Review – The Book of Big Dog Town by Jim Stevens

There’s no better way to learn about a city than to have friends who delight in showing  you their favorite places.  Then it becomes easier to find more personal haunts such as outside cafés, churches, shops, museums or parkways to visit and patronize.  I am fortunate to have such  friends like Jan Domaracki, whose love of Chicago was so contagious that I eventually came to regard that city as a friend and place of enjoyment, sometimes of restoration.

Another friend, poet Jim Stevens, recently launched a collection about a pre-historic, Wisconsin city commonly mapped as Aztalan by archaeologists, but reverently called Big Dog Town by Stevens.  The term “big dog” refers to the little horses which Ho-chunk people believed to be dream helpers.  Even if you have never heard of Aztalan, that’s okay.  Let yourself enjoy the way Stevens’ tour will lead you into an alternate realm alive with song, canoe stars, Little People and Bird Man himself–the revered and charismatic hero of the great mound-builder civilizations which sprung up all over the Midwest and Southeast from AD 1050 to 1200.

Like any good tour guide, Stevens’ introduction shows his readers how he “was called” (2) to Aztalan, how its “door in the world” was opened to him, and how, over the years, he grew into a deep relationship with its hills, rocks, the Crawfish River—and how, when he played his flute, the wind played back his song (4).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After reading through some of the poems and stories in the book, I realized that this collection was more of a spiritual memoir of the poet’s association with Big Dog Town that, as he nearly claims, he has had in more than one life.  Especially engaging was the last selection, “The Lizard’s Tail and Eyes.” As this short story goes, a young storyteller, named Face in the Rock, has lost his grandmother.  A great dream-lizard convinced Face in the Rock that he could no longer remain in the village where his grandmother had lived and taken care of him. So he began to travel with the aid of Sun Chaser, who was a small horse in those days—what the ancients of Grand Pinery (Wisconsin) called a big-dog.  After a long journey,

[a] glacial kettle…appeared as a round hollow, reaching into dimensions above and below them.  They walked down the short slope.  This was truly a place to dance [and]…became a famous place where all sorts of people came to stay, for the big-dog, it was known, was a powerful dreaming creature and now she was walking beside the river.  (63, 64)

The poems in this collection are beautiful, like sparkling ornaments that radiate a dream-like mystique to this book’s core story of self-discovery.   Stevens is the kind of poet, says Richard Wilbur in a wonderful essay, whose  “…impulse is to name the world.”  (“Poetry and Happiness,” from Donald Hall’s anthology, Claims for Poetry, 479)  How he does this naming in The Book of Big Dog Town is to take an ancient city not visibly viable, but whose grounds and stories he experiences as still sacred and luminous, and set it forth with descriptive power and amazing imagination.

Sevens, who is a consummate flute player, uses his knowledge of music to animate many of these poems—“Canto for the Fifth World” being one a several examples.  In this long poem, each stanza begins with the line, “I am going into the sacred lands of Turtle Island,” and continues in a mode like a going-home song:

I am going where the Old Ones linger in their new bodies the hills
Where fear is lost in the undulating houses of the Earth
I am going where the fire is living in the leaves of the forest
There is a string of owls coming around in the layered night

My favorite is “Coming through the Music.”  I imagine that the poet and Bird Man are here in Cahokia, near where I live, and they are doing a
call and response near the Twin Mounds—with Stevens on Roundtop and Bird Man on Fox Mound.  I am not sure who Stevens had in mind for
the Bird Man—Charlie Parker or the ancient Sun Chief of Cahokia and all its environs.  To me, it makes little difference.

