Venice can be a weary city. Some days it reminds me of a scene from Dante’s circles of hell, all the souls wandering around the narrow streets, hopelessly lost. During the Biennale, Venice is doubly weary. All those extra lost souls, all that questionable art. Today is Sunday. A quiet, depleted morning. As I walk along the Grand Canal towards the Rialto Bridge, I’m thinking of a line from Sherwin Bitsui’s poem, River: “When we river,/blood fills cracks in bullet shells,/oars become fingers scratching windows into dawn,/and faces are stirred from mounds of mica.”
Sherwin was born on a Navajo reservation in White Cone, Arizona, in 1975. He is Diné of the Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water Clan). I have heard him read once before—incantatory songs of flood and bone—poetry rich with the landscape of America’s Southwest, bursting with surreal juxtapositions of Native American mythology and symbols of urban American life. He is in Venice to take part in an exhibition called Air Land Seed, this Biennale’s only concession to contemporary indigenous art. “It’s great here,” he says, “But I’m already missing home. I can’t wait for open sky and horizon.”
Sherwin is a desert person. He can make you nostalgic for horizon too; for the wine of cactus flowers, an intoxication so particular, it is reminiscent of desert rain. A painter and a poet, it is natural for him to let the worlds of images and words speak to each other. Even though he writes in English, he’s always playing with language, breaking and remoulding it to include Navajo. “Language was never terribly mysterious to me,” he says. “Navajo is a nation of poets. There’s a respect for language and beauty that intersect, and create what we call saad béé hózhó—that which is created by beauty or creates beauty. In our view language is powerful. We grow up knowing that you have to honour it… it’s a way to describe the world.”
For a person who grew up in a rural, faraway place with no libraries or tradition of a written language, Sherwin had to make his own way in the complex world of contemporary American poetry. He has a degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, and has published two collections of poetry—Shapeshift and Flood Song. This summer he will teach for the first time, something that terrifies him, because in his culture, you only earn the right to speak later in life, when you have achieved your wisdom.
The right to speak, of course, allows him to participate in the ongoing struggle of his people. Though he says he feels fortunate that they have their sacred mountains and their reservation, they are still poor and do not own their land. “The energy we put into survival is incredible,” he tells me. “In the United Sates, people suffer historical amnesia….The majority of Americans believe we shouldn’t have sovereignty, that we should assimilate. They never think that they are on our ancestral land.”
As I leave Sherwin to walk back up the canal, I have in my head, stories of feast days and great grandmothers in lambskin moccasins; a grandfather who was a medicine man, who through his recitations had the power to heal people. And these stories seem to clear the Venetian sky a little.
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.