We Who Do Westerns:
Haniel Long, Ed Dorn, Dale Smith
and the Poetics of Encounter
In a 2003 BBC interview actor Robert Duvall remarked, "the English do Shakespeare, the French do Moliére, the Russians do Chekhov—we do westerns."1
The claim—at least to television viewers—ought to be a familiar one. Duvall has uttered this statement time and again, most recently while on location filming the miniseries Broken Trail, a tale set in the late nineteenth century American West. In the film Duvall plays the role of Print Ritter, an aging cowboy that aims to purchase a ranch of his own once he collects his pay for running five-hundred wild horses from Oregon to Wyoming. Shortly after he and a partner begin the run they encounter a group of men trafficking five Chinese women. Ritter and his partner take the women into their care, liberating them from their opportunistic and trafficking captors. A blurb for the film produced and aired by the cable network American Movie Classics states, "As their small band proceeds east, their path intersects with horse thieves and gun-slingers, madams and mercenaries, native warriors, and runaway whores".2 Given that "native warriors" are presumably Native Americans, one cannot help but wonder precisely who the "we" that "do westerns" might be. This "we" is undoubtedly a heavily loaded and culturally problematic concept. It demands unpacking, exploring, explication and understanding. If we consider Duvall's statement more closely it is a seemingly synchronic, static "we" to which Duvall prescribes an entire cultural genre—the so-called "western" or, more accurately, representations of the American West as they appear in literature and film. Here one might reasonably posit that this "we" to which Duvall refers is a highly homogenized and hegemonic "we," a "we" wherein all ethnic difference is ironed out, wherein Self might be conceptualized as a white male of European extraction—not unlike Print Ritter—who situates himself in relation to an Other which encapsulates all ethnic difference both interior and exterior to Self. Just as the "native warriors" are native and not properly American, the five Chinese women Ritter rescues are just that: Chinese not American. Moreover, this genre, the western, is one which locates itself not at the center of culture but at its periphery, in a no-man's-land where ethnic and cultural identities collide, a border region which not only underscores ethnic difference but also marks itself as a site of outward territorial expansion. Self not only expands and displaces Other, it pits itself against Other, defines itself in relation to Other. But it is precisely in just such an inexplicable border region, this site where Self and Other grind so uncomfortably against one another, that the very validity of a hegemonic "we" is contested. Inasmuch as a border is a boundary, an arbitrary line which marks a limit and distinguishes Self from Other, it also marks a point of articulation between the two, a spatial and temporal point of encounter between two or more communities. The border or boundary, then, is not a spatial and/or temporal limit but, if we turn toward Heidegger, "that from which something begins its presencing."3 This "something" is invariably a figure of hybridity and mediation, a figure which problematizes conventional conceptions of ethnic and national identity, a figure which reveals the complexity of encounter and the impossibility of a static, biologically essential identity. It is with this "something" in mind that we might here begin to unpack the "we" who "do westerns" and examine how such a notion is challenged by these figures that emerge in the borderlands, particularly as they appear in the work of Haniel Long, Ed Dorn and Dale Smith.
Given the poetics of Long, Dorn and Smith—poetics which, although substantially different from one another, are all acutely sensitive to cultural transformation and the temporal dimension of place—it is not surprising that transcultural figures of mediation and hybridity are what allow us to most successfully connect these three American poets. The figures which connect them are Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard, and La Malinche, an Aztec woman whom, as Tzvetan Todorov notes, "the Indians call Malintzin and the Spaniards Doña Marina, without our knowing which of these two names is a distortion of the other…."4 Both Cabeza de Vaca and Malinche are exceedingly complex figures that violently resist conventional notions of racial, ethnic and national identity. And the very complexities within these figures which trouble dominant notions of race, ethnicity and nation appear to be what most draw Long, Dorn and Smith to them: Long in his reconstruction of Cabeza de Vaca and Malinche; Dorn in both his early poetry and Gunslinger; and most recently Smith in the collection American Rambler.
In the case of Cabeza de Vaca, if we turn to his 1542 Relación, we find a figure that, by means of an especially harrowing odyssey, is transformed into a culturally and psychologically complex figure, a uniquely singular being who is neither Christian Spaniard nor Native American. As a result of his journey along the border between Spanish and Mesoamerican cultures, Cabeza de Vaca comes to occupy an interstitial space, a space which allows him to identify his community as a "we" distinct from both Spaniard and Indian, a "we" which is neither one nor the other, nor a mere conflation of the two, but a distinctly singular community that stands as the product of an encounter between Spaniards and Amerindians.
