Monday, April 1, 2013

Poetry Review: "Terminal Nostalgia," Sherman Alexie

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 2011 Sherman Alexie poem "Terminal Nostalgia" is an absurdist treatment of nostalgic oneupsmanship. It does a fairly hilarious job of rendering how people’s egos can be bound up with the attachments of their younger days. It also dramatizes how they assert the objects of their enthusiasms are superior to those of others, especially others of younger generations. The overriding joke is that it’s all bluster. However, Alexie goes further than just light mockery of everyday generational pretentiousness; he also shows that it’s at the heart of overblown historical and nationalist pride.

The poem is constructed as a series of couplets containing platitudes. The opening sentence--or variations of it--is one probably known to everyone in North America, if not the entire developed world: “The music of my youth was much better/Than the music of yours...” Further down, Alexie extends this to other leisure interests, such as sports (“Every ball game was a double-header”), and reading and writing (“Back then, people wrote gorgeous letters/And read more poetry...”). The point is clear: people look back on the “good old days,” and assert that time’s superiority to things now.

Alexie cannot help but laugh at this, so he ends every couplet with the sentence, “So was [or ‘did’] the weather.” This always refers back to the couplet’s earlier statement. As such, not only is the weather of bygone days “better,” “sober,” and “liv[ing] in the moment,” it is also “money,” it “meditate[s] for days,” and “[fights] together/Against all evil...” The most hilarious example is perhaps when he writes the weather was like an Irish setter and played fetch with God before the time of Adam and Eve. The nonsensical characterizations and comparisons are comic, incisive jabs at how assertions claiming “the good old days” were better can be taken beyond the point of ridiculousness.

Alexie is Native American, and he recognizes how idealization of the “good old days” can cross the line into pathos with members of his ethnic group. Native Americans obviously have a wholly justified historical grievance with regard to the settlement of the Americas by Europeans over the last several centuries. The consequences have included the ghettoization of their communities, and much worse, outright genocide. It’s not hard to understand the sentiment that the arrival of Christopher Columbus was when everything went wrong. Building on that, it’s also not hard to understand how the pre-Columbus period could be seen as an idyllic one. This last tendency is what Alexie targets the most with the poem.

The critique of Native American idealization of pre-Columbus times operates on two tracks: explicit and implicit. The explicit critique is in keeping with the absurdist thrust of the poem, and it is frequently light-hearted. The couplets in this vein begin with the line, “Before Columbus came, eagle feathers...” What follows is amusing nonsense such as the eagle feathers marrying Indians, or giving birth to eagles, or being larger than the eagles themselves. The couplets that feature the implicit critique are far more cutting. With lines such as “Indians were neither loaners nor debtors” and “We all apprenticed to wise old mentors/And meditated for days,” they present the view that the pre-Columbus days were communal utopias without conflict or crisis. Following these bits with the refrain “So did the weather” highlights that these painfully sentimental bits of nostalgia are just as obtuse as the more frivolous ones. One might even feel the poem suggests they are more pernicious.

Alexie’s satire of nostalgia for the “good old days” shows remarkable range. It runs the gamut from lighthearted teasing to a pointed cultural critique, and it adds up to a remarkably accomplished piece. Up to now, I’ve considered him a fiction author. On the basis of “Terminal Nostalgia,” he’s also a deft, versatile, and thoughtful poet. His poetry is definitely something to look more into.

“Terminal Nostalgia” was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Green Mountains Review (cover above). It was reprinted in the Best American Poetry 2012 annual, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman.

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