Cover Image for A Taste of the Knife
  • Series: Modern & Contemporary 04
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-916272-03-6
  • ISBN-10: 0-916272-03-6
  • Pages: 60
  • Size: 0.25 x 6 x 8.5 in
  • Price: $9.95

A Taste of the Knife

Marnie Walsh

As an outdoorswoman, an observer of hunters, Indians, creatures of nature, and the things of earth, Marnie Walsh seems to have been most impressed by the grimness of life. The sordid and the brutal, in both man and nature, enter her poems with more force and more power than do the lyrical elements of a very few of her poems. Most of these poems, especially in their observations of Indians, are character sketches with a persistent similarity. Their strength derives from accumulated evidence, from repetition which is much like the pounding of a drum. One beat is hardly distinguishable from another, but this sameness is an important part of her observations and implied interpretations. Especially in the sketches of Indians, where it is impossible to let the futility and the monotony of reservation life pass by unnoticed, the regularity of theme and technique operates like a wacipi drum, pounding its way into the reader’s sensibilities.

 

The full text of Marnie Walsh’s A Taste of the Knife is stored at Albertson Library at Boise State University, and can be downloaded here. You may also purchase a copy of the book.

Vicki Loans-Arrow

1972

 

1

this morning

me and my cousin

charlene lost-nation

are in to bobby simons bar

and charlene say

i tired of living

there aint nothing in it

and bobby simon

behind the bar

goes ha ha ha

when she fall off

the stool

im laughing too

she so drunk

she funny

 

2

i get her up

then she say

there aint nothing in it

to them old white farmers

drinking their beer

and talking crops

they don't listen

don't even look at her

bobby simon say

i see your mama out front

so we go out

and the sun so yellow

burn my eyes

and make charlenes mama

shiver like shes made

out of water

but it only the wind

all gold color

moving everything in waves

 

3

she say goddam you

charlene them kids of yours

come over and i got to

take them in

while you drunk all the time

i aint going to do it

no more

it too damn hot

i watch her shoes all torn

and wrinkly

and her fat legs

floating on the yellow wind

then charlene say

there aint nothing in it

it all plain shit

and we go back in the bar

 

4

we drink and she pulls

her face up tight

tells me it don't pay to think

theres something to it

cause there aint

and says wont nobody

never believe her

what she says

i just laugh

she so drunk

she funny

 

5

well me and bobby simon

drink some more

i seen charlene

when she gone to the can

she don't come back

pretty soon bobby simon

say i better check her out

so i go to see

i find her all right

sitting in a corner

theres blood on her mouth

and her chin

and down her dress

 

6

she looks at me

and i see the knife

sticking out between her teeth

and remember what that means

and i know shed like to die

but cant

so she killed her tongue

instead

i leave her there

i go out the door

and down the street

and the yellow wind

makes me shiver and sweat

because now i believe her

and wont never say so.

 

Copyright © 1976 by Marnie Walsh

This information is taken from the introduction to Marnie Walsh's A Taste of the Knife, by John Milton.

As an outdoorswoman, an observer of hunters, Indians, creatures of nature, and the things of earth, Marnie Walsh seems to have been most impressed by the grimness of life. The sordid and the brutal, in both man and nature, enter her poems with more force and more power than do the lyrical elements of a very few of her poems. Most of these poems, especially in their observations of Indians, are character sketches with a persistent similarity. Their strength derives from accumulated evidence, from repetition which is much like the pounding of a drum. One beat is hardly distinguishable from another, but this sameness is an important part of her observations and implied interpretations. Especially in the sketches of Indians, where it is impossible to let the futility and the monotony of reservation life pass by unnoticed, the regularity of theme and technique operates like a wacipi drum, pounding its way into the reader’s sensibilities.

In the individual poems, however, sensibility is not as important as the elementary description, the simple details of everyday life. Walsh is a keen observer, even though she may not like what she sees. In the character sketches she tries hard to enter the consciousness of each character, to pick up the language of the person she is writing about, and to say what is happening without her own editorializing. One way of doing this, of course is by juxtaposition:

old bull-toes
put his mark
on our hands at the door

is immediately followed by an implied but striking contrast,

white mens music
up on the stage

and from these two facts, briefly mentioned, we are able to see a great deal about the tragic encounter of two cultures. In another juxtaposition, college life for a young woman gives way to drunkenness and pregnancy the moment she returns to the reservation.

Little is left to the imagination. Occasional images of discovery or beauty (a few of which almost become symbolic) are subordinated to realistic detail. To support the reality, especially in the Indian sketches, language remains on a rather primitive level. The Vickie pieces seem to come from a teen-ager, relatively illiterate and naive, exposed to constant drinking and fighting which are described in non-literary language, i.e., the language of Vickie. Walsh is trying to produce stark reality, to be literal rather than literary. The commonplace overshadows the unusual. There are no surprises. Rarely does anything humorous or
“soft” interfere with the sordid elements of reality or offer relief from them. The poems, then, are like a protest against the conditions in which Indians live, both off and on the reservation, and their chief ingredient is the stating of the conditions.

There is, of course, method in this “madness.” Ultimately, in the long Thomas poem, the traditional Indian way of life is formally contrasted with the present conditions under which he suffers. “What was” and “what is” are two entirely different things, and suddenly from the series of Indian poems comes a loud lament, a cry of sadness as well as anger, and the poems become a narrative centering on the plight of the Northern Plains Indian whom Walsh seems to know well from long association.

The bizarre, the grim, the literal reality continue into the non-Indian poems, but imagery and suggestiveness become more important as propaganda drops away and the poet and her poetry—as well as nature—become the subjects. A kind of sadness remains, as in “The Journey,” but the sadness is driven deeper, as in “Spirit Lake, Minnesota,” no longer a question of social criticism but of the very condition of nature and therefore of all life. This sadness is quite different from the grimness of the Indian poems or from “Last Summer It So Happened.” It is contemplative, philosophical. The close relationship between the natural world and the human world (“June the Twenty-Second”) lends a subtle dignity to both; it also provides images which have both feeling and a strong visual quality.

Marnie Walsh is a regionalist in the good sense of that term, examining her own land, her own neighbors, her own climate, her own familiar objects to see what they have in store for her and for those of us who read the poems. To “cast in ever wider circles / while the wind tricks my senses” is, among other things, to wander (as Marnie does) and let outside influences play upon the natural rootedness. But the focus of the perspective thus achieved is still on the nests of her own field, both literally and metaphorically.

Poems are true, in spite of Marnie’s line which says that “The truthful man / makes a wretched poet.” But they are true in at least two ways. One is suggested by the title of this book, A Taste of the Knife, which refers to a ceremony in which the messenger’s truthfulness is tested by placing a knife in his mouth. If he cuts his tongue while speaking, he lies; if not, he speaks the truth. Most of the poems in this book speak that kind of truth, a literal and hard truth. The others are the “lies” that begin to “leave the taste of music / in our mouths.” These are more suggestive, more lyrical, more literary. But still true. Whether Marnie Walsh is speaking harshly and literally about human conditions, or gently and metaphorically about poems, love, and nature, she speaks the truth.

 

John Milton
University of South Dakota
Vermillion