Departing in 1527 for Florida5 , the disastrous expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez resulted in the survival of only four men—Cabeza de Vaca, Alonzo del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and the "Moor" Estevanico, a Moroccan slave belonging to Dorantes. By 1528 the expedition finds itself shipwrecked along the northwestern coast of Florida after a storm. Rolena Adorno and Patrick Pautz note in their magisterial three volume study of Cabeza de Vaca and the Narváez expedition, "The storm that had blown the expedition off the northwestern coast of Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico had so disoriented the navigators of the expedition… that they now had little idea where they had landed along the gulf's northern coast."6 For the following eight years Cabeza de Vaca, as treasurer of the expedition and chief officer to the king of Spain, blindly traverses a region that roughly corresponds with what is now the border between the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, a route covered largely on foot which began on the west coast of present-day Florida, ran along the Gulf of Mexico, then the Rio Grande, and finally southward into what was then Tenochtitlán and is today Mexico City. Cabeza de Vaca and the other three surviving members of the expedition spend six of these eight years on the Texas coast in captivity. One historian notes that by January 1533 "Cabeza de Vaca was given as a slave to a family of one-eyed Indians of the Mariames tribe. Dorantes and Estevan apparently were with the same tribe, while Castillo was with the neighboring Iguaces, identical in culture and language to the Mariames."7 In September of 1534 the four men—Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorantes and Estevan—successfully escape and begin their circumambulating sojourn westward and then south toward Tenochtitlán.8
If we turn to Tzvetan Todorov's discussion of Cabeza de Vaca's journey and subsequent transformation into a unique being neither Christian Spaniard nor Native American we may begin to understand the interest Long, Dorn and Smith take in this figure of hybridity and mediation. Todorov claims that, by and large, Cabeza de Vaca is a figure not radically different from Bartolomé de Las Casas in his assessment of the Indians. His mission has both an evangelical and an imperial dimension—he is at one and the same time loyal to and operates in the service of the Church and the king of Spain. As Cabeza de Vaca himself states:… I had no opportunity to perform greater service than this, which is to observe and learn in the nine years that I walked lost and naked through many and very strange lands, as much regarding the locations of the lands and provinces and the distances among them, as with respect to the foodstuffs and animals that are produced in them, and the diverse customs to many and very barbarous peoples with whom I conversed and lived, plus all the other particularities I could come to know and understand, so that in some manner Your Majesty may be served. This I did so that … I would be able to bear witness to my will and serve Your Majesty, inasmuch as the account of it all is, in my opinion, information not trivial for those who in your name might go to conquer those lands and at the same time bring them to knowledge of the true faith and the true Lord and service to Your Majesty.9
Even after the expedition has degenerated into nothing more than an abject struggle for survival, Cabeza de Vaca never loses sight of the larger mission and his loyalty to church and state. Like Las Casas, Cabeza de Vaca approaches the evangelical component of his mission with the belief that, if the Indians are to be converted to Christianity this will be done most successfully without the use of violence. Todorov notes, however, that this conviction does not preclude the use of violence where and when necessary. "But," Todorov believes, "it is obviously on the level of a (potential) identification that Cabeza de Vaca's example is most interesting."10 Although the identification with the Indians is never complete, Todorov suggests that a third party emerges, a "we," which identifies itself as neither Spaniard nor Indian.
Upon reaching the first Spanish outposts at the end of his eight year journey, traveling in the company of Indians who appear by all accounts to be amiable, Cabeza de Vaca assures the Indians he travels with that no harm will come to them. He implores the Spaniards they meet to do the Indians in his company no harm, but the Indians are nonetheless attacked. It is here that Cabeza de Vaca refers to the Christians as "they." He also uses "they" to refer to the Indians, begging one to inquire as to who, if anyone in this case, might be "we"? It is with this question in mind that Todorov maintains, "Here Cabeza de Vaca's mental universe seems to vacillate, his uncertainty as to the referents of his personal pronouns contributing to the effect; there are no longer two parties, we (the Christians) and they (the Indians), but indeed three: the Christians, the Indians, and 'we'."11
This third "we" which Cabeza de Vaca employs in distinguishing himself and his group from both Spaniards and Indians is also underscored by the reception he receives when he first encounters Christian Spaniards along the coast of northwestern Mexico, near present-day Sinaloa. The otherness which emerges in Cabeza de Vaca and his party is not merely an interior otherness only Cabeza de Vaca recognizes. The otherness which develops as the result of his transformational journey is immediately discerned by the first Christian Spaniards he encounters, and it is such that the Spaniards do not even attempt to communicate with him: "And the next morning I reached four Christians on horseback who experienced great shock upon seeing me so strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They remained looking at me a long time, so astonished that they neither spoke to me nor managed to ask me anything."12 The transformation appears here to be both interior and exterior and even the Christian Spaniards, a group Cabeza de Vaca now distances himself from, acknowledge this otherness. When the Spaniards do speak of Cabeza de Vaca as one of their own, it is only to separate him and his party from the Indians they travel with. These Indians—a group of several hundred from the Corazones region of Sonora, a group Cabeza de Vaca claims have been traveling with his party for over "eighty leagues" to keep from being captured by other Spaniards seeking slaves13 —are reluctant to leave Cabeza de Vaca, believing it is he and his party that have protected them from being enslaved. The Spaniards, through an interpreter, tell the Indians that they and Cabeza de Vaca's party are the same people, of the same community, but that the Indians ought not heed Cabeza de Vaca since he, after having been "lost" for so long, is a person of "ill fortune and no worth." The Indians, perceiving a number of substantial differences between the scantily clad party of Cabeza de Vaca and the heavily armored Spaniards appealing to them, refuse to believe this. Just as the Spaniards identified Cabeza de Vaca's party of wandering survivors as a group marked by otherness, so do the Indians:…of all this the Indians were only superficially or not at all convinced of what they told them. Rather, some talked with others among themselves, saying that the Christians were lying, because we came from where the sun rose, and they from where the sun set; and that we cured the sick, and that they killed those who were well; and that we came naked and barefoot, and they went about dressed and on horses and with lances; and that we did not covet anything but rather, everything they gave us we later returned and remained with nothing, and that the others had no other objective but to steal everything they found and did not give anything to anyone. And in this manner, they conveyed everything about us and held it in high esteem to the detriment of the others.14
While Todorov's reading of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative focuses on the possibility of identification with the Indians, it is the transformation, the great leap from Christian Spaniard to something unidentifiable and unique, which is perhaps more intriguing. As evident in the passage cited above, the change Cabeza de Vaca experiences internally has manifested itself outwardly so that everyone involved—his own party and the Spaniards and the Indians—recognize him and his entourage as a distinctly independent community of people. The dichotomy of Self and Other is complicated through a temporal process of becoming so that both the Spaniards and the Indians each discern something of themselves in the figure of Cabeza de Vaca but neither can fully identify with him and claim him as their own.
