November 14, 2021 - 12:13 am
This fall, the University of Nevada Press released “The Ghost Dancers,” a posthumous novel by Adrian C. Louis. I first read Louis’ poetry more than 30 years ago when I edited “Desert Wood: An Anthology of Nevada Poets.” What struck me then and now is his uncanny ability to write what few others will in his self-deprecating way — poking fun at himself while living through many lives as a journalist, teacher, writer and survivor. He has escaped the usual extremes of reservation life — if living at its edges is an escape. He refuses to be adorned or admonished. His uneasy peace with literature and its heroes is of little consolation. Unlike Joy Harjo, U.S. poet laureate, or Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning novelist, Louis is not widely known, nor I suspect read, but he is every bit as fearless, dark and edgy as any Native American writer that I know.
The fact that he came from the Paiute reservation in Wabuska, Nevada, just north of Yerington, and later Lovelock, then on to Brown University is a small miracle. Friends who knew him in high school said he was “just another kid,” but the fire that animates his 12 books of poetry and three books of prose was building in those small towns. He knew he was on the outside. He didn’t ask permission then and he doesn’t in “The Ghost Dancers.” He has had his literary champions, but they were few and “in the know.” Some part of that was due to his own making: He didn’t want to be part of the academy or its trappings.
But none of this is really germane to why we need Louis now — he has Brailed the cataclysmic shifts in our culture, the deadly divide over race and status, and the insidious station of this country’s first people for 40 years. To say he is the finest writer to have come out of Nevada is an understatement. He is a poet for this generation, but more important, he is of this time and the time before this when the reservation was a coffin to his people. He bleeds these things into his work. He is larger than the page, and most who read good poetry will tell you this: The razorlike quality of his language burrows deep. Don’t read him if you want complacency. Read him if you want something more than the obvious tale. A hundred years from now his poetry will mark the meridian of what we crossed as a nation — the threshold of who we are and what we care for. I am thankful I read him in my lifetime — he reminds me there are multiple truths of native conquest and multiple consequences of living without these truths. If you want safety in your reading, stay away from Louis. If you want the outline of a culture that persists without us, read him. He will incinerate what rusted ideals you imagined were part of rez life.
Shaun T. Griffin is a poet, editor and translator from Virginia City. He edited two influential volumes of Nevada literature, “Desert Wood” and “the River Underground.”