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.