In this way Cabeza de Vaca is transformed into a figure of hybridity and mediation, a figure which mediates between two or more cultures and, in mediating, is himself transformed into something quite different from the cultures he finds himself situated between. He occupies a peculiar interstitial space wherein he identifies with neither one nor the other but straddles a border between the two, a cultural no-man's-land, a space of hybridity. Here an understanding of Homi Bhabha's conception of hybridity, as sketched out in his essay "The Commitment to Theory" may be particularly useful. According to Bhabha, this notion of hybridity involves a discursive space of dialectical contestation and negotiation. Hybridity, as a temporal space of negotiation, Bhabha maintains, is a place "where the construction of a political object that is new, neither one nor the other, properly alienates our political expectations, and changes, as it must, the very forms of our recognition of the moment of politics."15
It is this which interests Long, Dorn and Smith, this moment when cultures and identities collide and transform into that which resists identification and Aristotelian categorization. This third "we" which emerges in the figure of Cabeza de Vaca is very much similar to the "third country" Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of when she claims that "before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture."16
This third "we" or "country" is, of course, not to be confused with the "we" Robert Duvall speaks of when he claims unswervingly that "we do westerns." This we is something markedly different and this difference cannot be overemphasized. It is this third "we" which allows Dorn, in discussing Haniel Long's recasting of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative, to write:Cabeza de Vaca and Haniel Long. And, his wandering Christ figure, who traversed the Southwest barefoot from Denver to the border, and cured, cast lovely spells, who had long hair, was a man full of grace and humility, a violent kind, who talked too much, walked, was lonely, and had a meaning and cognizance, was followed, there was an awe.17
For Dorn Cabeza de Vaca, via Long, becomes a "Christ figure," a figure of spatial and temporal mediation that, like the figure of Christ himself, becomes a line of demarcation which both separates and joins two communities. Cabeza de Vaca, in this case, is neither one nor the other but the axiomatic point which not only distinguishes one from the other but also connects one to the other, becoming a Derridean veil or hymen situated between Self and Other and yet quite distinct from Self and Other.
In Long's recasting of the narrative, first published in 1936, the story is written as one which Long believes Cabeza de Vaca himself may have "wished to send the King."18 Long was well aware that Cabeza de Vaca had written the Relación expressly for Charles V, undoubtedly preparing it with Herculean care and caution. Understanding this, Long reconstructs the narrative as if Cabeza de Vaca had written it without fear of reprisal. Take the following passage, a thinly veiled, sharp critique of Charles V in particular and sovereign power in general, a critique Cabeza de Vaca would never have himself dared send his sovereign lord:While with them I thought only about doing the Indians good. But back among my fellow countrymen, I had to be on my guard not to do them positive harm. If one lives where all suffer and starve, one acts on one's own impulse to help. But where plenty abounds, we surrender our generosity, believing that our country replaces us each and several. This is not so, and indeed a delusion. On the contrary the power of maintaining life in others, lives within each of us, and from each of us does it recede when unused. It is a concentrated power. If you are not acquainted with it, your Majesty can have no inkling of what it is like, what it portends, or the ways in which it slips from one.19
Of particular interest here is the distinction drawn between poverty and plenty, a distinction which, in this passage, is not immediately commensurate with primitive and advanced civilizations respectively. Cabeza de Vaca, as a character in Long's narrative, does not equate poverty with a primitive, less advanced state; poverty here becomes that which galvanizes community while plenty is that which disrupts community, destroys it, subordinating it to the interests of the sovereign and the sovereign nation. Nation here replaces community and Cabeza de Vaca, within this narrative, refuses nation, thus refusing the sovereign which threatens community. He does not identify himself as an Indian, nor can he identify himself as a Christian Spaniard. In Long's narrative Cabeza de Vaca finds himself situated between the two, negotiating the two. Here the figure of Cabeza de Vaca functions as a veil of mediation, a figure of hybridity which is neither one nor the other but indeed a product of their encounter with one another.
Dorn deeply admired Long and, though he refers to Long as a "minor writer," he speaks of him as one of the few American writers genuinely concerned with "place," with the inexplicable connection between art and place. "Long was the only man concerned himself with art, here in the place, concerned with place. He never had one. He is a minor writer. A great minor writer, in America, and he had the radical mind it takes for that kind of art."20 The kind of art Dorn has in mind is an art which involves place, which takes place into consideration, gathering it up into the framework of the narrative through the process involved in the construction of narrative. Here the operative word is "process." In the very essay that Dorn praises Long—"What I See in the Maximus Poems"—Dorn leads by example, gathering up place so that the vestige of place might leave something of itself on the page of the essay. He oscillates back and forth from his topic, which deals with the poetics of place in a quasi-academic tenor, to Santa Fe, the place he is in as he writes. This place breaks into the essay and interrupts this discussion of the poetics of place. "Here in Santa Fe. The indians down in the plaza, some of them probably don't have a way home, but there seem to be many pick-up trucks…. Haniel Long has been dead three years. Somewhere out there, I don't know where the cemetery is, the wind is blowing over his grave, blowing the grass and weeds, I must find out where he is buried."21
Dorn undoubtedly developed his understanding of the reciprocity between place and art from Olson who, in "A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn," turned Dorn onto cultural geographer Carl Sauer. In one of his most important works, The Morphology of Landscape, Sauer states that "the natural landscape is of course of fundamental importance for it's applied to material out of which the cultural landscape is formed. The shaping for it lies in the culture itself."22 Culture shapes the land by drawing from it; the land shapes culture by providing the materials from which culture is fashioned. The relationship between the two is one of reciprocity—culture, or art, leaves its mark in the land by drawing from it just as the land leaves an image of itself in culture. This conception of the interdependent dialogical relationship between culture and the natural world is rooted, at least for Olson and Dorn, in an understanding of history, the history of place and the location of the poet in that place.23 Instead of selecting a location such as Gloucester—a place Olson dug his own feet into and explored as the spatial and temporal nexus where all the socio-economic components contained in a nation come together and project themselves outward through the poem, through the process of the poem, proprioceptively through the poet from "the cavity of the body, in which the organs are slung"24 —Dorn selects the American West, the Southwest in particular, a border region, the site of encounter which produces figures of hybridity and mediation such as Cabeza de Vaca, or the Cabeza de Vaca that emerges as a figure of mediation in Long's version of the story. It is this which appeals to Dorn.
