The poem uses incredible examples of imagery to paint a picture of what it’s like to deal with language, names, tradition, alcohol, and time as an orphaned child. The speaker asserts some personal knowledge of these things while also alluding more broadly to a darker and deeper history.
Explore What the Orphan Inherits
‘What the Orphan Inherits’ by Sherman Alexie is a thoughtful poem that describes an orphan’s experience.
The poem takes the reader through five things that an orphaned Native American child, specifically a boy, is going to inherit. When they don’t have their parents to guide them, and they’re dealing with the troubled past of their people, there’s a great deal they have to contend with. This includes time, alcohol, language, names, and tradition. The speaker contemplates the nature of languages and how they’re learned and spoken as well as the way that names define who we are. The child is without the latter and without the history, they feel they should have
Stanzas One to Three
I dreamed I was digging your grave
with my bare heands. I touched your face
sinew gripped my tongue tight. I rose
to walk naked through the fire. I spoke
English. I was not consumed.
In the first stanza of ‘What the Orphan Inherits,’ the speaker begins by relaying the imagery he encountered in a dream about “you.” He’s talking to a specific person. Someone he recalls digging a grave for in his dream. The imagery in these lines is quite dark. He speaks about their skin peeling off and leaving only “your tongue.” It’s the only “whole” thing that remained.
In these lines, as the speaker cooks the tongue, eats it, and then walks through fire speaking English, he’s connecting his heritage and that of the dead listener to the languages they speak. Readers should consider how the consumption of the tongue relates to the use of language and specifically the phrase “speaking in tongues.”
Language is an integral part of one’s identity and by labeling this section “language” the poet is acknowledging this as part of what an “orphan inherits.” Seeking out one’s native language, when they’ve grown up only speaking English, could be a powerful and difficult task.
Stanzas Four and Five
I do not have an Indian name.
The wind never spoke to my mother
back and forth. I have to cheat to feel
the beating of drums in my chest.
Names are another thing that orphans inherit, the speaker says. When one loses their parents and grows up without “an Indian name” they’ve also lost something that should’ve been their’s. The speaker declares that he is separate from his heritage in more ways than one. He doesn’t feel the “beating of drums” in his chest. To feel it, or to draw close to what he thinks his heritage is, he has to “cheat.” This cheating isn’t defined but it perhaps has to do with pretending or imagining he feels something he doesn’t.
for bringing us whisky.”
The sixth stanza includes alcohol. It’s one of the darkest things that an orphan inherits and is often a theme within Alexie’s work. Native American men and women throughout the country battle with alcohol addiction, something that began with the arrival of European settlers. They brought whiskey, something that damaged the community then and still does to this day but also brought horses, animals that were and still are integral to the communities. One was traded for another, a bad situation that is meant to symbolize the broader issues at play.
We measure time leaning
beer bottles off road signs.
The second to last stanza speaks about time and the lack of structure a young boy would have in this community. The only way to measure time is throwing “beer bottles off road signs.” This destructive pastime speaks of youthful boredom and delinquency. It goes along with the alcohol stanza and the name stanza. The speaker is constantly in search of something and sometimes that search is a painful one.
frozen in headlights.
The final line includes “tradition.” It’s the last thing that an orphan inherits, Alexie states. The tradition is up for interpretation though. It’s not a tradition of music, culture, storytelling, family, etc. Instead, it’s defined as young “Indian boys” standing in front of “headlights,” frozen, “sinewy” and “doe-eyed.” Their youth is on display as is their fear. Deer-Like they’re been caught in the road, perhaps doing something (as seen in the previous stanzas) that they weren’t supposed to. But, legality and illegality are also at play here. Whose rules are being enforced and for what purpose? What world do the orphans belong to and where can they seek guidance?
Structure and Form
‘What the Orphan Inherits’ by Sherman Alexie is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This means that the poem is written in free verse. Despite this, readers can still find examples of literary devices, and other elements that help to unify the poem, throughout the lines.
Throughout ‘What the Orphan Inherits,’ Alexie makes use of numerous literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “dreamed” and “digging” in line one of the first stanza and “heart” and “hidden” in line three of the fourth stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the writer uses especially vibrant descriptions. For example, “and skin fell in thin strips to the ground / until only your tongue remained whole.” It should inspire the reader to envision the scene and use their senses to imagine it.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the third stanza.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet includes a pause in a line. This could occur towards the beginning, middle, or end of the line. It might also be created through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “English. I was not consumed” and “when I was born. My heart was hidden.”
The most important theme in this piece is tradition. The speaker spends the lines exploring what tradition can mean and what comes along with it. Language, history, time, all of these should be wrapped up in what one receives from their parents. But, when an “Indian boy” is an orphan, that all changes.
The tone is contemplative and clear. The speaker does not beat around the bush or obscure his meaning overmuch. The language is directly dark and acknowledges the complexities of a young boy’s life.
temporary world. The piece taps, briefly, into the various things that they deal with in regard to their heritage and their futures.
The mood is dark and contemplative. Readers might find themselves troubled by some of what they’ve read in the poem and moved by other parts. The lines only allude to the emotion and complexity of a specific situation.
Readers who enjoyed ‘What the Orphan Inherits’ should also consider reading some other Sherman Alexie poems. For example:
- ‘Crow Testament’ – presents a picture of the hardships suffered by Native Americans through the metaphorical image of a crow.
- ‘Dangerous Astronomy’ – a moving and transformative poem that speaks about family dynamics when a child is introduced into a marriage.
- ‘How to Write the Great American Indian Novel’ – discusses the necessary physical, mental, and emotional traits the characters in a great American Indian novel must possess.