Allison Hedge Coke
The Musicality of Landscape and Identity in “Platte Mares” and “America, I Sing You Back”
By Erin Cheatham
In Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, Allison Hedge Coke brings together “Indigenous poetic voices from across the Americas in a single volume” (Brown 258). As both editor and contributor, Hedge Coke worked to illuminate the important work of poets of diverse backgrounds and heritage. Her own poems in the anthology contain the same elements of musicality that can be seen in the rest of the volume, as “Coke’s “songs” breathe her Native American and European ancestry, along with the vast geography of her experience” (Van Buren). In “America, I Sing You Back”, she uses music as a way to connect the past with the present, “I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh, I will—I do.” The poem opens with a dedication to “Phil Young, My father Robert Hedge Coke, Whitman, and Hughes.” Here, Hedge Coke alludes to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” (Whitman) and Langston Hughes’ “I Too, Sing America” (Hughes), songs that contain elements of musicality that are tied to a deep sense of history and national identity. Both poems explore differing ideas of what it means to be American in a changing national landscape, and the relationship between this complex sense of self-identity and patriotism. Hedge Coke’s “song” explores a similar sense of national identity, attempting to connect the past and present, to “Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.” Hedge Coke, like both Whitman and Hughes, “grounds her poetry in the lives of ordinary people, replete with their historical and cultural contexts” (Van Buren). “America, I Sing You Back” acts as a song of forgiveness, exploring the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the America that tried to push them out of their home. The speaker of the poem “expresses love for a people and a nation that turned their backs on their Indigenous forebears as a child rebels against its parents” (Brown 259). The second stanza explores this “parent-child” relationship, as the song gives life to new creation:
Oh, before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.
The song as “mother” acts as the catalyst for creation, as the speaker explores the nature of the relationship between the two. Even though America “pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,” the speaker still maintains a gentle tone and forgiving attitude, preparing to “pour forth singing.” The speaker’s willingness to forgive is most apparent in the final lines of the poem, as the song concludes and the mother “is willing to forgive the trespass and welcome the prodigal child back home” (Brown 260):
When she grows far past her self-considered purpose, I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh, I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
The speaker is able to find solace in the music that gave creation, looking to the past in order to forgive the present. The insistence that “sing again I will, as I have always done” alludes to the perseverance of the song and the people, of their ability to never be silenced. Similarly, in “Platte Mares”, Hedge Coke explores the musicality and natural beauty of the landscape through the lens of the homeward migration of Nebraska’s famous Sandhill cranes. The poem “rings with onomatopoeia”, causing you to “feel the rhythmic propulsion of each image as surely as you can feel your own pulse” (Van Buren). The “spiraled kettles” represent the bird’s flight formations, the view of what they look like up in the sky, before the “kettling vortex siege” of their descent to the ground. The scattered, hurried, jumbled language emulates these “spiraled kettles” at the beginning of the poem, creating an interesting parallel between subject and language. The musicality of the poem takes command as the repetition of “Call & response” in the second stanza emulates the song of the Cranes, the repetition of the call of the birds as they begin their migration home. The “call & response” also represents the activist and environmentalist poet’s call to action for the preservation of the land and the recognition of its historical significance and environmental necessity. The use of alliteration throughout the poem also adds to its musicality, the “colt crane cohorts,” “Territory three to two-fifty,” and “kettling, covering, calling” all creating an interesting and complex linguistic pattern. By the end of the poem, the speaker seems hurried and rushed in her language, stringing words together in seemingly random patterns, emulating the final frenzied descent of the cranes:
Covert lining flight feathers, primaries along the wing hand, propulse forward, secondaries, forearm inside primaries, soar and stop, tertials of upper arm, bustling close to the body— estrous cycle cloaca oviduct— Preparing for two egg clutch, egg tooth tubercle horn. Precocial pipping breath, hock tarsus—The ground mares fetlock proofed as well.
As the birds near home, the “Kettling, converging, calling” comes to a climax, and the poems ends telling us “It is the season.” Through the association of music, language, and landscape, Hedge Coke is able to portray one of the most notable Nebraskan occurrences, something deeply rooted in the region’s national heritage: the migration of Sandhill cranes along the Platte River. In a special guest editorial on Terrain.org, Hedge Coke writes that
The crane has become for me a muse unequaled in the sense of community building and in intentionality honed purposing for the greater reasons we, as writers, and as human beings, need come together on regular occasion to flex our commonalities while equalizing differences for the individual. (“Migratory”)
The crane becomes a symbol for the gathering of community and equality in the individual, and just as the reconciliation of song and creation, of past and present, is explored in “America, I Sing You Back,” the homeward migration of the cranes in “Platte Mares” represents a reconciliation of language and landscape, of the ability to create and sustain language and a national identity through a connection with nature and the natural world.
Brown, Kirby. “Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas ed. by Allison Adele Hedge Coke (review).” The American Indian Quarterly 37.1 (2013): 258-261. Project MUSE. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Hedge Coke, Allison. “Migratory.” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
Hughes, Langston. “I, Too, Sing America.” Ed. Arnold Rampersad and David E. Roessel. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994. N. p. Print.
Van Buren, Ann. “Streaming by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.” The Rumpus. 18 Apr. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing.”Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition. Harold W.Blodgett & Sculley Bradley, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1965.