In an interview published in 1986 Dorn again refers to Long and, again, it is in relation to a work which deals with another product of encounter, Malinche or Doña Marina. Here he states that Long is "one of those minor writers that can do more for you than anybody else. And of course his view of Malinche is extremely particular." Dorn then claims that "the point is that Malinche was probably the first negotiator in the hemisphere…. Her vision is way beyond anyone surrounding her at the time."25 Here one might easily argue it is the border and the hybridity it produces that draws Dorn to Long, just as it draws Long to figures such as Cabeza de Vaca and Malinche. As Bernal Díaz recalls in The Conquest of New Spain, "Doña Marina knew the language of Coatzacoalcos, which is that of Mexico, and she knew the Tabascan language also."26 The figure of Malinche here, just as that of Cabeza de Vaca, stands at the very site of encounter where ethnic identities distinguish themselves in relation to one another and cultural difference announces itself. Much like Dorn's reading of Malinche, Todorov believes that she marks the intersection of cultures and, in the so-called New World, she is the first to do so. Unlike Cabeza de Vaca, however, Malinche is a figure who is often perceived as one of betrayal, as a cultural bridge which facilitated an imperial program subordinating Mesoamerica to Spain. As Todorov writes, "The Mexicans, since their independence, have generally despised La Malinche as an incarnation of the betrayal of indigenous values, of servile submission to European culture and power."27 In an attempt to recuperate this compromising image of Malinche as the personification of perdition and betrayal, Gloria Anzaldúa reveals that she has come to be known in the popular Mexican imagination as "la Chingada—the fucked one. She has become the bad word that passes a dozen times a day from the lips of Chicanos. Whore, prostitute, the woman who sold out her people to the Spaniards are epithets Chicanos spit out with contempt."28 So, very much unlike Cabeza de Vaca, it is on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border that Malinche is derided, her name deployed as a pejorative for all things filthy, unfaithful, disloyal, disreputable. This clearly has much to do with the fact that she is not merely a person who has failed to choose and identify with one community over another: she is a woman, one who has been commodified and trafficked like the Chinese women Print Ritter rescues in Broken Trail.
Unlike Cabeza de Vaca, Malinche's dramatic encounter with the Other is not the consequence of shipwreck and subsequent wandering; Malinche was exchanged as a sort of fetish commodity between political leaders and this exchange is not two but threefold. Bernal Diaz, relates, "The Indians of Xicalango gave the child to the people of Tabasco, and the Tabascans gave her to Cortes."29 It is for this reason that she was familiar not only with Mayan, her first language, but also Nahuatl. It is for this reason she served so well as an interpreter. But she did not, like Cabeza de Vaca, enjoy the liberty of recording a first-hand account of her experiences. Everything we know of her is mediated through narratives written by men at the time of the Conquest, and these men are almost without exception Spaniards. She is mentioned with some frequency in eyewitness Nahua accounts of the Conquest—the bulk of which are contained in Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, much of which was transcribed by Franciscan friars30 —but she emerges in and from these accounts virtually unscathed. Very little is mentioned of her in these Aztec testimonies beyond her presence as an interpreter, as the negotiator Long and Dorn believe her to be. Not until the nineteenth century do representations of her emerge as a Mexican Eve, as serpent, as La Chingada, a despised and traitorous figure.
Focusing on the treatment of Malinche in Mexican literature from the Conquest into the twentieth century, Sandra Messinger Cypess notes that during the colonial period in Mexico there is little mention of Malinche in Mexican literature. After Mexico declared its independence from Spain, however, representations of Malinche were ideologically refashioned to fit a new socio-political order:
The new reading of the mother figure projected the resentment of the children for their progenitors and the system they had created. As the texts of newly independent Mexico show, many of the characteristics of Doña Marina considered positive by the Spaniards are reelaborated as negative elements. Disrobed of her accoutrements as the biblical heroine, Doña Marina is reincarnated as Desirable Whore/Terrible Mother, and the biblical image used to describe her at this stage is the serpent of Eden.31
One of the first works of literature to deliver an image of Malinche as "Desirable Whore/ Terribe Mother" was Jicotécal, a novel published anonymously in Philadelphia around 1826. Ireneo Paz, grandfather of Octavio Paz, later developed a somewhat different image of Malinche in the novels Amor y Suplicio (1873) and Doña Marina (1883). The degree of difference between Paz's recuperative representation and that of previous deprecating representations of Malinche are commensurate with the changing political landscape. Here Paz "rewrites history in a way that fits the social and political ideologies of his time; a nationalism that strives to incorporate the Indian within the paradigm of Mexican identity."32 But even here the image of Malinche cultivated by Paz is highly gendered and sexualized. Malinche becomes Mestiza mother, mother of Mexico, by means of commodity exchange, an exchange which underscores a lack of agency specific to her gender. By the time Paz's grandson Octavio sits down to sketch out an image of Malinche it is long after the Mexican Revolution and the tables have again turned. Paz transforms her into La Chingada, and while he appears to be sympathetic to her he nevertheless conceptualizes her as a figure characterized by docility and sexual violation.If the Chingada is a representation of the violated Mother, it is appropriate to associate her with the Conquest, which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense but also in the very flesh of Indian women. The symbol of this violation is doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés. It is true that she gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador, but he forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over. Doña Marina becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated or seduced by the Spaniards. And as a small boy will not forgive his mother if she abandons him to search for his father, the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal.33
According to Paz, that Malinche "gave herself" to the conquistadors is an unswerving truth. Here she is not so much a fetish commodity stripped of agency as she is an irresponsible mother that chooses of her own volition to forsake her children in pursuit of a foreign lover, albeit the father of her children. Clearly this "truth" is a textually manufactured truth that shapes consciousness and thus the real, a historical referential deployed in the desert of the real.34 Malinche left no account of her own and even if she had such an account—as literary hoaxes like the Yasusada affair or the poetry of Ern Malley reveal—would itself be nothing more than one of many representations, a Derridean trace within a larger pool of traces, constructs, signifying images sans signified.
