“Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile”

1963 Oldsmobile Cutlass

Here is a poem from Adrian C. Louis, a Lovelock Paiute Indian from Northern Nevada, who wrote a poem entitled “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” This poem had a huge effect on Sherman Alexie, my favorite Indian author, a Spokane from Washington. First of all, here is the poem:

July 4th and all is Hell.
Outside my shuttered breath the streets bubble
with flame-loined kids in designer jeans
looking for people to rape or razor.
A madman covered with running sores
is on the street corner singing:
O beautiful for spacious skies…
This landscape is far too convenient
to be either real or metaphor.
In an alley behind a 7-11
a Black pimp dressed in Harris tweed
preaches fidelity to two pimply whores
whose skin is white though they aren’t quite.
And crosstown in the sane precincts
of Brown University where I added rage
to Cliff Notes and got two degrees
bearded scientists are stringing words
outside the language inside the guts of atoms
and I don’t know why I’ve come back to visit.

O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind.
Chicken bones in a cardboard casket
meditate upon the linoleum floor.
Outside my flophouse door stewed
and sinister winos snore in a tragic chorus.

The snowstorm t.v. in the lobby’s their mother.
Outside my window on the jumper’s ledge
ice wraiths shiver and coat my last cans of Bud
though this is summer I don’t know why or where
the souls of Indian sinners fly.
Uncle Adrian, you died last week—cirrhosis.
I still have the photo of you in your Lovelock
letterman’s jacket—two white girls on your arms—
first team All-State halfback in ’45, ’46.

But nothing is static. I am in the reservation of
my mind. Embarrassed moths unravel my shorts
thread by thread asserting insectival lust.
I’m a naked locoweed in a city scene.
What are my options? Why am I back in this city?
When I sing of the American night my lungs billow
Camels astride hacking appeals for cessation.
My mother’s zippo inscribed: “Stewart Indian School—1941”
explodes in my hand in elegy to Dresden Antietam
and Wounded Knee and finally I have come to see
this mad fag nation is dying.
Our ancestors’ murderer is finally dying and I guess
I should be happy and dance with the spirit or project
my regret to my long-lost high school honey
but history has carried me to a place
where she has a daughter older than we were
when we first shared flesh.

She is the one who could not marry me
because of the dark-skin ways in my blood.
Love like that needs no elegy but because
of the baked-prick possibility of the flame lakes of Hell
I will give one last supper and sacrament
to the dying beast of need disguised as love
on deathrow inside my ribcage.
I have not forgotten the years of midnight hunger
when I could see how the past had guided me
and I cried and held the pillow, muddled
in the melodrama of the quite immature
but anyway, Uncle Adrian…
Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.

Uncle Adrian…
to make a long night story short,
you promised to give me your Oldsmobile in 1962.
How come you didn’t?
I could have had some really good times in high school.

Indian Poet Adrian C. Louis

In an article in the Atlantic, Sherman Alexie wrote about the impact of this poem on his life:

In 1987, I dropped out of Gonzaga and followed a high school girlfriend to Washington State University (it’s called Wazoo). And by complete chance, I enrolled in a poetry workshop that changed my life. On the first day, the teacher, Alex Kuo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native poetry called Songs from this Earth on Turtle’s Back. There were poems by Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian, and one in particular called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” If I hadn’t found this poem, I don’t think I ever would have found my way as a writer. I would have been a high school English teacher who coached basketball. My life would have taken a completely different path.

This was the first line of the poem:

            Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.

I’d thought about medicine. I’d thought about law. I’d thought about business. But that line made me want to drop everything and be a poet. It was that earth-shaking. I was a reservation Indian. I had no options. Being a writer wasn’t anywhere near the menu. So, it wasn’t a lightning bolt—it was an atomic bomb. I read it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”

Interestingly, that wasn’t the first line of the poem, as you can see from above. But the feeling was genuine, and Alexie ran with it. Next week, when I return from the desert, I want to talk more about Alexie.