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Crazy Horse and Custer

Fifteen years ago, not long after publishing Anthology of Modern American Poetry with Oxford, I began to receive the typical mix of complimentary and complaining letters. In the latter category, faculty members wanted to know why a favorite poem or poet was left out and some poets who were not included wrote pointed letters to let me know they weren’t happy with the fact. But one poet, William Heyen, took a different approach. He sent me a large (actually very large) box of his books, chapbooks, and broadsides and said, “Judge for yourself whether I should have been in your collection.” I suppose I could have just set the unexpected gift aside, but I felt I had been given both an intellectual challenge and an ethical burden. Meanwhile, from time to time, smaller packages from Bill arrived, updating me on his publications. I sent a brief thank you note, saying I was eager to read what he had sent. People in the book world learn to do this promptly. If you wait too long, people expect you to comment on their book.

Anyway, I began to read the collected works of William Heyen. I had read those of his poems that were regularly anthologized but had never sat down with his books. Heyen writes regularly about the Holocaust. Years later, when I began teaching a seminar on Holocaust poetry, I assigned his book, Shoah Train. And I let the question of whether I ought to have included him in the anthology play lightly at the edge of my thoughts. But it wasn’t a pressing question until I read Crazy Horse in Stillness, his 464-poem “dialogue” between the great Ogalala Lakota war chief Crazy Horse and General George Armstrong Custer, all leading up to the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, when Custer and all the troops under his command were defeated and killed.

Successful poems about Native American history and culture by non-Indian writers are few and far between. Unlike minorities that have regular and widespread contact with majority America, Indians remain partly separate. Unlike the very rich and powerful traditions of Native American poems, a tradition stretching back into the 19th century, I am aware of only a tiny handful of poems by non-Indians that I consider first rate. But suddenly I was reading a tour-de-force poem sequence that showed intricate knowledge of Indian culture and was both incredibly inventive as literature and forceful as political statement. The first poem below is from Crazy Horse’s perspective, the second from Custer’s. “One World” embodies Native American myth and spirituality, along with the sense of individual quest, whereas “Treaty” is a testament to the cold exercise of the power of the whites:

One World

At a small pond ringed by willows and twilight,
Crazy Horse, who had not slept for how many days,
stared into his face filled with frogspawn,
with stars. So that was where the dead lived,
& waited, there behind his eyes. He’d never again

worry where he would spend eternity, this now, as long
as one Lakota lived to contain the world…
His horse snuffled from its tether in the willows—
they’d return to the village, & fall awake,
& dream the stars in the pond, the spawn in the stars.


Said Custer, Here’s how it’s going down:
we’ll ration water to the fish first come,
first served; grass o the buffalo by rank;
sky to the hawks one windgust at a time.
Keep your people quiet and in single file.
For any trouble, you’ll sacrifice a child
a minute for as many of your moons
as ever bled your dirty women. Keep
questions to yourself, and call me friend.

Crazy Horse in Stillness is a completely unique and compelling book, but it is also very much a single coherent work. How could I excerpt from 464 poems so as to do justice to the whole project? I really had no answer. But then I wasn’t faced with a real challenge to do so, so the question only troubled me slightly. Indeed, I mostly decided it couldn’t be done. But in time, Oxford invited me to do a new, expanded edition of the anthology. Now Crazy Horse and Custer were priorities.

Years earlier, I had confronted the need to choose selections from Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Most anthologists simply look for what they think are the best poems in the book. But the goal I set myself instead was to pick a group of Pound’s Cantos that I felt represented the spine of the book. I wanted what amounted to a miniature, condensed version of Pound’s masterwork. Could I do the same with Crazy Horse in Stillness?

It was not just a question of what to include but also of what to exclude. I decided that the poems I selected had both to embody the most essential elements of the confrontation between the two men and their individual inner worlds. That meant leaving out many of the threads woven into the book, including observations in the voice of Custer’s wife. And I wanted the selection to cohere as a narrative, to tell the story in miniature. Like Heyen’s book, the narrative based on a subset of poems had to drive inexorably toward the battle and Custer’s death but also leap forward and harvest the confrontation’s long-term spiritual and historical implications. For we know that the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in fact, heralded the defeat of the Plains tribes and the possession of their homeland by the expansion of white culture:


When only a thousand buffalo were left alive on the plains,
one old bull hid inside a tree, crossed its growth rings
inward toward dead heartwood where it somehow knew
it would have to live. Each year the tree added a ring.

& each year the buffalo receded further toward its future.
Meanwhile, from beyond the riverbank where the tree lived,
soldiers were galloping toward him with politicians
& lawyers & dozers & cement trucks on their shoulders.

Thinking about the project of excerpting poems took many months, but eventually I ended up with a 17-poem sequence that I felt made a compelling mini-narrative, a representation of the much longer book. I sent it off to Bill Heyen with some trepidation, since many poets would not appreciate this sort of intervention, instead finding it presumptuous. But Bill liked it and felt it condensed the book’s aims well. He only asked that I add one more poem, “The Tooth,” which I of course agreed to do.

Poems from Crazy Horse in Stillness, copyright 1996 by William Heyen, are reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Image Credit: “Crazy Horse” by Great Beyond. CC BY NC-SA via Flickr.

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