What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned is the most original, electric, and soul-altering book of poems I’ve read in more than a year. It reads like a nonlinear memoir that skips around Alexie’s life, with common threads charging the poems like drumbeats. The largest theme - growing up on an Indian reservation surrounded by a cast of remarkable characters with haunting stories – shows up in nearly every poem. Other themes of grief, recklessness, addiction, poverty and freedom reappear again and again. Alexie occasionally skips to the present, connecting his former and current selves, like the New Year’s Eve root beer float tradition that he has with his wife and sons in Happy Holidays!
Alexie’s poems come in all different shapes, styles, lengths and forms. One poem reads like a page from a dictionary. Another poem about grief looks like tears of rage. Most are very long and have you holding your breath until the very end. And others, like Family Memoir, a poem about moving furniture from one burning house to another, are tiny and fierce and stomp your heart to pieces. The sonnet lists, reading like run-on sentences interjected with numbers, were my favorites.
I’ll never be able to list all of my favorite lines, because there are too many and you should really read this book, but here are a few:
From Good Hair: “Are you warrior-pretend? Are you horseback-never?”
And later in the poem:
“Did you cut your hair after booze murdered your father? When he was buried, did you baptize him with your braids?”
From Sonnet, with Pride: “What if God created hunger in God’s image? What if God is hunger? Tell me, how do you pray to hunger? How do you ask for hunger’s blessing? How will hunger teach you to forgive? How will hunger teach you to love?”
From Sonnet, With Some Things That I Have Seen: “Am I defined by what I’ve seen, or do I define the world by what I’ve witnessed?”
And the poem, Downpour: “I can't stop writing about my dead father. He’s sixty-two percent of me. Like water.”