Missing Robert J. Conley

The other night—when sadness had a heavy grip around my throat, I poured myself a shot of whiskey—something I seldom drink unless it’s in a pumpkin pie.  But Robert J. Conley had died a week ago.  Since I never had the privilege of drinking with him, that night I toasted him.  So many of us in Indian Country have lost a good friend, superb storyteller and beloved educator—to mention only a few of the roles he filled for everyone that knew him.

Robert J. Conley
Robert J. Conley

Robert J. Conley, a Kituwah author of over 85 books—poetry, fiction and western novels based on Cherokee history—passed on February 16, 2014.  He and his wife Evelyn have been my friends for many years.  Thanks to Evelyn’s superb marketing skills and my thorough delight with Robert’s storytelling, no other author’s books take up more space on my bookshelves than Robert’s!  And I have read them all. My favorites are his love poems to Evelyn in The Rattlesnake Band and Other Poems.  Of his novels in the Real People Series—I loved War Woman the best.  Brass—a sort of horror story whose main character is an ancient, evil Cherokee spirit gone modern—was another thriller.

I first met Evelyn in the mid 1980’s, when the Tulsa United Way sponsored a grant to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah.  Evelyn was the Cherokee lead person.  The source of the grant monies was a national program funded by the Kellogg Foundation to the national office of United Way of America.  Since I was on the national United Way staff and connected to Blueprint grantees, I got to see Evelyn at various events.  We became good friend and remained so after I left the national staff and moved to Chicago.

It was Evelyn who first introduced me to Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers after Alec died.  And things have never been the same.  It seemed like a latent artist within me emerged and I found a new path for the rest of my life.  I thank the Conley’s for this gift…especially Robert.  When I retired from the United Way movement in January of 2006, I poured myself into poetry and the lively writing community that exists in the St. Louis area, my new home.  During a visit to Robert and Evelyn shortly  thereafter, I sort of “contracted” with Robert to critique (a word he hates) or help me gauge what I had to do to improve my writing.  I waited.  And waited.  Finally, I emailed him, asking him what he thought about my manuscript, Games of Transformation. Here’s what he emailed back:

I’m probably not very good, especially if you want some kind of analysis, commentary, etc.  I have read your poems and thought they were very good.  I think you are one of the best poets at work around these days….The reason it took me so long to write is that I kept trying to think of something really bright to say, but all I can say is that they are GOOD, so move on.

What a shot of confidence his words gave to me!  I was overjoyed.  And this is the Robert J. Conley who doesn’t mince words!  The author of Cherokee Thoughts: Honest & Uncensored!  Well—yes, I am being over-dramatic.  But another well-known author had refused to blurb my manuscript, claiming it wasn’t “ready.”  Needless to say, Robert’s words were a wonderful balm to my bruised ego.  A little later, at its 2012 Returning the Gift Festival, Wordcraft Circle awarded Games of Transformation as the “Poetry Book of the Year.”

Robert, my friend—I didn’t mean to carry on like this.  These few paragraphs were supposed to be about you.  Well, I am hard put for all the accolades you deserve, and will continue to get in the next months.  Just know that I am profoundly grateful to you for your encouragement and good words.  I am awaiting The Brothers in the mail from your publisher, Goldmines. Still, I am sad that you didn’t get around to spin a continuing tale about the son of Brass, who still lurks under the sea.  And that little glass of whiskey was enjoyable the other night.  If you run into Alec—he likes whiskey, too.  Maybe you two could enjoy a few jokes about that all-too-serious woman who misses you both very much.

Siobhan Senier’s Essay in MELUS

What is striking in Azure’s work is her emphasis on travel, especially around ceremony and among urban areas where other Native people reside. Her peripatetic life directly informs the poetic hubs of her chapbook, In Mi’kmaq Country. The first piece, “Someday I Will Dance,” acts like a hub anchoring her many locations and affiliations. It sets its speaker in an unnamed but distinctly urban, Midwestern space described as “This world of asphalt grids” (18). From that vantage point, she catches a glimpse of colorful fall foliage, which gives her occasion to travel imaginatively across space and time, to join “the People” in a dance (25-26). She pictures them in a quatrain that begins in the Midwest and travels back to Mi’kmaq homeland:

Do they dance at old Saukenuk,
At the capes of North and Blomidon?
Do their voices rise above Katahdin,
Around the harvests of Gaspe? (10-13)

Saukenuk, once the principal village of the Sauk nation, is now an Illinois State Park. It purportedly pays homage to Black Hawk, one of many Native leaders who have been re-appropriated for American mythologies: a brave hero who ultimately and inevitably lost his fight with settlers, thus ushering in colonial progress and ushering out the vanishing race. A visit to this kind of site is one of Azure’s signature poetic gestures. Her latest book, Games of Transformation, is a reflection on the Cahokia Mounds, also in present-day Illinois.11 There, as in her reimagination of Saukenuk, she subverts the US national imaginary by calling into being a Native community and a Native future.

The next three lines (tracing capes North and Blomidon, Mount Katahdin, and the Gaspe peninsula) triangulate Mi’kmaq aboriginal territory, doubling back and forth across the international line as though the speaker is exercising her rights under the 1794 Jay Treaty. Azure moves from Cape North on the northeast portion of Cape Breton Island (allegedly the first point of land John Cabot saw) to Cape Blomidon on the northern side of the Nova Scotia in the Bay of Fundy, over to Mount Katahdin in the interior of Maine, and up to the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec, the northernmost part of Mi’kmaq territory. She repatriates herself by covering places with significance in traditional histories of the Wabanaki hero Glooscap—Blomidon was once called “Glooscapweek,” or “home of Glooscap” (Hornborg 86). She traces an international, cosmopolitan trajectory, moving among Native communities constituted before the currentframework of nation-states and still understood outside that framework. (excerpted from pages 25-27)

For the entire essay, go to Senier37.1

Front Cover Art courtesy of MELUS, where it first appeared ( Vol issue 2012). All Nations Seek Peace. 2012. By Mihku Paul. Aquarelle, watercolor, and ink. Copyright Mihku Paul. Reproduced with permission of the artist. Cover Design: Phil Wolfe Graphic Design, www.pwgraphicdesign.com. Reproduced with permission of MELUS.