It's not just any poet who can write compelling verse about his naked grandma. Of course, Hershman R. John is not just any poet.
Raised on a reservation and in boarding schools, and educated at a state university, John is a Navajo who, according to the University of Arizona Press, "understands life on both sides of the canyon that divides" the Diné people from the white people. Although his poems do much to reinforce his diverse, multicultural perspective, John's vivid and descriptive language distinguishes him from his many lesser peers.
I Swallow Turquoise for Courage is a lot for one reader to swallow--and I mean that in the best way possible. From the long, seven-page poem in honor of Massachusetts bard Elizabeth Bishop ("Post-Modernity in Kayenta") to the spare, experimental verse of "Storm Patterns," John's debut absorbs every mode and style, and reconfigures them through his distinct imagination and voice.
But back to John's naked grandma: She is featured in the second part of the book's opening poem, "Two Bodies of Elements," and the atmosphere John conjures is so thick, so complete, that you actually feel you're experiencing the poet's own highly detailed memories:
Toward the sand dunes by the empty black house,
Blue sky, tan sand, green yucca and lavender
Earth, a lizard sat under the yucca shading
Himself from the heat. The sand was too hot to play on.
Grandma washed her hair with yucca root,
Sudsy and wet. She combed her hair with an old
Plastic brush. She wore just a red velvet skirt,
Nothing else. I could smell her pot of mutton stew
Boiling over with colored corn and squash. She knew how
To feed her young. She was as giving as the soil or sand.
Indeed, seeing one's own grandma bathing isn't so horrifying, at least in a poem written by John. Moreover, he can make you look at the whole world differently, or at least at a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. In "A Postcard From Van Gogh," John draws a connection between the legendary painter's "Irises" and the Coyote, a key figure in Navajo mythology:
Purple splashes of paint; thick full petals
Ready to fall. Green leaves, rich enough
For cows to eat. Irises are almost as pretty
As orchids. One iris I notice stands out deep
And cold as ivory or snow ...
I'd never thought of Van Gogh's flowers as being particularly edible before, but now, John has me thinking like a hungry cow. Sure, it may seem like a small thing; however, I Swallow Turquoise for Courage is chock-full of instances when you, the reader, can comfortably slip into a startling and different perspective. Suddenly, the whole world seems rife with deeper mysteries and brighter possibilities.
Naturally, there are some more melancholy poems. "The Dark World" turns the Navajo creation story on its head, with figures like the Spider Woman, the Coyote and the Mist People struggling against an apocalyptic scenario. Then there are heart-stopping stanzas in which the poem's speaker steps back and coldly watches things as they fall apart:
The cornfields yellow.
Someone's grandfather falls into a deep sleep.
The wind ceases to blow.
An elk steps onto the Interstate.
And it all becomes dark again.
Even in the most cliché-ridden landscape--like, say, Las Vegas--John can make things sound and look new again, as he does in "Gambling a Good Night Away":
The Vegas sky, bright
Lights, no stars, no moon,
Just an artificial biology:
A source of darkness.
Airplanes fly over a new
Sin, a city of money,
The ground sprouts skyscrapers,
Cobalt bingo halls, tourists
And mouse traps. No longer
Does the ground give turnips,
Tobacco leaves or cocoa.
Did anyone in Vegas ever grow cocoa? I don't know, but John makes it seem possible. His imagination is almost like that of a comic-book superhero--faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Hershman John is a young superman of contemporary poetry, and I Swallow Turquoise for Courage is a book of poems that displays a vast arsenal of lyrical powers. Make sure and tell Grandma.