Indexing Our Lives: An Investigation of Structure in Qwo-Li Driskill’s “(Auto)biography of Mad”

Throughout the poem, “(Auto)biography of Mad,” Qwo-Li Driskill juxtaposes our conventional notions of historical narrative through their unconventional use of structure. Rather than the typical verse-style poetry (or the atypical, but commonly accepted free-verse style), Driskill mimics the format of an index. Instead of alliteration, there’s alphabetization. Numbers replace words, and the overall effect raises the question ‘Who’s writing our story?’ Perhaps graver, the poem goes further to ask, ‘What will be written once we’re gone?’

The theme of afterthought and identity ring doubly throughout “(Auto)biography of a Mad.” Often it is the case that a person’s biography is written after they have either died or it is deemed that they have already made their major life contribution to society. There are some notable exceptions when it comes to billionaires and politicians, but this is beside the point. This notion of ‘end’ ironically appears in the first line, “Subject Index” (107). Indexes appear commonly in the back of books, but also serve as maps for navigating whole works. Following this book motif, in the case of an autobiography, the author serves as the primary subject. Thus, Driskill draws connections between the poem as a map of their life, and a series of events which have seemingly concluded.

However, the poem does not become academic and dry. While the use of the word “Subject” adds to create a removed and absent tone, through the lack of a definitive noun, the use of numbers in the phrases, “Age 14” (107) and “Age 4″ (107) reintroduce the author into the work. Yet other number, such as “1492” (109) and “1540” (108) have the duel effect of alluding to historically traumatic events that negatively affected Indigenous Americans and building the central irony of the poem. Cross generational trauma affects people in the present just as much as it brings historical events to the forefront.

4 thoughts on “Indexing Our Lives: An Investigation of Structure in Qwo-Li Driskill’s “(Auto)biography of Mad””

  1. I really like how you talk about “(Auto)biography of a Mad” as a map and index for Driskill’s life. Having read Eli Clare and his story about his life, he also maps his life onto specific words in his book, such as queer, disabled, and exiled. There is a lot to be said that just one word or a list of numbers can bring so much meaning to a piece. This poem is an excellent example of the numbers and words being loaded with meaning and thoughts connected with Driskill’s life as an indigenous person.

  2. Similarly to the pervious commenters, your title is quite clever and fitting. Your analysis too, is amazing. This idea that we are “indexing” history is rather interesting and really puts into perspective the weight behind each of the words listed in the poem. Alone, they are just words on the page but together as a group, along with the numbers/dates, they tell the tragic tale of a group that was oppressed for so long and are still facing the effects today.

  3. Hi! I love your analysis of this poem. The index form is so unique and I think the questions you ask in the first paragraph are great ones to consider. In addition, the fact that it serves as a biography and autobiography simultaneously is really fascinating because although “we” did not write this poem we did collectively write this history or share similar history/trauma. Lastly I think your comparison to the poem as a map is really interesting because the index aspect almost functions like a key would in a map.

  4. First of all, wonderful title for this post. Secondly, I really enjoy how you mention the concept of the index being a a historical legacy for native people, and that legacy is surmised by chronic mental and physical pain. Also the concept you wrote about, the index being in the back of a book could also suggest that this chronicle of native history is one that is unchanging, despite indigenous people’s personal history is constantly writing itself, the elements that define it (fear, loss, mental illness, rape) are immutable.

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