SUMMER 2015: "Outliers with Boundaries"
Native Writings of the Northeast
Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), paper, 690 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8032-4686-7. $35.
Too often anthologies promise more than they can deliver. I think of Louis Untermayer's Golden Treasurys or a period book like Conrad Aiken's Twentieth Century American Poetry, which suffers from having been published close to mid-century. Early anthologies of African-American poetry were always being augmented by newly-found 19th century poems and changing fashion in 20th century selections (less Langston Hughes, more Gwendolyn Brooks). In addition, hardly any anthology can rival Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 916-page Poets & Poetry of Europe.
Then, too, there is the problem of selection and representation for an editor who is outside the culture. Although Longfellow knew 13 languages and did some of his own translations, how can a non-native editor begin to be insightful about a culture not her own? And even if she could, who would print such a compendium? Happily, the University of Nebraska Press and a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford have lent their support to this task, and editor Siobhan Senier had the common sense to depend on native editors who know their stuff. The sections I know best—Passamaquoddy and Abenaki—pass muster as good examples of the strengths—and shortcomings—of selection and representation.
To be sure, a large compendium of Native American writing, even when limited geographically to the Northeast, must depend on speeches and prose for its historical coverage and importance. So this is not a poetry anthology, but one that tries to contain the best and most representative of the literature of the people of the dawn.
There may be no one better equipped at this time than Passamaquoddy tribal historian Donald Soctomah to set forth the best of available poetry. Nine of the poets included here were born before the second half of the 20th century, and they are represented by speeches and letters as well as what non-natives might call poems. The earliest of these is from an 1813 speech by Francis Joseph Neptune, the last heritage chief of the tribe.
Brothers, we speak the language of our heart, as we have lived in friendship always before, so we will now and hereafter.
Sixteen of the poets, including Soctomah himself, were born after the middle of the 20th century. Even today, average life-expectancy among the Passamaquoddy is 48 years. Cassandra Dana, the youngest of the poets represented in this section captures this awareness in the first two stanzas of "Kci Woliwon" (Literally, many thanks):
I am the voice that soothes you
I am the song of the bird
I am the silence of the night
Thank you for this gift
A tongue dying slowly
A language barely alive
The publication of A Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary in 2008—all 1200 pages of it—may do a lot to conserve a language nearly lost and the memories it contains, such as this, from the Penobscot poet ssipsis.
You know us Injuns we got lot of trust
There's the Livermore Savings and Trust
And the Androscoggin Banking and Trust
And the Merrill Trust
Our investment in good name
So if Maine go broke
You know who to blame
Among the latter-day Abenaki, probably no name ranks higher than that of the Bruchac family. Joseph Bruchac (b. 1942) was the editor of a journal. The successive generation, represented here by Margaret M. (b.1953), James (b.1968), and Jesse (b. 1972) have worked hard under Joseph's tutelage to carry the language forward. All of them are represented in the section that begins with 17th century examples edited by Lisa Brooks and featuring a petition by Kancamagus. See this bi-lingual excerpt by Jesse Bruchac.
"It would be good to help my grandmother," he said.
"mawia / n'wijokam8gwa / Nokomes" idam,
"It would be better / if I helped her / my grandmother," he said,
"so that she will not have a hard time fishing."
"Wji / nda / w'zahagi8mako."
"in order that / not / she have such a hard time fishing"
The following is part of a Narragansett school lesson about fire building (1936):
Fetch some small sticks—aseneshesh
I will cut some wood—Npaacomwushem
There is no more—Netashin
Where is the sachem?— Tuckiu sachim?
Here he is—Peyan
Lay on the wood—Wudtuckquanash
The writing of laconic, 19th century Mohegan poet Fidelia Fielding is fairly typical of that period:
The Truth of Tomorrow
Rain. Great rain today.
Maybe tomorrow I can go to Landing.
I cannot say because
I do not know, perhaps I will,
perhaps I won't.
Those people who can say much,
half of what they say is not true as they say it.
From the arrival of the white people, writing became historically significant, a preserver of native history, ideas, and forms that continues today in the poetry of such as Garry Meeches Jr., Schaghticoke youth born in 1997.
Shouts and squeals of young energetic children.
They view the world,
With not eyes but ears.
Marshall McLuhan said, "I don't know who discovered water, but it wasn't a fish." Whether in translation or not, another culture is like having another set of senses.
"Why do cities always make a Puritan of me?"
In Praise of Usefulness by Angela Patten. Shelburne, Vermont: Sun Ridge Poetry/Wind Ridge Books, 2014. 74 pp. Softbound, $15.95 ISBN 978-1-935922-56-8
In her third collection of poems, Angela Patten draws on personal history to compose images redolent of emotion and empathy. Author of the memoir High Tea at a Low Table: Stories from an Irish Childhood (2013), Patten has found rich material in memories of the old country. Currently living in Burlington and teaching at the University of Vermont, she writes poems about her adopted home that are equally evocative of time and place and circumstance.