Todorov, who like Long and Dorn is exterior to Mexico and Mexican consciousness, develops a reading of Malinche which is sympathetic to her role as a figure of hibridity and mediation, and this reading is strikingly similar to that of both Long and Dorn. Unlike Paz, Todorov does not read her as a historical figure he has an ethnic and emotional attachment to, but as one of signification, an allegorical representation: "I myself see her in quite a different light—as the first example, and thereby the symbol, of the cross-breeding of cultures; she thereby heralds the modern state of Mexico and beyond that, the present state of us all, since if we are not invariably bilingual, we are inevitably bi- or tri-cultural. La Malinche glorifies mixture to the detriment of purity—Aztec or Spanish—and the role of the intermediary."35 Malinche, occupying a peculiar space which complicates if not dismantles notions of "purity," of seemingly static and essential qualities attributed to race, becomes the figuration of a cultural system much like the one Bhabha describes when he writes, "It is only when we understand that all cultural statements and systems are constructed in this contradictory and ambivalent space of enunciation, that we begin to understand why hierarchical claims to the inherent originality or 'purity' of cultures are untenable, even before we resort to empirical historical instances that demonstrate their hybridity."36 It is this dimension of both Malinche and Cabeza de Vaca, the two of them products of encounter that reveal all cultural systems as hybrid products of encounter, which Dorn and Long, both invested in the Southwest border region, identify with and draw from. In short, Dorn and Long see border regions as an archetype of sorts through which we might, to use Olson's language, "prehend" all cultural statements and systems. In Long's reconstruction of Malinche, while it is similar to Paz's in that she is willfully devoted to Cortés, we find a figure that is acutely cognizant of her developing hybridity. Just as Cabeza de Vaca comes to understand himself as a being distinct from both Spaniard and Indian, Long's Malinche suggests that she is engaged in a process of becoming wherein she too is neither Indian nor Spaniard but a unique and singular being much like the New Mestiza conceptualized by Gloria Anzaldúa. Take the following brief passage from Long's Malinche, a first person work written in the persona of Malinche: "I am building up within me a new life, apart from Cortés and Alvarado and all of them, but not apart from Quetzalcoatl, not apart from the Virgin and Child."37 This new life, which Malinche expresses here by appealing to spiritual figures, develops not as the result of accretion but synthesis. Christian and Mesoamerican spiritual figures are drawn toward one another and merge to create a new religion, the symbol of a new identity in the being of Malinche. This identity is patently the product of encounter, a process temporal and dynamic.
Although there is little mention of Cabeza de Vaca or Malinche in Dorn's poetry, one might easily argue that figures like these heavily influence Dorn's poetics. His poetics are unmistakably a borderland poetics, a poetics of cultural exchange which achieves its greatest manifestation in the comic western epic Gunslinger. Even in his early poetry, however, as in his early essay on Olson, we see Dorn moving toward the achievement of
Mgunslinger, anxiously navigating through the borderlands. Perhaps the only mention of Cabeza de Vaca made by Dorn occurs in just such an early poem, "Inauguration Poem #2," a poem contained in a collection appropriately called Geography:Americans, you were that stupid from the beginning the rest of the
stood with their lower jaws dead with amazement at you, and you
never did get that the point from the beginning, Columbus, Cabot,
Nuñez, LaSalle, Estavanico, the Kid, was precisely non-
rational, you really thought you had to annihilate the Narraganset
which means people of the small point, oh god, the moon is the body
of the small point, your whole concern is of small point, the war
saw concerto seems to your crossed eyes a song of great emotion
But you missed it, they made no images; their divinities
were ghosts; they were extreme spiritualists. Plenty of gods
And &c is the most important gods you missed. For they
were the Manitous, they dwell in you at different times.
If they choose.38
The catalogue of names which appear in the poem include a wide ranging cast of historical figures, all of whom have one immediately discernable quality in common: they are all, in one way or another, at the forefront of encounter, figures which mark the intersection between Self and Other. Columbus, an Italian in the service of Spain. Cabeza de Vaca. Billy the Kid, a figure marking the limits of civil law and the sovereignty of the singular being. Estevanico, a figure marking the intersection not only between Spaniard and Indian but, as a "Moor," the space of negotiation between Christian and Muslim. Despite the location of these figures which mark the limit of encounter, the space of cultural exchange, of transnational and transcultural hybridity, Dorn exclaims that Americans, all of us, "were that stupid from the beginning." As Paul Dresman reveals in his reading of this poem, "the rational premises of the United States government, and, by extension, its progressive tradition of expansion derived from Europe, are opposed in this poem by an assemblage of nonrational explorers and outlaws…. Like the spirit of the Manitou, these figures were beyond the promulgated and accepted limits of rationalized religion and social order."39 One might also add here that these figures were not only beyond the limits of religion and social order, they were situated at the interstitial space of enunciation where, as Bhabha holds, "the construction of a political object that is new, neither one nor the other," takes place.
