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On September 5, 2014, NPR ran an essay by critic Juan Vidal titled, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” which questioned whether American poets still produce political work, and suggested that “literary [political] provocation in America is . . . at a low.” Because I find this assessment of contemporary American letters to be very incomplete, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a dialogue on the subject by curating a series of compelling political poems from contemporary American poets. I christened this series “Political Punch” as an affectionate reflection on the cocktail of poets who decided to honor me with their participation in my little Infoxicated Corner; it was intended to celebrate the glorious mix of poetics, voices, and life experiences all being shaken and stirred into a sense of community and conversation, being distilled into burning gulps of experience for the reader. Leaving aside all the boozed-up metaphors, it was also intended to celebrate my experience of American letters, in all their willingness and ability to pack a political punch.

These two poems by the lovely Native American poet Susan Deercloud, who is eloquent and funny even in her sorrow and her rage, speak for themselves, in a cultural climate where we have a national football team called the Redskins, educators routinely disparage the tradition of oral literacy as ineffectual, and American twentysomethings of Western European ethnic descent think nothing of wearing feathered headdresses to concerts as a fashion statement.

 

Shoot

High noon at the community college. As usual,
the Dean was starring in her cowgirl-and-Injun movie,
a WASP looming seven feet tall, big-boned L.A. import –
what upper middle class white feminists aspired to
in Gloria Steinem 1970’s. She had heard rumors
about a poet hired to teach comp-lit for a semester,
complaints that this Mohawk played poetry on CDs
in the writers’ voices. The Dean swaggered into
the classroom, boomed she had come to observe.
The Indian, short, quiet, shocked, peered up
at the Dean encased in black suede cowgirl skirt,
fringed vest, boots shooting out spurs. She jangled
from turquoise and silver, bragged to the poet wearing
beads strung softly by her own hands on lonely nights –
“From Sedona, jewelry made by Native Americans,”
as if the savage needed to know she paid big bucks
for rings and necklaces made by Navahos. The Dean
spread cannon-thick legs at the front of the room,
made conspicuous notes. The students looked unhappy,
the poet went through the ridiculous motions. She was
back there – the little girl schoolmarms ordered to walk
“single file” in Catskill hometown. She was the teen
graded low for saying U.S. heroes were villains because
they massacred Indians. She was the sister already hip
about sisterhood, the real one of her blood sister, mother,
grandmother, aunts, great aunts, Indian girlfriends. The Dean
bullied, “I know your people believe in oral tradition
but you exist in our system now. No playing poetry on CDs.
Students have to read that stuff on the page. They forget
what they hear in ten seconds.” The Mohawk poet recalled
a male cousin laughing, “You mean it was our ancestors
who put that bug up their ass?” when she spoke about
Iroquois influence on white feminists. Yes, Haudenosaunee
felt sad for female settlers, the way their husbands legally
could beat them into obedience. Yes, they got their equality,
and some grew crueler than their men. They, too, could shoot
down Native women they secretly hated for their heart songs.
Poet with hair color of stars listened to Dean “Has It Made”
reeking of dead cow, her dominatrix words unlike poets’ voices
soaring from CD sacred circles. “Ooooo,” the Dean caressed
the Mohawk’s coat. “Polar bear? I simply must pet it.”
Showdown at The Not OK Corral. Damned if she’d let
that cowgirl get an Oscar. Damned if she’d stop spinning poetry
in her own movie where the beautiful Indians always win.

 

 

Kick

(“My grandmother still uses the term White Man.”
- Embarrassed statement by a young “mixed blood” Cherokee man)

May, Chenango State Park … she driving
sidewinder road to Lily Lake, small second lake
few people visited. New York sun flashed
past unfurling leaves, ghost danced across car hood.
At first the lump on asphalt seemed a ghost
of some darker kind, powerful enough to make her
brake. Then she saw what it was, leapt out
to nudge Turtle with one foot. It snapped towards
her, rocked rough penile head back and forth.
She laughed at its ferocity, picked up fallen branch
to poke it to safety. Cadillac squealed up behind
her old Indian car. Man, grey hair bristling
close to skull, strode over to her. He wore golfer’s cap,
white shoes, stared with pink face at her dilemma.
“I’ll get that damned thing off the road,” he kicked
Turtle in its map of shell, kicked harder, knocking
it upside down so flame of orange underside blazed up.
“Stop,” she choked, but he only kicked more when
Turtle bounced back on clawed feet, lunging, snapping.
How dare a mere beast snap at a man owning
a gold chromed Cadillac? He kicked it tumbling down
wooded bank. “There!” Pale eyes ran over her
long flowered skirt, breeze-tangled hair, bra-less breasts.
She gazed away, trying to see if Turtle landed upright.
This intruder playing uninvited “hero” would never know
her people called America Turtle Island. He would scorn
her love of Turtle, her delight in its sacred rage like that
of Indian warriors who defended women like her against
conquerors like him. Turtle rustled through old leaves.
“Thank you,” she breathed, nearly prayed, in soft voice.
“You’re welcome,” the golfer swaggered loudly
to his hard-on of a Cadillac, sped off. She stood
in the exhaust. “Stupid White Man,” she snapped.
It was only then she cried.

 

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Susan Deer Cloud is a mixed-lineage mountain Indian from the Catskill Mountains. An alumna of Binghamton University (B.A. & M.A.) and Goddard College (MFA), she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowships, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and a Chenango County Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant. Published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, her most recent books are Hunger Moon, Fox Mountain, Braiding Starlight, Car Stealer and The Last Ceremony. Deer Cloud is the editor of ongoing Native anthology I Was Indian (Before Being Indian Was Cool) and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry (FootHills Publishing).

 

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.