by Mary Kasimor
(from The Altered Scale Blog, October 24, 2014)
As a writer and thinker of Western ideas, I am aware of how we use and express our ideas through our language, and words are important. Language is slippery, our identities are suspect, and the ways that we try to prove an idea can be skewed and inaccurate, even though they may seem true and/or right. Authenticity in expressing what we think and feel is always under scrutiny, especially in the constantly wired world of instant news and ideas. When we venture into ideas in which we are already suspect, our authenticity also becomes more suspect. If you (the writer) are trying to write from your heart, how can you persuade your readers that what you are saying is deeply felt and not simply what you (the writer) think that the reader wants to hear? This is the premise of Ann Tweedy’s chapbook, White Out, or this is what I believe that she is expressing in her collection of poems. Her writing style is straightforward and expresses what she feels with authenticity, which is why the poems in this chapbook are powerful. I believe the last three lines in the poem, ‘Study,” express the authenticity of how and why she wrote these poems:
In my white skin, I cringe , but go on , questioning myself,
honoring uncertainty, day by day
accepting the challenge to prove myself worthy.
Tweedy is a white woman who is writing about the racism and bigotry that she has seen through her experiences as an attorney working for the Indian tribes—and as an observant person living in the United States. She also continually questions herself in the poems—her position as privileged. Because of where she is positioned in society, it is important to know who her audiences are in these poems. Are the poems written for a reader who is ‘privileged” and white, are they written for the people who have had to live and deal with racial prejudice, or are they written for anyone who has thought about the way racism has affected those who do not have that ‘white privilege”? In Tweedy’s first poem, ‘Whiteness,” she tells the experience of being poor, being on welfare and enduring the mistrust of the K-Mart employees because she looks poor. Many white people are poor, but can their experiences be compared to those who are Black or Indian, or Latino? The concepts of race and class have been frequently discussed in the United States, and there are differing opinions when comparing them. In this poem, she reflects on how class and race are often discussed:
in one of my classes, a woman
constantly complains about us
‘divide and conquer” she says of the white teacher’s
description of Indians as a political entity
and white people in her race class
are too focused on class
This has been an important part of discussion in this country—the differences between race and class, and how it affects those who are struggling. For many, it comes down to who has the most difficult time living in American society. Others would argue that it is more complex in terms of how we use various terms to describe race and class. Without a doubt, most of what we understand is shaped through our personal experiences, so all disadvantaged and “silenced” people do have legitimate concerns about their personal and cultural difficulties. However there are many who argue that we live in a post-racial society and that the poor can always succeed in this country through hard work.
Tweedy’s poems are also about her personal experiences as a white woman attorney working for the Indian tribes. In her poems, she expresses the conflict that she feels working for people who don’t trust her because of the history and previous experiences of Indians. From the poem, “The Same Breath,” she writes about the hostility that she feels in the room:
…As I begin to explain
each change and its possible pitfalls,
a small elder with a sweet, quiet voice
and owl-like glasses demands to know
why I am there. Haven’t we done well enough
without a white person telling us what to do?
In this poem, she also explains the subtlety of language and how the speaker’s or writer’s ethos makes the situation believable and authentic to the audience. She begins the poems by telling the reader about a woman who calls a battered woman’s shelter, without providing information about why she is calling. She ends her phone calls with “God Bless You. And Fuck You.” Tweedy uses this anonymous woman’s words and situation to also convey her invisible pain that she experiences working with her clients, through both the harshness of some of the interactions and the openness and vulnerability of other interactions that she has had with them. There is intensity of emotion as she describes these experiences:
And so “God Bless You” and “Fuck You” both strike me as if at random,
bullets converging on their separately envisaged targets,
the real me locked somewhere inside, apparently invisible through the body’s façade,
but still they enter.
The poem, “House Built On Sand,” is introduced with a quote by Sherman Alexie, in which he simply says: “You have to understand that white people invented irony.” Irony is used to explain the subtlety of thought; in other words, ideas are more complex than in an “either/or” context. It can be argued that there are many angles, shadows, and shapings in how “white people” express themselves. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why our way of expressing ourselves is so suspect to others, besides in our need to excuse our behavior. In the poem, “House Built On Sand,” Tweedy explains to the reader that she loves trains because her husband loves trains. She then tells the reader about how the trains were used also to starve the Indians. She does not admit to disliking trains, only to disliking the history of trains, and, despite how humans used trains for evil purposes, she still does love trains. She also asserts that “white people” are ironic so that they (or she) can continue to justify the lies that they need simply “to survive.”
When we attempt to look honestly at ourselves, we can see the ways in which we have personally been damaged. It is difficult to even write about these experiences except through poetic language, mostly because these experiences have become so clichéd– and because of that, the authenticity of the emotions has become suspect. Language strives to make things clearer, but often even when the language reduces the emotion to a simple story it becomes overly complex with irony and subtlety. However, perhaps only through irony and subtlety are we able to understand meaning. One of the most poignant poems in this chapbook is titled, “Remaking A City.” The poem gives the reader examples of people who have come to complain about the police and justice system. The final story is about a woman who explains the possibility of being silenced without the chance of telling her story:
at last the woman piped up
that some people were afraid of police, something would happen
and they’d never speak. it would die with them…
In many ways, this chapbook is about the poet as witness for the oppressed people on the reservation. Tweedy’s empathy and compassion clearly show throughout her poems. She is a subtle poet who bears witness to those who have had not been able to tell their stories. It is difficult to write about the topic of white privilege in poetry, but she does succeed in doing that because of her genuine honesty. It is easy to become preachy or too overly sentimental about those who have borne the weight of oppression. Yet Tweedy provides ideas that cannot easily be resolved because they are about the experiences based often on complex perceptions. She was able to write from a perspective that is open, compassionate, and honest, and that is important and difficult in the still racially charged culture that we live in.