In Gunslinger Dorn introduces us to a wild and wide-ranging cast of characters not unlike the figures mentioned in "Inauguration Poem #2": "I," Slinger, Lil, Kool Everything, Dr. Flamboyant, Slinger's Stoned Horse which goes also by other names including Heidegger (Hi Digger!) and Levi Strauss, and the ever elusive Hughes / Howard. Set in the American West, the characters of the poem are, by and large, alien and outlaw figures, characters which, as Michael Davidson points out, are largely allegorical. Comprised of four primary books and several ancillary intermediary sections, we find that each of the four books is devoted to a different mind-altering substance: Book I is devoted to LSD; Book II to marijuana; Books III and IV to cocaine. The American West in which the poem is set, as a borderland, is not merely the Southwest, the actual American West, but, as Davidson writes, "the space of the poem is the West in its largest sense. Not only is it the West created by television and movies; it is also the West of exploration and exploitation."40 It is a West both real and representational, a West both physically exterior and psychologically interior, a borderland not unlike the one conceptualized by Anzaldúa. Las Vegas, where the ever elusive Hughes / Howard is purported to be, reveals itself to be nothing more than, as Marjorie Perloff has referred to it, a mirage much like the seven cities of Cíbola, the opulent but similarly elusive metropolitan archipelago of cities Cabeza de Vaca's former companion Estavanico is said to have discovered.41 Take Perloff's synoptic reading of the poem:Accordingly, although Slinger and his friends make a fairly consistent journey that we could trace on a map (from Mesilla, to Truth or Consequences, then on toward Four Corners, site of a big industrial power plant, and finally to Cortez, Colorado, in the southwestern part of the state), the purpose of the pilgrimage gradually disappears as we come to see that travel makes little difference, all places being essentially the same. At the end, Las Vegas has become an eternal mirage. Howard Hughes is forgotten (perhaps because he and the Slinger are really one and the same person), and the friends disperse to various places....42
Just as figures such as Cabeza de Vaca and Malinche complicate the distinction between Self and Other, Dorn's Gunslinger problematizes not only the distinction between past and present, but material reality and representation. Here it is not representation which follows reality but, like Jean Baudrillard's notion of the "hyperreal," it is the reality which, without origin and like a Derridean trace, is manufactured and shaped by representation. "It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory...."43 Like the narrator says in Book II:The Slinger considered this
conference of voices
yet could relate very little
to the realness
of the engendering emergency.44
Thus it is in this way that representations of the American West might precede rather than proceed from a material reality, a tangible west or borderland. This is a situation wherein the map may in fact precede the territory it is said to cartographically chart. Thus the "we" who "do westerns," as Robert Duvall claims, may in fact be a culturally diverse and hybrid "we" full of figures of mediation who are interpellated by representations of the American West as a homogenized and hegemonic "we," a "we" wherein all cultural difference is ironed out and eliminated. It is in figures of mediation and hybridity such as Cabeza de Vaca, however, (these figures themselves representations) that this process of interpellation—this process of being haled by hegemonic representations—continues to be challenged.
In much the same way Dorn drew from Long and Olson, eventually departing from Olson's "methodology," Dale Smith draws from Dorn, culling much of the source material Dorn and Olson explored, including Long, Sauer, Melville, William Carlos Williams and, to be sure, the figure of Cabeza de Vaca. In "American Rambler" Smith sketches out a mission statement of sorts where, among all the representations of Cabeza de Vaca available to him, the narrator resolves to carefully construct his own, one which, like those fashioned by Long and Dorn, contest the homogeneous "we" Robert Duvall speaks of in relation to doing westerns. Rather than doing westerns, the narrator of "American Rambler" is keenly aware that the westerns in fact do us, leading us toward a belief in a hegemonic ethnic and national identity. The title of the poem is also that of the collection it is contained within, a collection of poems which come together to form an exceptionally complex work that, not unlike Gunslinger, challenges conventional representations of the American West like the sort Robert Duvall so often appears in.
Where Dorn's verse is largely punctuated by an ironic and scathing Swiftian bitterness, Smith's suggests an optimism, a hope, and this hope is implicit in the transformational qualities found in figures like Cabeza de Vaca. For Smith it is the wilderness, the border, the point of encounter between Self and Other, which offers salvation and allows hybrid figures to emerge. It is only in the wilderness that transformation is possible.
The Cabeza de Vaca Smith introduces us to in American Rambler is uniquely his own, a construction built from the vestiges of other constructions of the explorer. Smith is acutely aware that his Cabeza de Vaca is a textual trace shaped by a pool of prior traces, a representation drawn from other representations, the product of textual transmission. Smith knows well that there can be nothing even remotely disinterested or objective in his account of Cabeza de Vaca's sojourn. He confesses that his aim is not "to retell a tale/ but to compress through my body/ the significant image/ struck by this man."45 Smith's account thus emerges proprioceptively, from where the organs are slung. Representations of Cabeza de Vaca and accounts of his journey, the significant image, are compressed through the somatic materiality of the poet and projected outward onto the page and into the poem, into a wilderness much like the one traversed by Cabeza de Vaca, a wilderness which at one and the same time shapes the poet but also allows the poet to shape it. Inasmuch as the title poem prefaces the work and provides a window into the poetics which drive the larger collection it is part of, the poem is indeed worth citing here at length and in its entirety:I've watched men leave
their lives a wreck
and others the worse for it.
For this reason
and because I returned
to the state of my birth
I seek some sense
of things first
seen here, applied
through transmission of
humans dispersed on land
and by means of language
preserved some impression
that life made on them as
from main root
to float under sun into
devouring myth or image,
a dream from which
they never woke up.
There are others who have approached
my Cabeza de Vaca through words
that construct an imagined past
of men among alien environs.
Haniel Long in his Interlinear
provides great insight to
the spiritual transformation
of that man.
Robert Duncan and others
have shaped the mind
I bring to this Nuñez;
but the land has been mine,
the sky with its fried light
and the wind swaying
near springs that remain
cold year round
I've felt with my skin and
heard with my ears.
Cabeza de Vaca's Relation served
as the active interface
for reading this urbanized wonder
of condos and auto lots.
The Tempest too
I studied with coffee
under electric bulbs
to insist there was
an event so profound that it
touched the inner sources
where my poetry lives
delivering this image
on Sauer's careful observations
that dreams made us Americans
act in accord with the land
violated or visited with care.