I would like to be at the very height of a round hill
Where I am turning intricate lines on a raw brass cornet
Pretty soon I hear Bird Man the tenor saxophonist

We can see each other so clearly across the way
On the other hill at the zenith of the yellow dog sun
Through a broad silver mist covering the low fields

The blues with its unique verbiage is leaping the spaces
It is known to us that we are on two special worlds
So we meet in the center and dance in the wind

We are making in the world the first paths of being
Closely now we speak of the isles and broadleaf forests
A call and response is bursting forth in hornlike flowers

The people awaken into a world of mysterious songs
Strings of mythologies begin to live in true nature
They are telling of creator twins who roam the earth

The ones who play with the harmonic orbs of the hills
First Brother who falls from the deepest of skies
Second Brother who emerges from the pulsing sea

Raw Brass and Bird Man do not slow their music
The meandering rivers are carrying an endless story
A first thought does not ever become old in the world (17)

The Book of Big Dog Town:  Poems and Stories from Aztalan and Around.  Fireweed Press (Madison, Wisconsin) 2013. 64 pages. $15.00.

August’s Garden

Wild Trumpet Vine
Wild Trumpet Vine

Here it is August, and the garden is still a source of delight.  With all the rain and cooler temperatures, the trumpet vines have never looked lovlier.  We have worked for seven years on those orange-red beauties, training the baby tendrils up the six by six posts of the pergola (arbor) my son Michael built for me in the summer of 2006.  Then, my sister Cindy and her husband, Pete gifted me with four pots of baby vines from their home in Woodstock, Connecticut.  Now, all summer the vines have burst into such wildness and beauty, giving us comfort and shade in the heat of summer and endless nectar to the humming birds zooming through and around the arbor. 

Right now—the Japanese anemones and naked ladies are blooming together.  I love the dignity the anemones give to the naked ladies, bereft of foliage.  The two sets of blossoms give a delicate airiness to the section of the garden they inhabit.  Next to bloom will be the mums and lavender hostas.

I love how Stanley Kunitz compares the cultivation of a garden to the composition of a poem:

In a poem…when there is a word or line that calls attention to itself and not to the flow of meaning, this can be deadly.  The poem has its own laws about what it can contain and what it needs to exclude. You have to trust the poem.  The garden, too, will tell you,     usually rather quickly, if you’ve planted something in the wrong place.

So, as much as I love my lilies of the valley, I have to prune vigorously or they will take over all the space in my small garden!


Genealogy’s Brick Walls

In the epilogue of my memoir, Along Came a Spider, I illustrated some of the difficulties I encountered as I attempted to identify the names of my ancestors, especially those of Métis and Mi’kmaw, or Wabanaki, background in Nova Scotia.

In June of 2005, my sister received an email in response to her request for information about our Surette ancestors.  In an answer back, she was referred to a book, Genealogy Saint Michael’s Parish-Wedgeport 1767 – 1925. On page 421 were these words:

Cyrille Surette…married Marguerite Babin, daughter of Charles Amand Babin and Anne Marguerite Belliveau on 25 October, 1815.  Marguerite, b. cir 1797 in Belleville, NS and d. in Wedgeport.  Marguerite may have been the natural daughter of Charles Amand Mius and an aboriginal mother from Penobscot, Maine.

From this passage, there seems to be the possibility that my biological third great-grandmother–Marguerite Babin Surette–was born Métis and that my fourth great-grandmother might be Penobscot.  Also, it is a well-known fact that the Mius family has deep Mi’kmaw roots in Nova Scotia, all the way back to Philippe Mius II d’Anzy (born 1660), who had two Mi’kmaw wives.  Ever since I was made aware of the possibility of my third great-grandmother being Métis, I have vigorously sought to know the name or circumstances of her Native mother.

Adoption was not a word used in the old Acadian communities of Nova Scotia.  There are records of Marguerite’s birth at St. Anne du Ruisseau indicating that she was born a twin to Madeleine Babin, born August 20, 1796.  It seems logical to me that a new mother would be able to more easily take in a newborn than a woman whose children were past the nursing stage.

Recently, I was able to secure the names of the committee members responsible for writing Genealogy St. Michael’s Paris-Wedgeport 1767 – 1925, published in 2004.  There were fourteen men and women in that group.  The man responsible overall for the book did not recall why the note about the aboriginal mother and Charles Amand Mius was inserted except to say “…there was obviously a valid reason at the time” and “…was not inserted without just cause.”  I was also informed that the most knowledgeable person was suffering a diminishment of mental capacities and therefore not able to answer my request for sources.  Another member had also died since the 2004 publication–a man I knew with a keen historical understanding of Native/French intermarriages.  His name was never mentioned to me by the committee head.  I expressed my disappointment to the committee members, writing that I regarded their excuses for not being able to cite sources as weak and unacceptable.  Shortly thereafter, the Acadian Museum and Archives in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where one of the committee members worked, refused to have anything more to say about the matter.

