In an interview by Lisa Panepinto (“Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview,” River Pine Anthology of Civic Discourse, September 14, 2012), Mihku tells about a summer she attended a Sun Dance ceremony in North Dakota. A deer had been killed so that there would be food for the celebrants. However, no one knew how to cut up the animal’s body for cooking. Having often helped her mother and grandfather skin and dress out animals for sportsmen who hunted around the Old Town area of Maine, Mihku knew how to butcher a deer. At first she held back from volunteering. Not only was it miserably hot and humid, but water was not readily available. In the end, she persuaded herself to take charge of that deer.
Some of the poems in 20th Century Powwow Playland are like the chunks of deer meat that Mihku exposed that day in North Dakota. Using the tools of her poetic craft, she masterfully hones sounds, verbs, images, rhythm and lines to cut open the skin (a word she uses often) of a latent colonization, revealing vicious racism, violence, poverty, anomie—all of which her family has had to endure in central Maine.
In the poem “Piecework,” she describes women who work out of their home, doing piecework for a shoe factory. For Pauline, “complaining is her vocation, sex her currency / children are a thorn in her side / [she] …leaves to fend for themselves/ like feral kittens.” Another, Millie, has eyes that are “bloodshot” and which “…broadcast /a flag of surrender.” Pale Antoinette “shifts her generous flesh / shakes the bench and rises. / She makes more coffee, smokes another Camel.” Mihku’s mother’s “…hands twist the awl, stacks the pieces, / until she must stop / fearful of ruining work / creased palms cracked and bleeding.”
A poem I like for its rich language and images is “Undertow.” She talks about a drunk, a man named Froggy who drowned in the Penobscot River which rings the reservation, called Indian Island. She then mentions her brother, who was also drinking at the time, and how he found another drowned body, a “…snagged / limp form of a boy his own age.” She concludes the poem with a haunting, lyrical question:
Do ghosts whisper psalms in
the flooded branches of trees,
sing strange hymns beneath the ice, to
their next of kin, those newly arrived souls,
claimed by this river inside us?
Another poem caught my attention for the way Mihku created a sense of fear as well as promise. In “Return,” everyone and everything is groaning in the sometimes stormy, sometimes moonlit dark—the earth, Mt. Katahdin, great pines, and a bear (Muin), with whom she travels. He teaches her “…to welcome velvet dark / guided by the moon’s shape-shifted spark.” Then, says the poet, “a steady warmth flowed gently up my spine, / Katahdin’s song rose up from granite stone.”
I am glad to have had the privilege of spending time with Mihku during the recent Returning the Gift Festival in Milwaukee, September 4 -9. There, her spark and confidence were unmistakable, especially during a slam poetry competition, in which she won second place. It was then I had a strong feeling that my Maliseet friend, with her wonderful sense of language, sound and images, was well on her way to becoming one of the most important poets to emerge out of New England. I look forward to her next oeuvre!
© by Alice M. Azure, November 2012.