Where Land Dissolves on Tongues: A Review of Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve (Copper Canyon Press) — April 24, 2019

by Beatrice Szymkowiak


Dissolve, the compelling third book of Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui, immerses its readers into the landscape of the American Southwest, the place of his people and culture. One encounters a land harrowed by the Anthropocene, fogged by “digital cloud” and “televised vapor,” haunted by “the Reservation’s ghost.” This land dissolves—transitively, for it cannot vanish without disintegrating its bounds with the people dwelling within it, cutting them adrift. Reciprocally, had the bounds with the people caring for it not been severed in the first place, the land would not be dissolving. Bitsui speaks of the Diné experience but also of a world where humanity, driven by capitalist exploitative constructs and practices, abuses earth and grows disconnected from its environment.
      The collection consists of two poems. The first poem, “The Caravan,” reads as a metaphor for the “nomadic” life many Diné people have been thrown into. I use nomadic here in the etymological sense of the word: “roaming in search of pasture”; i.e., wandering in search of a reconnection with the land that provides and is cared for. The Caravan is also the name of a bar where a brother, trapped in the “one more, just one more” of alcohol-induced genocide, keeps returning. It also is the “caravan of the wailing fathers,” and the caravan of a people deprived of their land.
      The second poem suggests the caravan in eight lyric sequences or, rather, movements. The poem is indeed a landscape in constant motion, where the mountain is “mountaining.” Throughout the long poem and through language, Bitsui enacts a gesture of reconnection to the land as it evaporates at “the fogged rim of the Reservation.” Towards the end of the poem, the faces of children are “mountaining,” offering a glimmer of hope, even if “their stone teeth [are] glinting inside a tree’s whimpering.”
      In a conversation with Joy Harjo in Bomb Magazine (December 2018), Bitsui affirms “the cinematic quality” of Dissolve and explains that “Navajo is full of verbs and everything is in motion. His clearest, most vivid images are “always in a state of movement.” The abundance of gerunds and of prepositions denoting movement or provenance, the many occurrences of nouns acting as verbs, as well as the layout of cascading participle phrases, all participate in a transformative movement that reorganizes the English language and imprints it with Diné images and linguistic traits.
      The Diné language, which holds the Diné people’s culture and their connection and knowing of the world, has been affected by colonization and genocide, as the collection reminds: “No language but its rind crackling in the past tense” with “single-roomed tongues” and “hollowed-out dictionaries.” Bitsui breathes the Diné language into the poem-landscape, as the speaker breathes in an awakened/ing landscape at the very heart of the collection: “Cave paintings stammering from their speech of clear water / hoof this chamber quiet, / I breathe it in.” As language exhales and inhales the landscape, it becomes lungs­­. The poem breathes with and through the land, always at the risk of its “paper lungs collaps[ing] on bird claws.”
      Dissolve operates a shift. The poet states it from the very beginning: “this poem pivots a walking cane.” The poem is a transformative walk through a landscape that the wanderer breathes in. It attempts at seizing the land as “moans sip light from dilated pupils,” before it dissolves, whole. It is a breathing map, but where “still, a noose glimmers above the orphaning field.” A stunning collection, a necessary read.