I know of one other genealogist whose records link Charles Amand Mius and an aboriginal mother from Penobscot, Maine to my third great-grandmother, Marguerite Babin.  Again, he has not offered me any of his sources and simply wondered what the Wedgeport genealogical committee was hiding.  I don’t know–but I am learning to be patient.


SOS – My Poetry Group

A Mighty Fine Poetry Group

I want to introduce you to my wonderful poetry group — SOS or, Six on Saturday.  For nearly seven years we have been meeting monthly to feed each other with food, drink and inspiration.  I think we have reached a point of trust where there’s very little we wouldn’t say or write.  Sometimes we seem to know each other better than we know ourselves!  For instance, I remember protesting that I didn’t consider myself a Native American poet exclusively–something like that, whereupon all five of Bunchies (as I sometimes call them) raised their eyebrows and uttered a collective “Huh?” From left to right, here we are:

Alice Azure‘s writing have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, the most recent being Yellow Medicine Review, Studies in American Indian Literatures and The Florida Review.  In 2011 she launched two books, a memoir, Along Came a Spider (Bowman Press) and a book of poetry, Games of Transformation (Albatross Press), the latter selected as the poetry book of the year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers.

gaye gambell-peterson is a degreed visual artist and self-taught poet–stays busy doing both.  Recent kudos: First place in 2012 St. Louis Poetry Center’s Nash Contest; art and poetry published online by qarrtsiluni (Fragments). Two chapbooks feature her poetry & collages: pale leaf floating (Cherry Pie Press) and MYnd mAP (Agog Press).  Art featured twice on covers of Natural Bridge and elsewhere; poems in anthologies Breathing Out and Flood Stage, and elsewhere. She belongs to Loosely Identified (a women’s poetry collective), St. Louis Poetry Center (formerly a board member), St. Louis Writers Guild, and SOS (her favorite).

Katherine Mitchell holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri St. Louis.  She has taught the Alexander Technique professionally for over twenty years.  Katherine has a background in dance and teaches Argentine Tango at Washington University.

Keith Byler is a physician with ten years in the trenches of the emergency room and is now in private practice.  His poems have appeared in Emergency: True Stories from the Nation’s E. R.’s, Hurricane Blues, Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, Untamed Ink, Thema, Flood Stage and others. He is also a winner of the Metro Arts in Transit 2008 Poetry in Motion contest.  Keith has been active in the St. Louis Poetry Center and is a past board president for the organization.  He and his wife Danica (a marriage counselor) live on a small farm outside of Edwardsville.

Rebecca Ellis lives in southern Illinois, on the eastern bluffs of the Mississippi, just high enough above the floodplain.  Her poems can be found in Prairie Schooner, Natural Bridge,, Bad Shoe and Crab Creek Review.  She edited Cherry Pie Press, publishing nine poetry chapbooks by Midwestern woman poets.  She now finds an artful home with two writing groups–Loosely Identified, and Six on Saturday.

Gail Eisenhart‘s poems can be seen in California Quarterly, Assisi, The Centrifugal Eye, The Quotable and qarrtsluni. Her chapbook Dip in the Road was runner up in the 2012 Mary
Ballard Chapbook contest sponsored by Casey Shay Press.  A retired Executive Assistant, she works part time at the Belleville (IL) Public Library.




Mihku Paul’s New Poetry Book, 20th Century Powwow Playland

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!

20th Century Powwow Playland is available through Mikhu’s website is

© by Alice M. Azure, November 2012.

