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“Follow the Blackbirds,” by Gwen Nell Westerman
(Michigan State University Press, 72 pages, $16.95)
The epigraph to Gwen Nell Westerman is from the poet Rumi: “All language is a longing for home.” In Westerman’s writing, language does more than long for home, it preserves it for an exiled speaker who lives in Dakota and English.
The speaker’s grandmother urges, “Look for blackbirds … they always / go to water.” The recurring image of blackbirds signals an instinct to return to language and land, two elements that are tangled in Westerman’s work.
Westerman, who teaches in Mankato, writes in English and Dakota. At first the two languages seem at odds: “Our language / is like those prairie grasses / surviving … floods of English words.” She breaks her English text with blocks of Dakota, forcing the reader to look for the translation in the back of the book. One poem appears entirely in Dakota and is intriguingly not translated.
The poem is untranslated, but not inaccessible. Westerman includes a pronunciation guide to the Dakota alphabet, reminding the reader that it is a spoken and living language. This alphabet also gives readers access to the music, if not the content, of the words.
Language enacts healing in “Dakota Odowan,” a poem about the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. She writes of the unnamed refugees “forced to march … to a prison camp … an unknown number dying along the way.” The poem is written in columns so Dakota and English exist together on the page and the speaker’s “healed Dakota heart” sings of “returning home.”
Westerman has a faith in the possibilities of language. She urges, “Learn the alphabet / … and then you can / say anything.”
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.