Not to retell a tale
but to compress through my body
the significant image
struck by this man
I submit these words
not so we know
of one man's task in the wilderness
but because there is a wilderness to change us46
The wilderness or border is not merely a setting or stage upon which we might investigate "one man's task." It is the site of encounter, a space of negotiation between two or more cultures. Here Smith foregrounds and valorizes not merely the man transformed but the space which makes transformation possible, a space which invariably demands transformation and produces hybridity. This wilderness, however, is not simply uninscribed earth. These environs are not undeveloped, uncivilized, uninhabited or pristine. People live there; communities exist there. This wilderness is what exists at the ragged epistemological edge of the known and is as temporal as it is spatial. It is what exists beyond the known. It is the unfamiliar and its limit is marked by encounter. It is what happens as the result of encounter. It is what allows encounter but it is also what allows hybridity to take place. It is what allows the emergence of a political object that is neither one nor the other but something distinctly new and uniquely singular. And it is the wilderness imagined and explored by Cabeza de Vaca and re-imagined by Smith which allows him to approach anew "this urbanized wonder/ of condos and auto lots." Smith has returned to Texas, the state of his birth, a state which Cabeza de Vaca traveled through living "on the nuts of pecans and black walnut trees."47 Texas and the surrounding areas—Florida, Louisiana, Northern Mexico—have long since been settled by Europeans. The indigenous peoples throughout the region have long since been displaced. Yet Smith insists that there is still "a wilderness to change us." This wilderness is unmistakably one marked by encounter and unfamiliarity. It is not a place to be conquered and cartographically charted but one into which we must be thrown, as were Cabeza de Vaca and Prospero. Just as Michael Davidson notes of Dorn's Gunslinger, the same is true of Smith's Rambler: "to travel from one place to another is unnecessary since all places are potentially the same."48 Living in the desert of the real, the simulacrum, the narrator of Smith's long poem must create in the present an imagined past. More importantly, he must create encounter. If he is to save himself, to keep from leaving his life a wreck, he must reproduce encounter and experience it for himself in a wilderness of the hyperreal, invariably a border region. The wilderness is, for Smith, something we must think and if we are to think it properly we must do this by means of an encounter between Self and Other.
The critical importance of border regions and encounter is poignantly summarized in a brief passage from Olson's Call Me Ishmael, a passage which Smith cites in his "Tribute to Paul Metcalf," a prose piece contained in American Rambler: "We are the last 'first' people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary…. Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward."49 That Smith includes this passage—one which speaks to first encounters, beginnings, the primary—at the end of his collection is no mistake. It is intended not only to carry us back to the beginning of the collection, but to carry us back to an originary moment, a moment wherein we can reconstruct for ourselves the journey through the wilderness, the moment of encounter. Like Melville and Olson and Long and Dorn, the moment of encounter must be reproduced, reconstructed, so that the Self might locate its own image, something of itself, in the Other. Both Dorn and Smith, however, differ with Olson in that the spatial dimension takes a backseat to the temporal. For Olson, in his reading of Melville and the Maximus Poems, space is central. After all, Olson begins Call Me Ishmael by foregrounding space: "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy."50 But for Dorn and Smith the wilderness, the border region, the wild American West, is not something which can be located on a map but something which happens, something which must be experienced. It is more temporal than spatial and is in this way very much akin to Jean-Luc Nancy's notion of community, "So that community, far from being what society has crushed or lost, is what happens to us—question, waiting, event, imperative—in the wake of society."51 And for Smith more than Dorn there is an inexhaustible well of hope in the experience of encounter, in our ability to reproduce encounter "through transmission of/ humans dispersed on land/ and by means of language." The wilderness is not a pristine Edenic garden we have despoiled or been cast out, it is that which happens, that which takes place, that which can be returned to so that we might understand and read with a critical eye the strip malls, retail outlets, super centers, real estate agencies, chain restaurants and other manifestations of globalization which surround us. In the moment of encounter there is no homogenized, hegemonic "we" situated along the periphery of civilization against a barbarous and primitive Other. In the moment of encounter there is only an exposure of Self to Other, an identification of Self with Other that, at one and the same time, acknowledges and preserves difference—and it is this which produces a third "we," the one which is neither this nor that but something quite distinct, a powerfully charged political object forever new in its perpetually unfolding newness. This brand of encounter—the shipwreck and subsequent odyssey in an urbanized wonder—is what Smith believes may prevent men from leaving their lives a wreck for which others must pay. As Smith himself states in "Tribute to Paul Metcalf":The unfinished narrative of encounter offers maps out of the known. Now we are floating and we move as if torn from our bodies, haunted by the sexual urgency of departure. So we live unhinged, talk-radio filling the cool night with UFO abduction and government conspiracy theories as the Internet splinters knowledge into communities of commodified democracies. It's a conspiracy of the mind to detach itself from the consequences of the body, an alter-ego possessed of curiosity, violence, complacency, anxiety.52
The aim is not to transform the unknown into the known, to chart that which has not been charted, but to construct a map which draws us toward the unknown, the inexplicable and it is by means of encounter that this becomes possible. While the "we" who "do westerns" construct a representation of Self set off against the background of a threatening and unfamiliar Other, the "we" Smith speaks of is a community which needs desperately to make itself new by means of encounter and transform itself into the sort of "we" Cabeza de Vaca becomes, one which is neither Spanish Christian nor Native American, neither Cowboy nor Indian, but a unique "we" that is "hacked/ from main root" and emerges as the result of encounter. Salvation for Smith lies in the transformational process of becoming. It is indeed what will save us from living "unhinged" in a nightmare world where media and technology shred "knowledge into communities of commodified democracies," communities which are not community but the shadow of community—communities of the sort that conceptualize race, ethnicity and nation as predetermined and biologically essential, communities that conceptualize themselves as a "we" which needs to protect itself from an ominous alien Other by constructing cultural fences and militarizing borders real or imagined rather than celebrating the wilderness frontier and the hybridity such indeterminate and beautifully ambiguous spaces produce.
3 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper Collins, 1975), 152. This passage is also cited by Homi Bhabha as an epigraph to the opening essay contained in The Location of Culture.
4 Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 100.
5 "Florida" is here used in accord with the usage employed by Adorno and Pautz in their transcription and translation of Cabeza's 1842 Relación: "The area referred to here [in Cabeza's Relación as Florida] included the lands along the western and northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of the Rio Soto la Marina in the present-day state of Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico to the tip of the Florida Peninsula. In the 1520s the term Florida described the vast unexplored lands that lay beyond the northern frontier of New Spain from the Florida Peninsula to the Pacific Coast" (Adorno, Vol I, 23).
6 Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz, Álavar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Exploration of Pánfilo de Narveáz (University of Nebraska Press, 1999), Vol. III, 203.
7 Alex D. Krieger, We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca Across North America (University of Texas Press, 2002), 35.
