Roberta Hill Whiteman (Oneida) (b. 1947)
Contributing Editor: Andrew O. Widget
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The most important consideration in Whiteman's poetry is her unification of both the personal and historical sense of loss. In poems like "In the Longhouse, Oneida Museum," "Dream of Rebirth," and "Scraps Worthy of Wind" she has internalized the loss and alienation that have come from the Oneida experience of removal. This historic consciousness is echoed by her own personal loss in the death of parents and the loss of loved ones. It is a sense of loss that creates tremendous longing, a longing edged with anger, that's reflected in poems like "Underground Water" and "Scraps Worthy of Wind."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
As the headnote to this section indicates, Whiteman owes a lot to Richard Hugo, and so her poetry falls squarely within the mainstream of contemporary American poetry. Thus, it should not present any unusual difficulties in terms of form or imagery or rhetorical strategy for the reader. Whiteman is very much a classic poet, if contemporary poetry can be said to have produced "classical" poets, and pays a good deal of attention to form. Call the reader's attention to her use of line breaks and the tremendous balance of stresses in her lines. Also, she moves very keenly between abstract language of great rhetorical power and very concrete immediate images that haunt the mind. A reference probably lost on students in "Lines for Marking Time," for instance, is the comparison of the inside of an operating radio of the old-fashioned tube design to "a shimmering city." I would also ask students to formulate their sense of the tone of these poems.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Whiteman compares favorably to a number of contemporary poets for whom the loss of contact with their ethnic, occupational, or cultural past has been one of the defining factors in the formation of their identity. She would work very well with others from different traditions such as Judith Ortiz Cofer, Cathy Song, and Janice Mirikitani, as well as other poets for whom the burden of memory has been a dominant theme. Her "Underground Water" is usefully compared to Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck." Historically, one could read Roberta Hill Whiteman's poetry as a response to the deculturation of American Indians reflected in other writings in the anthology by Native Americans, including John Joseph Mathews, John Milton Oskison, and Gertrude Bonnin.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. What about these poems reveals them to have been written by an Indian author? How would you describe the writer's attitude toward the past? What seems to be this writer's overriding concern?
2. Find a line or image from these poems that you think best represents the interest or personal vision of this author, and use it to explore her poetry.
"Massaging the Earth: An Interview with Roberta Hill Whiteman." In Survival This Way: Interviews with Native American Poets, edited by Joseph Bruchac, 329-35. Tuscon: University of Arizona, 1987.
Wiget, Andrew. "Review of Star Quilt." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 8 (1985): 92-96.