Book Review

The pleasure of writing a book review is, for me, found in the deeper level of engagement required as opposed to that with works I might be reading for other intentions. And so I found myself starting and restarting Robert Davis Hoffmann’s Raven’s Echo, not for any shortcomings of the work itself, but interruptions of one kind or another. What I am learning, however, as poet, mother, teacher, indigenous woman, person-trying-to-live-conscientiously-on-this-plane, is that no time or experience is wasted and indeed, as Hoffman himself admonishes readers through the poems in this collection, at times directly, “You just have to listen . . . It will all come to you, if you stop fighting so hard. It will.” What will come? Nothing short of how to live conscientiously on this plane. Or, the very least, a reminder of our own agency, accountability, and affinity with that most obsessed-over figure from Native Americana, the trickster figure.

While both a preface and afterword take the reader through a more detailed account of some of the history, both personal and societal, behind Raven’s Echo, the incorporation in this single collection of Hoffmann’s early work, found in “Book One: SoulCatcher,” and his more recent poems, in “Book Two: Reconstruction,” uniquely demonstrates not only the evolving sensibilities of the poet but of an angered and disenfranchised youth becoming a more generous, more accountable (if still rightly angry and discontent) adult. What is consistent throughout: the desire to belong, to be seen to fit, to have a place. The work opens:

Raven, gather us to that dark breast,
call up another filthy legend,
keep us distracted from all this blackness,
sheltered and cloaked by your wing. Answer us
our terror of this place we pretend to belong

After several months of personal (agonizing) interrogation of what Poetry is responsible for, or what it could potentially be responsible for, or should be responsible for, I have no fixed answers, but more possibilities. In Raven’s Echo, beyond the stated intention of learning how to live humanely, these poems seek to establish presence. More than a recount of the Raven figure, though there is some seeking to locate and articulate the dark shadow of this living, these poems write to the speaker’s own emergence—and undeniable connection to that world of shadow. This is, of course, the role of the Trickster: to remind us of the potency and fluidity of shadows. In other words, in answer to those pesky questions of “where do I belong?”, “how do/should I live?”, etc., the Raven reminds us, “It’s complicated.” Not so different, then, from the role of the poet—trickster, agitator, instigator, gadfly, catalyst . . .

Because Raven tracks are locked in fossil,
the clam beds snarled in roots,
because we have been told,
we know for a fact
Raven moves in the world.

. . .

You wonder why sometimes you can’t reach me?
I keep going back.
I keep trying to see my life
against all this history,
Raven in the beginning,
hopping about like he just couldn’t do enough.

We know the Raven exists, as one learns indirectly through Hoffman’s poems, because ultimately we ourselves bear the Trickster within us. We, as Native people perhaps, but also as poets more broadly, as those compelled to live and negotiate our lives through language, live through stories and stay alive in their retelling. We recognize ourselves in their telling, for better or worse. The power of Hoffman’s poems is in their demanding of accountability—not of, or at least not only of, others, but of the self. In “Drowning,” he writes, “you begin to live by your one sense left, hunger.” The question is raised: what will happen if we give into this hunger? Where will it take us? These are not just questions for indigenous peoples and readers who might relate more personally to certain figures and histories invoked in these poems, but questions for all of us in our own time. What will be the manner of salvation? First we must understand the nature of our ruin, which is not to be found in naming, but in witnessing.

And then, of course, as poetry I believe must, we are sometimes simply stopped by the beauty of such lines and the gesture of true communion as in the poem “Black Buoy”, in its entirety:

I dreamed it rose
giant against the islands
of graves.

I dreamed we approached
alone, hands outstretched.

We felt its hollowness,
we were impressed,
we were intimidated.

The sea was there;
it was ancient.

And I wondered,
would we ever
drift back
to our village growing small?

How does one live in this world? Multiply, and nonlinearly.

Appropriately, then, the “you” of these poems is at times difficult to fix firmly on the page, and yet is this not the work of poetry? To complicate such matters as history, accountability, belonging, agency; to resist the immediate, singular, easy, the narrative as it has been doled out elsewhere. What else is a trickster figure for? How better for these poems to echo that figure than to manifest such slipperiness? Not to resist accountability, however, the sequencing of these poems is relentless in Hoffman’s pursuit of understanding. Immediately after “The Indian Giver Called Death” where the question of “you” is perhaps most elusive, Hoffman presents a poem of unflinching ownership. And in these poems, the human and nonhuman world is collapsed not merely for the sake of historical violence, loss, and trauma, but the manifold manifestations of these corruptions into our present and future. Emphasis, in my reading at least, on the “our.” After all, one of the qualities of an intentionally crafted poem is an equally compelling subtext, wherein the reader is invited into the world of the poem. On one level, these are stories, poems, of Raven, a well-known Trickster from communities in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. They are poems of loss—of home, tradition, community, kin. But they are also poems of implication, poems that demand the reader’s attention and engagement, less they suffer such losses—even as such stories themselves continue to kindle community and tradition and relocate home in the poem’s memory and the trickster figure in ourselves. Time and tense drive these poems more than their characters as the self is invoked across  them, is indeed made the landscape of these poems. These poems are past and future and present:

the point where I start to whisper
how this feels all too familiar,
that we might turn back now,
while the tracks that led us here
are still recognizable
as our own.

Raven’s Echo is not a neat trajectory from restless frustration and juvenile anger to calm wisdom and acceptance. But we are reminded, even as cruelty persists, that stories will save us, “as stories will. / As stories restore the powerless.” One must remember the poet’s charge: to listen.

About the Reviewer

Abigail Chabitnoy is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. She is the author of In the Current Where Drowning Is Beautiful (Wesleyan 2022) and How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan 2019), shortlisted for the 2020 International Griffin Prize for Poetry and winner of the 2020 Colorado Book Award, and the linocut illustrated chapbook Converging Lines of Light (Flower Press 2021). Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She currently teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an assistant professor at UMass Amherst. Find her at