The 14 poems in part one offer an array of stories related to growing up in Ireland, from the nuns in Catholic school ("Sisters") to the Irish habit of always saying one is sorry ("Mea Culpa"). Starting with her christening at the Westland Row Church, which was "a handy few streets from where I was born/to expedite procurement of eternal life insurance," Patten paints memorable pictures of family. In "Making Tea for My Father" the poet offers a parent's instructions, including not stinting on the tea: "That's the sign/of a man who is so mean/he wouldn't spit on you/if you were on fire." Her mother gets her due in "Shut Up," a riff on her early admonition never to say those two words. The poem morphs into the poet's confession of deploying various "five-cent four-letter words" later in life without suffering the dire consequences that kept her mum in childhood.
The title poem also references the poet's mother, who preferred utility over beauty. She loved, for example, "the plastic rainhat folded lengthwise/like a map, whisked from her handbag/to protect an ephemeral perm." While the speaker recognizes the impact of this view of the world on her own "unfolding image" of herself, she also acknowledges the aesthetic appeal of objects, such as a coffee cup, "Its roundness like a full belly./The dark blue of its glaze./The rough comfort of its lip."
Patten's poems cover a variety of quandaries, from the humiliation of having to special order a bra ("You're not a double-A" says her husband, adding "These hands don't lie!") to learning to drive; from a friend with cancer wearing a "manufactured mane" to cover her baldness to a 102-year-old woman who is retreating in time as she nears the end of her life.
Patten is not afraid of pushing the limits of a simile: "Like an amputee's limb that continues/to agitate after being severed/I wanted answers that were clear/unequivocal" ("Signs"). She occasionally resorts to poetic fancy: deer passing out of sight into trees are "called by/the wind's otherworldly music." The endings of her poems sometimes trail off, with a matter-of-factness that is a nice change from the epiphanies that complete so many contemporary poems.
"Why do cities always make a Puritan of me?" asks the speaker in "Adrift in the Boston Public Garden" when confronted with certain excesses of consumerism. In the poem "Lonely Planet" a citation from Scientific American about the ability of smolts—baby fish—to use odors for direction-finding sets the stage for a poignant reflection on displacement and exile and the need to return to the place one calls home, no matter what the circumstances. Patten consistently engages with these ruminations, whatever planet or country she considers.
The Quiet of the Wild
A Ladder of Cranes by Tom Sexton (1st ed.). Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press (2015), 60 pp. paper. ISBN: 978160223257. $14.95.
Sexton is clearly at the top of his game in this book. You sense the hand of a master with pen poised ready to capture wolf, bird, landscape, and people and weave them into zen-like sketches. The poems in this volume are short, with none more than twenty lines long. They are deceptively easy to read, with strong images accompanied by one or more turns in the narrative as you reach the last line and realize that what you thought at first was simple is actually elegant and complex and forces the reader back to the poem for another reading. This is the hallmark of plain style poets like Robert Frost, Ted Kooser, and Wes McNair. There are no tricks of language in these poems. The poems don't force themselves on you with tortured syntax or trendy polemics. What you do find are lyrical free verse and fluid formed poems.
Sexton has homes in Alaska and Eastport. The poems speak to this northern experience, at the least rural and often of wilderness. There is a short suite of poems about wolves in which Sexton gives us several perceptions of wolves. In "Medieval Bestiary: The Wolf" the first line of the opening couplet, "If a wolf steps on a branch and makes a noise," the set up has several possibilities, mainly centered on who might be there to hear it, or not. The second line of the couplet, "the wolf will chew its offending foot to a stub," is a surprise. The line sounds like folk wisdom. The poem continues, with four more couplets, and ends with, "If you see a wolf's eyes shining like lamps at night, / it might be the devil hunting and not a wolf at all." The poem is reminiscent of Michael Palmer's, "of this cloth doll which (Sarah's fourth)," in which there is a cascade of lines moving from image to image, stopping briefly in the canon of frightening children's stories, unsure whether each is a friend or a threat.
In "The Wolf of Gubbio," we have the moral lesson of St Francis and the wolf, which terrorized the Umbrian town of Gubbio. St Francis made a peace pact between the town and the wolf, which never attacked again. In the poem, we fast forward a few years to a time when the wolf "rode in a cart pulled by two sheep." The townspeople still save scraps for the wolf, who the townspeople realize "was not evil but starving," to finish the moral tale, the wolf "saved a few scraps for the mice." Generosity is remembered and paid forward.
After further staking out the territory in the region of the wolf, we come to a poem titled simply, "Gray Wolf," which begins, "To write a poem about a gray wolf…" and closes with,
to remember the angle of its head
and the blade thin length of its body
as it takes your measure, disappears."
In the end, it matters not what we think of wolves.
Other poems in this collection tell their own quiet stories. In the title poem, "A Ladder of Cranes," we are treated to the synchronicity of a flock of cranes taking wing on a perfect moment on the road with Ave Maria playing on the car's radio. The images are stunning, cinematic and the reader is transported in the vehicle seeing and hearing as the poet does. In another poem, a buck waits for a miraculous moon-yellow apple to fall from a tree the real estate broker declares as only "pig apples." And, much to the local reader's pleasure, there is even a poem about Eastport, telling of an evening on the waning side of winter, "when I can see Indian Island at 4 p. m." and the moon is rising, "scallop-white" over Campobello Island. Sexton has captured that intimate going-home time of both promise and fulfillment as he captures quiet moments throughout the book, rich in image and metaphor, unfolding in poem after poem.