Scenes from Milwaukee-Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers

I have just returned from Milwaukee, where Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers held its 20th anniversary of Returning the Gift–our annual festival.  After spending those six days (September 4 – 9) with wonderful poets, writers, publishers and performers– energy was buzzing out of my head!  Not to mention the literal heartache of leaving when it was all over. It’s a good thing I took all those photos with my new digital camera, for on the plane ride home, I could re-live some great moments by clicking through all the photos.  I’d like to share them with you at this time, via a slideshow.  Hover your mouse over the lower left corner, and you can advance the image.  If you click on the icon in the right side of the image, you can view a smaller but full photo.  There are 22 images.  My only regret is that I didn’t get everyone photographed!

I hope you enjoy seeing them all–and please ask me questions about any of these creative souls!


Wonderful News

Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers selected my book–Games of Transformation–as the poetry book of the year.  I haven’t stopped smiling since the news came to me a few weeks ago.  Nothing beats recognition from one’s peers.  The award ceremony will be Friday evening, September 7, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at Wordcraft’s annual festival, Returning the Gift, September 4th through the 9th.  Here are a few more honorees:

  • Kim Blaeser, Drama for Museum at Red Earth;
  • Geary Hobson, Fiction for Plain of Jars and Other Stories;
  • Lois Red Elk, Non-fiction for Our Blood Remembers;
  • Allison Hedge Coke, Editor of the Year for Sing: Poetry for the Indigenous Americas; and
  • Dianne Glancy, Film for Dome of Heaven;

On Saturday and Sunday, I will be reading with some of these illustrious poets, including Rain Gomez, Denise Sweet and Denise Low.  The last two are former Poet Laureates from Wisconsin and Kansas, respectively.  As I will be rooming with the two Denise’s, don’t be surprised if the hotel’s roof might lift away from its moorings with so much poetry passion!

Visit either Facebook at Returning the Gift National Native Writers and Storytellers Conference 2012 or  for more information about this fantastic writer’s conference.  The Oneida Nation’s art journal, Yukhika-latuhse, is the co-sponsor of this year’s Returning the Gift Festival.

For more information about Games of Transformation, scroll down a ways to my November 10, 2011 post.  Finally, I want to thank Albatross Press and its editor and publisher, Terry Straus and Michael Brehm, for their belief in and support of my creative work.  This has meant the world to me.

Songs of the Church – More Poetic Influences

My formative years were strongly linked to the music of the church. A typical week started with Sunday school, where we learned those innocent gospel tunes such as “Jesus Loves Me,” or “The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rocks” and so on. The formal church service followed and again the evening worship hour. Many times I attended Wednesday evening prayer services. Confirmation, choir, youth activities, vacation bible school and business meetings were part of the calendar, with nearly every activity incorporating songs of the church.

I learned to love the words, paying attention to them during the sermons, which I could not hear because of a hearing loss. But in the hymn books, I had the words in front of me. Sometimes the music score enhanced a song like “It is Well with My Soul.” Other times the sounds in the poem were enough. I loved their common meter—its quiet comfort, illustrated by one of my favorite hymns, Beautiful Savior: “Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands / robed in flowers of blooming spring.” Molly Peacock comments on this quality of quiet rhythm in her illuminating book, How to Read a Poem: “It clears the air,” she says, “allowing us to breathe with the deep and regular inhalations and exhalations that sustain life.” (p.28)

It is difficult to point to a favorite genre of hymns or gospel songs. But I think a tattered little booklet that sits on my bookshelf gives away my love for Hymns of the Scandinavian Heritage (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1973). I remember sitting in church next to my children’s paternal grandfather, Herb Liljegren, and closing my eyes in order to concentrate on his nice, bass voice singing, “O wonderful day that soon may be here! / O beautiful hope the pilgrim to cheer.” Lina Sandell (1832 – 1903), a prolific hymn writer from Sweden, has several representative songs in that old booklet of mine. She was influenced by her country’s pietistic movement which, among several other characteristics, stressed a personal and emotional relationship to Jesus. A long-time favorite of mine, illustrates this point: “Thy holy wings, dear Savior, spread gently over me; /And thru the long night watches, I’ll rest secure in thee.

