Indigenous, I Am by Niɬtooli Wilkins

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Roses are red, violets are blue. It’s hard to make jokes about heartfelt autobiographical poetry by someone far less privileged than you. Indigenous, I Am is a poetry anthology by Niɬtooli Wilkins.

When I found out that Niɬtooli lives in Minnesota, I was hoping for a poem about (pipe)line three. For those that don’t know what line three is, the internet has lots of cool cats to watch, and the main way to get internet is to find some dinosaurs that got squished up real hard. But the dinosaurs didn’t always get squished in the same place where you need to watch Maru sit in a box. Sometimes they got squished in uninhabited places like the ocean or Alberta. So you need to make a tube. In Minnesota, the squished dinosaur tube runs through native land and wild rice waters. Wild rice is objectively North America’s worst food, narrowly beating out KFC mashed potato bowls. The name “rice” evokes something fluffy and wholesome, but what you get is chewy cellulose that tastes like pencil shavings. Problem is, while we’d all love to see the end of wild rice, this would leave some Ojibwe and Chippewa with no financial recourse but to make us all addicted to gambling, and then we wouldn’t have any money left for internet. At least that’s my understanding.

But it turns out I’m ignorant as hell (who knew?) and Niɬtooli is a Navajo name. While her poetry touches on issues of Native life and identity, it’s far more personal than topical. The tone starts out dark with poems about childhood trauma, grief, and the negative self-image she internalized by being a woman of color. Later poems become more positive, touching on gratitude for a creator, seeing ancestors in one’s self, and taking pride in the body she has.

Plenty of Niɬtooli’s subject matter should be relatable to any reader, and her writing quickly gets to the emotional heart of an issue. Her poems about loss and family effortlessly put words to feelings I would struggle to explain. When my grandmother died there was no funeral because of Covid. And there was no one to commiserate with, since her long decline meant that everyone was too busy breathing for the first time in months to actually grieve. So I couldn’t figure out what ritual would make it feel real so I could start crying the poison out. I thought about wearing black, but the only black thing I owned was a giant sweater that was certain to draw negative attention in the summer heat. Sooner or later someone was going to ask why I wear the same sweater every day and why it smells like a varsity football team. I thought about changing my facebook profile picture, but that, upon further reflection, turned out to be a stupid idea. I could just change my profile picture to a jpg of the sweater and call it a day, but by that point the whole grieving process had become rather conceptual. And you know your girl will miss no opportunity for self loathing, so naturally the problem was that I was broken.

My point is that Niɬtooli is better than me at writing about grief, and everything else it turns out. The quality of the writing in Indigenous, I Am is not just good by the standards of this blog, where one side of the scale has three mid-century refrigerators to hold it down, but by the standards of real poetry for grown-ups.

Her technique focuses somewhat on meter and line length, but uses them more playfully than mechanically. Similar metaphors create repeating themes, with animal imagery especially common. At least once a page some turn of phrase jumped out at me as especially clever or poignant. What could seem like amateurish repetition of words proves to be quite deliberate over multiple poems. Like I just said, me trying to describe poetry is like a dog trying to describe an oil painting, so I’ll leave it to the professionals:

“I feel nude when I’m fully clothed; The heat of others’ eyes scorching my skin’s surface”

“Jagged beams of light poking my skin’s interior; Such a desire to exit my body and be noticed”

We are currently living in a golden age of poetry. Social media marketing and e-reader logistics make it possible for more poetry (and more poets) to reach us than ever before. This is a time when you can literally read a poetry anthology by Gabbie Hanna. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could read two poetry anthologies by Gabbie Hanna! I guess it’s less of a golden age and more of an alluvial gold deposit age, where you take your pan to the river and hopefully find a nugget after a few hours. My time panning through sand, rocks, and Adultolescence paid off big time in Indigenous, I Am. Who knows if I would have gotten to read Niɬtooli Wilkin’s words if she had written them twenty years ago. For that matter, since she’s apparently some kind of tennis champion in her spare time and has a life more fulfilling than reading debut novels on the internet, would she have even bothered to distribute them?

I am giving Indigenous, I Am a recommendation, without qualifiers or conditions. Since I so rarely get to do that, I am going to award this book one (1) gold star. It’s one dollar on Amazon.

Bonus Content: Six Word Reviews

Since today’s entry was a little short, please enjoy my six word reviews of some books that did not earn a full post on this blog:

Willow: A Friends to Lovers Romance by Renee Kiser – You can’t fix him. Just bone.

(U)topian by Dave Fin – Our hero sucks worse than Capitalism

The Shadow and Moon: Moon Curse by Kenzie Crow – Vampires versus werewolves versus the moon

Conspiracy of Cats by B C Harris – If Werner Herzog narrated Lifetime originals

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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