ARC Review - At Geronimo's Grave

Reviewed by: Martin Wallace

A visit to Geronimo's grave in Oklahoma was the apparent inspiration for Armand Garnet Ruffo's At Geronimo's Grave. Despite this, the (surprisingly few) poems that deal directly with Geronimo are the most disappointing, both poetically and politically. While Geronimo was a "[f]ierce, tenacious, master of guerrilla warfare" ("At Geronimo's Grave"), we don't really get to see much of that side of him in this book. His courage in fighting back is described in reverential tones; we get the distance of admiration, when the cloesness of anger might be more to the point here. Imagining Geronimo's return from the dead, the best Ruffo can muster is "but now there are rumours/ things have got even worse./ This he finds unbelievable./ How can it be so?/ He's heard they are now poisoning/ the earth mother herself" ("In the Sierra Blanca"). Such language is by now tepid and overused. It has lost its poetical and political force due to the historical tendency of North American poets to use "Indians" as, as Louis Simpson once put it, "a fantasy of sophisticated twentieth-century people who were trying to find ways out of the materialism that was everywhere around them."

I prefer Ruffo in his revolutionary mode: "The bottle I'm holidng/ is actually a homemade bomb,/ a poetry bomb,/ that will soon shower/ the sky with words/ they can no longer ignore." ("Drum Song") I want more poems like "I Heard Them, I Was There," in which Ruffo writes in the voice of an early white invader, one of those who "came in droves, by wagos, by train, by boat,/womanless, ready for anything, but wanting wealth." Although he dreamed of "relaxing in a hot tub/ with a cigar in mouth and glass in hand," instead he sits alone in the "shivering cold," unsure of what he is now looking for, only knowing that "it has something to do with deat hand darkness,/ disease and dream. Something to do with me/ looking back at myself." Here is Ruffo's poetry at its most vigorous. Here is subtle anger, vengeance tempered with empathy.

Or the naked eroticism of poems like "Bear": "So he begins with toes, feet, moves to leg/ up inside of thigh./ When he gets to the tenderest part,/ she whimpers for him/ to stop." Or poems like "Detour," with its rough energy and evocative mixture of poetry and prose: "Once upon a time I rode shotgun for a trickster kind of guy who thought we lived in a western, and it would always stay that way." I want less overused phrases like "the walking wounded" ("World View") and more righteous angry words that crackle and smart: "If this bottle bomb/ explodes/ word shrapnel/ flying every which way/ responsibility hitting them between the eyes" ("Drum Song"). 

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