In preparing this post for my website—I consulted a paper on Pietism that I wrote in 1967 for my history professor, Ross Paulson, at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I had forgotten the emphasis Pietists placed upon hymn-writing—poem/songs that expressed a faith in a personal God who was also a Father. From the late 1600s to the late 1800s, this movement was as vibrant as it was complicated. My intent here is not to emphasize the polemics of this movement as much as it is to showcase certain hymns that had an influence upon my young life. Little did I know that the radicalism and grace stirred up by this movement would provide a deep reservoir of creativity received through the Norwegian heritage of my mother, Catherine Pedersen. In her honor, and on the anniversary of my 72nd birthday, I quote one last poem/song of Hans A. Brorson (1694-1764), set to the music of an old Norwegian folk tune: “Who is this host arrayed in white like thousand snow-clad mountains bright, / that stands with palms and sings its psalms before the throne of light?” Always—I wonder this question as I receive the host and wine at Sunday worship.

© July 30, 2012 by Alice M. Azure

My Early Poetic Influences: Fred W. Moeckel 1929 – 1966

From the age of 11 to 18, I lived in a children’s home in Cromwell, Connecticut.  Even though  Fred Moeckel joined the staff as a boys’ counselor around the time I was in the eighth grade, he was always kind and friendly to us girls.

I loved to be around Bud (his nick name) for many reasons.  He taught us silly songs like “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.”   He was always sketching cartoons, even though he wouldn’t do a caricature of me.  “Why?” I asked.  “Well, you don’t have any odd features,” he laughed.  We always wondered where he disappeared to on his day off—for when he returned, there were paintings under his arm or a sheaf of poems tucked into his pocket—not to mention a camera slung over his shoulder.

Most of all, I loved his poetry.   Once I asked him how he could make so many poems.  His answer was something like, “Well you think of two things that might go together, and you make a poem out of them!”  Back then, I didn’t understand.

One of my fondest memories of Bud is of long summer afternoons down by our swimming hole.  Instead of “life-guarding” us, he’d be engrossed in poetry writing and sipping coffee from the hot pot he carried with him.  Meanwhile, about thirty or so of us kids would be swimming away, dunking each other, doing tricks off the diving board or perhaps ramming the raft with our ten-foot water log!  Many years later while on vacation, I, too, carried a steaming pot of coffee down to a beach with me—to help wile away a cool morning reading my books or writing letters.

Bud published three books of poetry in his short life—the first of which is my favorite—One Voice Two (New York: Exposition Press, 1964).  Many of the poems evoke memories of wonderful  summer days  of swimming and playground fun with other children who lived at the home—especially the boys about whom our beloved poet-friend wrote.   A favorite of mine is “S-U-M-M-E-R” (page 32):

The smell of child sweat
sweet as bubblegum,
the prickle of white heat
evaporating from
the slightest bird’s wing-tremble breath,
the glass beads of freckled words
spell summer…

The poem “Ritual” (page 51) captures a familiar, happy scene of childhood:

Thief-quick boys
upset the poise
of young girls, sun-
bathing; they run
scattering heel-
high sand to steal
whatever loose thing
a girl must bring
to swimming.  To show off—
the boys, by a throw of
each girl’s belonging,
begin a singsonging
tease:  out of reach,
over the head of each
victim.  At last,
the game of it past,
the tormentors hand
all contraband
back.  For their part,
the girls, though hurt
today, will bring
small things
with them tomorrow
for the boys to borrow
and steal and play catch
with while the girls watch.

I remember Bud’s sensitivity to our childhood hurts—having been comforted by him the best he could manage when other adult counselors came down too hard on us.  Here’s a poem—”Gone from Gladness Wholly” (page 29)—that illustrates what Mark Van Doren called Bud Moeckel’s “…intimate relation with all things”:

Heavy to the lone child lying hidden
beneath the underside and veins
and pigeon-fruit of grape leaves, the gains
of joy are lost to an unbidden
child-reflective melancholy;
and he is gone from gladness wholly,
grieving as only a lone child grieves
in the silken comfort of silver leaves.

Fred W. Moeckel attended North Park College and its theological seminary.  He graduated magna cum laude from the Hartford Art School in 1959—even though he became blind during his final year.  At the time of his death in 1966 from complications of diabetes, he was a rehabilitation counselor for the blind.