From New West: Orlando White Explores Navajo Identity Through Language in Innovative “Bone Light”

Orlando White Explores Navajo Identity Through Language in Innovative “Bone Light”

The first book of poetry by Orlando White offers unexpected innovations.

By Alex Young, Guest Writer, 1-28-11

Bone Light

by Orlando White

Red Hen Press, 64 pages, $15.95

When I heard the title of Orlando White‘s first book of poetry, Bone Light, and learned that White was a Navajo poet who had grown up on the Navajo Reservation near Tolikan, Arizona, I wanted to connect this intriguing juxtaposition of words in this title to the austere landscapes that I associate with Navajo country. I naively imagined something like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, maybe a ghostly skull of some buffalo hovering over a distant mesa.

What I found inside the pages of Bone Light, however, was a poetry that unsettled the sort of easy assumptions about the relationship between poetry and identity that my first musings on the title had inspired. White’s tightly focused poetry is devoid of the representations of landscape and the coherent sense of “rooted” identity they are often associated with in the poetry of the Southwest.

In one of the last poems in the book, White addresses our desire for identity, saying,

We only want to be written,

to have content.

But language likes to dress us up.

Positions us

next to one another

so we exist as characters.

In White’s poetry, identity is not something the poet finds in a landscape, or any other solid ground outside the poetry itself. Identity in these poems emerges within language, existing in our ability to understand ourselves in relation to our position “next to one another,” where we live “as characters,” performing ourselves. Bone Light brings us to this point in a series of lyric poems in which the most basic elements of meaning are contested: White meditates on the form of the characters on the page themselves, the ink that composes them, the white spaces between them, and even on the bleach that makes the paper white, and that could wash the letters away.

As the poems progress, the relationship of the material letters on the page and human identity begin to be established through skeletal metaphors. In a poem entitled “Ats’iits’in” the (Diné word for skeleton, or literally “body bone"), the poet imagines the form of an “i” as a skeleton:

Below the skull there is a part of a letter

shaped like a bone. But the skull is not a skull;

it is a black dot with white teeth. And the piece

of the letter under it is not really a bone,

rather a dark spine. This is not the end of language.

This last declaration in a way sums up the work of Bone Light: this poetry is never seeking an “end,” a solid relationship between language and the world, but rather finds its beauty and its depth in the playful unfolding of the poems themselves. Towards the end of the book, after several poems in which meaning seems to dissolve just as quickly as it is presented, a strange narrative emerges: White imagines “i” and “j"–mere characters (material letters on the page) as characters (people represented in a story). “i” becomes “a man in a dark suit and a white necktie” while “j” becomes a woman in “a white scarf and black gown,” entangled in a love story. Removing these “characters” from their role in producing bigger narratives, he finds a new level at which we can imagine meaning.

While all this might seem hopelessly abstract to many readers, White’s curious poetics are not meant as a repudiation of his own life experiences, or his Diné (Navajo) heritage, but are in fact intimately connected to them. The first poem in Bone Light, “To See Letters,” is a narrative of the poet’s early childhood. In it he first remembers his mother playing word search puzzles, and the times when “she would give me the pen. I would circle random letters. She would smile and give me a hug.” He then recalls another episode in which his stepfather David, attempting to teach him English, becomes abusive: “I remember the way he forced my hand to write. How the pencil stabbed each letter, the lead smearing.” The violence of this process culminates with a blow: “When David hit me in the head, I saw stars in the shape of the Alphabet. Years later, my fascination for letters resulted in poems.”

This story, connecting well-ordered language to the violence of the stepfather, and linguistic play to the kindness of the mother, takes on a new resonance considered in light of the matriarchal tradition of the Diné people. Too often, outsiders reading Native American literature want to see it as an expression of a timeless and monolithic culture that has survived in the face of the indeterminacy of the “contemporary” world. White contests this view by showing us what he has inherited from his culture, through his mother, is in fact the opposite of the unchanging identity imagined by anthropology: part of his Diné identity is the ability to imagine new meanings in a society that seeks to impose meaning upon him. In readings and discussions of his work, White emphasizes the fact that in the Diné language, the verb is the central part of speech: filtered through this language, the world is not a place of stable objects that humans act upon, but a place where people, animals, and things exist in a constant state of transformation and movement.

The conflict between an imposed linguistic order and the playful flux of poetry is most vividly dramatized in the last poem in the collection, “Writ.” White puns off of the ambiguity of the title–"writ" could be simply something written or a legally binding document–as he stages the writing process as a sort of old West shootout:

A man in a black suit with a zero

for a head follows me. He carries a gun

shaped like language; wants me written

and dead on the page.

The poet, like a fugitive, is ultimately running from himself (the “i"): we are all ultimately defined by the words we use to imagine our identities, despite our attempts to escape such fixed definitions. For White, however, poetry is a wilderness into which we can endlessly return, a place in which language creates rather than simply describes:

I see the white door of paper;

I open it and enter. I was there forever it seems,

thinking of the origin and the end of poesis.

The poems in Bone Light, with their vivid austerity, will long be bringing readers back to this place of creation that is the “origin and the end” of poetry.

Alex Young is a writer who is pursuing a Ph.D at the University of Southern California where he holds a Provost’s Fellowship in English, and is currently working as a research assistant for the Huntington Library-USC Institute for the Study of California and The West.