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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

THINGS (FOR AN INDIAN) TO DO IN NEW YORK (CITY), by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"Things (For an Indian) to Do in New York (City)" by Sherman Alexie is a multifaceted exploration of identity, racial tension, and the American experience as lived through an Indigenous perspective. The poem's extended length and varying styles serve not just as a series of experiences or observations, but as a lens into the complexities of existing in a space both as an American and as someone continually othered by mainstream America.

The structure of the poem, divided into numerous sections, is worth noting. These sections serve as vignettes, each capturing distinct moments or thoughts in the speaker's journey through New York City. The disparate parts function like a patchwork quilt of experience, a fitting metaphor for America's so-called 'melting pot' identity. Yet, they also underscore the sense of fragmentation and disconnectedness that characterizes the speaker's sense of belonging (or lack thereof).

Alexie's poem plunges into America's racial dynamics right from the get-go, capturing his experience as an Indigenous man navigating the quintessentially American city of New York. He starts with a seemingly absurd proposition-walking down the middle of Avenue of the Americas while proclaiming love for cab drivers. But the absurdity serves as a metaphor for the navigation of a racialized space. The speaker speculates that acting "like a crazy man" might fend off muggers, but perhaps only because they might mistake him as one of their own. This tension, being seen as a threat while feeling threatened, reoccurs throughout the poem.

Interestingly, while the speaker feels the dual othering of being brown in a predominantly white America, he also acknowledges that New York City is a place where "everybody / is brown." It leads him to a complex realization: "I know America / is not white exactly, but it is white inexactly, / without color, needing this or that blood / to stain its hands." America's racial dynamics are not straightforward but are a complex network of historical, social, and economic factors.

Alexie also delves into the topic of American violence, specifically drawing attention to the cruel ingenuity of creating "more effective ways to kill." This is not just a critique of American foreign policy or internal gun violence but also an indictment of the colonization and genocide that are foundational to America. Here, the speaker's Indigenous identity serves as a crucial lens through which the violence is evaluated.

Despite the heaviness of these topics, Alexie sprinkles the narrative with moments of lightness and humor, acknowledging the beauty and resilience of humanity even when faced with its flaws. Whether it's finding beauty in clumsiness or acknowledging the richness of American cultural contributions like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the speaker manages to find a balance between critique and celebration.

In the end, the speaker finds solace and companionship, surprisingly, on a subway. The closeness of another Indigenous person-his wife, in fact-brings a sense of home and belonging that eluded him throughout the sprawling landscape of New York City. Their closeness serves as a momentary antidote to the alienation and othering that permeates the rest of the poem, offering a glimpse of intimacy and mutual recognition that stands in stark contrast to the estrangement experienced in the broader American landscape.

"Things (For an Indian) to Do in New York (City)" is thus an eloquent, multifaceted poem that explores what it means to be an Indigenous American in a country that both includes and alienates, that fascinates and repels. It lays bare the contradictions of American life, employing humor, satire, and poignant observation to paint a richly textured portrait of a nation and its complexities.

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