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Lucy Tapahonso's Blue Horses Rush In

By Blake de Pastino

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  It's not very often that a reader can attest to finding a pure voice in today's literature. "Original," "bold," "path-breaking"--these are the terms most authors strive to earn, the terms that critics consider to be compliments. But to find a writer who does not drive herself to weariness in an effort to sound new, to find a writer whose voice simply rings true, is a rare pleasure indeed. For the past 15 years, Luci Tapahonso has built a modest but solid reputation by being just such a writer. A Navajo poet and storyteller, Tapahonso has found her voice by striking what is perhaps the most elusive balance in Native American culture: embodying the serenity of tradition while also reflecting the chaos of contemporary life.

In all four of her books, Tapahonso has not only found this delicate balance, but has done so without fear, guile or--for that matter--any visible effort. In one poem after another, she has heeled down that double-yellow line that separates the sacred past and the profane present, the Indian and the Anglo, the reservation and the outlet mall. And it's been no easy task. As she wrote in her first book, Seasonal Woman, back in 1982: "Sometimes/this middle of the road business/is hard to take." Now, in her fifth outing, Blue Horses Rush In, Tapahonso shows that she still has that equilibrium--for the most part. But after more than a decade of maintaining such poise, no one could blame her for faltering a little.

A collection of 27 poems and stories, Blue Horses Rush In takes us back to Tapahonso's old stomping grounds: the sandlots, scrublands and trailer homes outside Shiprock, N.M. There, she meditates on her standard themes--nature, history, family--and oftentimes displays the sleight-of-hand that she's become known for. Her brief vignettes bear particular witness to her skill, like "No Denials From Him," a woman's account of her delinquent husband, or "White Bead Girl," about a mother who finds that her daughter has run away. These are tales not only of modern life but also of deeply spiritual trial, of personal challenges--whether the pain of lost love or the giddy expectation of becoming a grandmother--that are salved by the rituals of tradition, like the wisdom of an elder, the comfort of the Navajo language or perhaps the guidance of a benevolent spirit.

But here is where the issue gets shaky. Because, in Blue Horses Rush In, the emphasis is placed so squarely on tradition, so heavily on spirituality, that Tapahonso seems to lose her narrative footing. For every well-wrought character or truly insightful story, there are two more pieces of sentimental excess. Where Tapahonso used to write about the racial meanings of Noxema or the politics of food stamps, she now writes about how pretty the stars are ("Oh these nights. My blessed bounty of dreams.") or repeats some legend about how the Navajo learned to weave ("With this skill your family will prosper."). As airy and as deeply felt as these pieces are, it's hard not to compare them to some creation myth you've read in an anthology of Indian folklore or to some greeting card you saw on sale in Old Town. We've all read Indian rhetoric; but precious few of us have read Tapahonso at her most economical and unfancy. That's what the reader will miss most here.

It only seems fair, in the end, to recognize that Tapahonso is an artist in a state of change. Priorities shift with time, of course, and so do the writers who expound upon them. And maybe that's what Blue Horses Rush In is all about. For every pound of dross we get here, there are a few ounces of purity. For every sign of imbalance, there's another sign that says the center of gravity is changing. Like any writer who has been in the spotlight for so long, Luci Tapahonso is an ongoing metamorphosis. Although this latest project lacks the best of what we know her for, there's still no telling where she will take us next. (University of Arizona Press, paper, $12.95)

--Blake de Pastino


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