end-word that comes later in the stanza and repeatedly throughout the poem. These small discoveries allow readers to feel very involved in the story. For this reason, among others, the sestina form seems a logical choice for the retelling of Navajo stories: The narrator-to- audience involvement mimics closely the oral tradition in which audience participation is essential to the telling of the story. Furthermore, the repetition of the six words is reminiscent of the cyclical, episodic nature of the work of Native authors (for example, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony). Stephen Burt explains the “game” poets play with readers within sestina poems, the conscious use of the form to highlight the content and to force the audience to rethink any and all preconceived notions. Burt states: “The less a strict form can be made to look natural, the less it looks like an inevitable consequence of a poem’s apparent content, the more it looks like a conscious choice – or a game” (222).
The themes of closeness to wildlife and nature in the aforementioned sestinas (the pet dogs in “The Holy Twins” and the Rillito river in “Red Star Quilt”), as well as the emphasis on scenic descriptions that lends itself to a similar focus on love of the land, extend through to the collection’s only villanelle, “Near-to-the-Water.” The villanelle poem emerged in the 17th century among Italian poets from a combination of different French models and forms. The villanelle is nineteen lines long and made up entirely of tercets with the exception of a concluding quatrain. This form contains only two rhyming sounds, which fall at the end of the first and third lines of the first stanza and then alternate as the final word in the last line of each subsequent stanza until the final quatrain. Though perhaps less restrictive than the rigid sestina, the villanelle offers its own obstacles and creative opportunities for poets willing to accept the challenge. Furthermore, the villanelle’s origins are in music and dance and, to this day, the lyrics of a villanelle are often accompanied by instruments or voices in song. This establishes the villanelle, despite being a traditionally European form, as a useful genre for Tapahonso’s Navajo-specific stories, as many Native cultures place importance on ritual, ceremony, dance, and song for purposes ranging from healing to hunting, celebration to mourning. As Norma C. Wilson states in The Nature of Native American Poetry “poetry allows a rhythmic and emotional expression closer than any other written genre to the songs and chants that are integral to oral tradition and ceremony.” (2)
In “Near-to-the-Water,” on page 71 of A Radiant Curve and nearing the end of the series of European poetic forms (namely, the sestina), the two rhyming words repeated throughout the poem are “teal” and “meal.” Once again, just as in many of the sestinas, the final words in each line and/or stanza paint a picture and set a tone both separate and in conjunction with the themes in the poem’s narration. Here, the repeated mention of the color teal brings to mind both the sky and the bodies of water that the Navajo characters throughout A Radiant Curve exhibit a close connection with and appreciation for. The references to “meal,” on a very basic level, ties back to the importance placed, throughout many Native cultures, on the communal aspect of mealtimes and the bonds built over food and ceremonies involving food and the hunt. The two refrain words develop a new meaning as early as the last line of the first stanza, where “blue corn meal” ties together the associations of various shades of blue (here, teal) with the traditions established firmly in the Navajo culture.
Within the poem, Tapahonso connects the stories of past to those of the present-day by blending a contemporary narrative of a child learning traditions from an elder with references to the characters in creation myths (“Changing Woman” in the fourth stanza, for example). Tapahonso employs this technique of interweaving stories throughout not only those sections written in European form but from the beginning to end of A Radiant Curve.
Much as she did within the sestinas, Tapahonso bends the traditional rules of the villanelle form in “Near-to-the-Water.” Here, instead of returning only to the “teal” and “meal” refrains, the author goes so far as to make a phrase refrain containing the crucial rhyming words: Instead, she repeats “when the sky is a brilliant teal” (and small variations on this) and “simmering soup and blue corn meal.” Aside from adding a more complex layer to the image she has portrayed with each line, this expansion of the typical villanelle rule adds a new requirement of the form that, once met, makes the poet all the more credible. It becomes evident to readers, if it was not already, that Tapahonso has mastered this particular European poetic form and is thereby qualified to use it under her own artistic license and towards her own intentions. By retelling her own stories in the context of the history of the Navajo people, Tapahonso is resisting the elimination of the Navajo culture due to loss of their stories and traditions (Caskey Russell, “Tools of Self Definition”).
In “Storyteller: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Re-appropriation of Native American History and Identity,” Cynthia Carsten analyzes the practice of re-appropriation and applies it, not only to Silko’s retelling of her own Pueblo Laguna history, but also to Native authors across the board. Carsten explains the challenges faced by all Native writers: “In order to resist the narrative employment of their histories and identities as dictated and controlled by Euro-American worldviews, American Indian writers have had to devise strategies to challenge the ideologies inherent in the dominant culture's conventions of knowledge and truth” (106). To this end, beyond using various genres, each relating back to the tradition form of Native oral storytelling to a different degree, Tapahonso also includes a very contemporary medium with her 2008 edition of A Radiant Curve: an audio CD.
The inclusion of the CD on the inside cover takes Tapahonso’s consideration of all genre and media extensions to a new level with which she is able to communicate to a new demographic. This is namely, of course, the upcoming generation of technology-savvy individuals who have brought with them a decreased interest in print-based exchange of information – to the extent that newspapers nationwide have gone (and continue to be going) out of business at unprecedented rates. In adding the CD to her various means of outreach, Tapahonso is appealing to a younger audience while simultaneously using a storytelling medium that has been around since the oldest generations mentioned in A Radiant Curve. In fact, the oral storytelling on the CD – for example, the spoken accompaniment to the written prose-poem “Far Away” on page 37 – is actually the closest genre of all to the original method of oral storytelling, though perhaps it may initially seem the most far removed. Hearing the words to the stories, both verse and prose, aloud comes with a certain cadence that gives each individual story, as well as the overarching narrative of the collective, as new set of meanings.
Russell states in his essay on self definition that “this genre-crossing is important as forms often come weighted with preconceived notions, or definitions, that are Western in origin, and the more American Indian authors tamper with literary forms, the more the foundations of those forms crumble and give way to mediated tribal discourses” (43). By using the traditionally European forms of the sestina and villanelle poems, as well as the modern take of the CD on a traditional method of Native storytelling, Tapahonso is able to form a multi-faceted resistance movement and, as Ruppert insists all Native writers must strive to do, “dismantle European American stereotypes...and make manifest the crimes of the past” so they are not repeated in the future (39).
Burt, Stephen. “Sestina! Or, The Fate of the Idea of Form.” Modern Philology. Vol. 105, Issue 1. Aug. 2007. 218-241. Print.
Carsten, Cynthia. “Storyteller: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Re-appropriation of Native American History and Identity.” Wicazo Sa Review. Vol. 21, Issue 2. Fall 2006. 105-126. Print.
Russell, Caskey. “Tools of Self Definition.” American Indian Literatures. Vol. 16, Issue 3. Fall 2004. 29-46. University of Nebraska Press. Print.
Tapahonso, Luci. A Radiant Curve. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.
Wilson, Norma C. The Nature of Native American Poetry. Albuquerque, New Mexico: The University of New Mexico Press, 2001. Print.