8 Krieger summarizes the journey as follows: "Cabeza de Vaca was treasurer of a colonizing expedition of 600 persons led by Panfilo de Narvaez that left Spain in 1527 and sailed to Santo Domingo, then to Cuba, and finally to the west coast of present day Florida. Desertions, separations, and deaths had reduced the expedition to 242 men by the time they returned to the Florida coast after exploring inland. There they discovered that their ships had left them. They built six barges and sailed westward along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to reach Panuco, near present Tampico, the nearest Spanish settlement. All the barges were wrecked or lost on the coast of Texas. Two barges, containing 97 men including the four eventual survivors, were cast up on an island they named Malhado. Many have thought thus was Galveston Island, though it could have been land just west of there. The other four barges, one of which contained Narvaez, were wrecked or blown out to sea and forever lost. No one aboard those four barges survived. Of the 97 men cast up on Malhado, only 16 survived the first winter, and only four of these, Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, Estevan (Dorante's slave), and Cabeza de Vaca, survived to reach Mexico eight years later" (Krieger 141-142).
9 Adorno, Vol. I, 19-21.
10 Todorov, 198.
11 Todorov, 199.
12 Adorno, Vol. I, 245.
13 Adorno, Vol. I, 243.
14 Adorno, Vol. I, 251.
15 Homi K. Bhaba, The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994), 37.
16 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 25.
17 Edward Dorn, "What I See In the Maximus Poems," The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen (Grove Press, 1973), 298.
18 Haniel Long, Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca (Frontier Press, 1969), X.
19 Interlinear, 35.
20 Dorn, "What I See in the Maximus Poems," 298.
21 Dorn, "What I See in the Maximus Poems," 298.
22 Roy K. Okada, "An Interview with Ed Dorn," Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer ,1974), 300.
23 The question of history here—or history as conceptualized by Olson in his "methodology" and then Dorn's departure from this methodology and revision of Olson's conception of history—is exceedingly complex and, in short, an issue for which there is little time to be given here. Suffice it to say that, without sufficient time to discuss the influence of Whitehead, Herodotus, Frobenius and others on Olson and then Dorn's modification of Olson's "methodology," I have no choice but to table the issue, bracketing it out of this discussion, at least for the moment. Michael Davidson explores this issue closely in "Archaeologist of Morning: Charles Olson, Edward Dorn and Historical Method," stating that, according to Olson, "The poet… is a nodal point who 'prehends' or experiences a multifarious reality. He cannot abstract himself from the condition he encounters. His forms are inextricably linked with the kinetics of physical nature. Using Whitehead as his epistemologist and quantum mechanics as his model for space, Olson seeks to develop a historical-poetic method which would not simply interpret the facts of history but which would exert a heuristic effect upon it" (Archaeologist 165).
24 This brief citation is from Olson's essay "Proprioception" contained in Collected Prose, 181-183. "PROPRIOCEPTION the cavity of the body, in which the organs are slung...."
25 Tandy Sturgeon, "An Interview with Ed Dorn," Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 1986), 12-13.
26 Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain (Penguin Books, 1963), 86. The language of the Coatzacoalcos is, of course, that of the Aztecs—Nahuatl—while the "Tabascan" language is Choatl.
27 Todorov, 101.
28 Anzaldúa, 44.
29 Diaz, 85.
30 In his foreward to Miguel Leon-Portilla's The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Beacon Press, 1992), J. Jorge Klor de Alva cites Bernardino de Sahagún's foreward to the 1585 revision of the Nahua conquest story. Sahagún writes: "When this manuscript was written (which is now over thirty years ago) everything was written in the Mexican language [Nahuatl] and was afterwards put into Spanish. Those who helped me write it were prominent elders, well versed in all matters… who were present in the war…" (Leon-Portilla XVIII).
31 Sandra Messinger Cypess, La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth (University of Texas Press, 1991), 9.
32 Cypess, 10.
33 Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Silence: Life and Thought in Mexico (Grove Press, 1961), 86.
34 In "History: A Retro Scenario", Jean Baudrillard writes, "History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth. It is by virtue of this fact that it takes the place of myths on the screen." Although Baudrillard's discussion deals largely with cinema, the deployment of "history" in Paz's essay functions in much the same way as that of "history" in film and is no less myth in literature than it is in film. History, the lost referential, is not so much history as it is nostalgia for a prior, originary moment—a moment which is itself myth, a construction, the illusion of greener days and better ways, of simplicity, purity, origins, beginnings. The crime here lies in recognizing this history as truth rather than myth as such.
35 Todorov, 101
36 Bhaba, 54-55.
37 Haniel Long, The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca also Malinche (Souvenir Press, 1972), 56.
38 Edward Dorn, Collected Poems, 1956-1974 (Four Seasons, 1983), 104.
39 Paul Dressman, "Internal Resistances: Edward Dorn and the American Indian," Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn (University of California Press, 1985), 92.
40 Michael Davidson, "To Eliminate the Draw," Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn, 118.
41 "Estevanico accompanied the Fray Marcos de Niza expedition that departed from San Miguel de Caliacan on 7 March 1539. On the basis of his thirdhand account from Indians who had escaped Estevanico's fate, Fray Marcos surmised that after Estevanico and his people had spent the night in a large house on the outskirts of the city of Cibola (in the pueblo country of Zuni), he and his companions were killed, 'shot with arrows'" (Adorno, Vol. II, 423).
42 Marjorie Perloff, The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in Poetry of the Pound Tradition (Northwestern University Press, 1985), 165.
43 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2.
44 Edward Dorn, Gunslinger (Duke University Press, 1989), 59.
45 Dale Smith, American Rambler (Thorp Springs, 2000), 17-18.
46 Smith, 16-18.
47 Smith, 91.
48 Davidson, 117.
49 Charles Olson, Collected Prose (University of California Press, 1997), 19.
50 Olson, 17.
51 Jean-Luc Nancy, Inoperative Community (University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 11.
52 Smith, 92.