Birthday Post – July 30, 2014

Today is my birthday, and I must say it has been a good year as far as getting my poetry published.  My newest chapbook, Worn Cities, attracted eighty pre-orders, enough for the publishers, Finishing Line Press, to proceed with a press run of 250 copies!  I am grateful to all my supporters who ordered copies, which will be shipped September 6th, 2014.

My poems have appeared in Cream City Review, About Place Journal,  and Yellow Medicine Review.   Of particular pleasure for me has been the release of Dawnland Voices (University of Nebraska Press), edited by Siobhan Senier.  It is an anthology of indigenous writing from New England tribal authors, including Mi’kmaw, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Abenaki, Nipmuc, Wampanoag, Mohegan, Narragansett and Schaghticoke people. Each of the tribal sections contains an introduction  by a tribal community editor that assisted Siobhan in collecting and choosing the pieces showcased.

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Many of the authors I know personally or through correspondence.  Some I have showcased  on this site – Mihku Paul, Carol Bachofner, Cheryl Savageau and Siobhan Senier, the indefatigable editor!  In the Mi’kmaw section, I found myself loving Elsie Charles Basque’s story, “From Here to There,” where she recounts traveling alone with children from Saunierville, Nova Scotia to Willimantic, Connecticut, a place where my own mother had lived awhile.  There’s an excerpt of the late Lorne Simon’s wonderful novel, Stones and Switches.   James Sakej Youngblood, Jaime Battiste (father and son) outlined the basis of our Mi’kmaw treaties –underscored by an excellent essay by Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr.,  Grand Captain Alexander Denny, and Putus (wisdom) Simon Marshall.

My entries included three poems – “Repatriation Soliloquy,” “Mi’kmaq Haiku,” and “Someday I Will Dance,” a personal favorite. Poems of the beloved poet, Rita Joe, are included and of course, Daniel Paul, our reknown activist, has an included section from his hard-hitting book, We Were Not the Savages.  As Joe Bruchac says, “…this is a brilliantly edited anthology.

If you want to order Dawnland Voices online, check out this link to learn more.

Even Dawnland Voices could not trump the best news of this birthday year: I found out the name of my biological fourth great grandmother–the one of whom I wrote in my May 7, 2013 post, listed below in the archives of this website.  Her name was (is) Marie LeBlanc Mius.  She had twin daughters, Marguerite and Madeleine Magdalene, born Mius – but taken in by another family, the Babin’s.  Marguerite became my third great grandmother.  There’s a story behind this “adoption,” believe me – but it’s for another time.  A cousin whom I found through autosomal DNA testing, Edward Cyr, helped me find her. I will never forget the enormous burden of obsession that rolled off my shoulders when Ed said, “You’ve found Her! You’ve found your grandmother.”  Not many people can boast of two family trees – double sets of relatives on down to the pre-colonial period of Nova Scotia.  I am thankful. In a future post, I will share a poem I wrote for Grandmother Marie.

Cheryl Savageau’s Book of Jewels

Like her previous poetry collection, Dirt Road Home (Curbstone Press: Willimantic, CT), Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau’s Mother/Land (Salt Publishing: Cambridge, UK) is a work to which I return often, whether late at night before sleep or during a quiet time in the day.  Always, delight comes in my rereading of her work.  This used to be surprising to me, for there are few poets whose works consistently lure me to the page.  Rather, I seem to be one that gravitates to different talismans (Molly Peacock’s term for treasured poems) composed by a variety of poets.
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Savageau was my first poetry teacher.  I came to know her in 1994 through Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.  In those years, new poets were matched with professional poets, both having the same or similar tribal backgrounds if possible.  I lucked out, and thrived under her mentorship for two years.  I remember once asking her, “Is producing one poem a month a good goal?”  Her reply was “I’d rather aim for one good poem in a year—a really good poem!”
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Beyond my good fortune to have had Savageau as a mentor and that we share a similar legacy from the early French and Wabanaki interactions in the northeast Maritimes, I want to point out some other reasons why I regard her poems as jewels.
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It was the way she put together her words, lines and images that first captured my attention.  Pure clarity!  Not simplicity or easy access—but clear vision and disciplined articulation with little fanfare.  Jim Northrup’s syndicated columns in News from Indian Country and all of Robert Conley’s works exemplify this clean, sparse way of writing and storytelling.
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 Consider the way Savageau describes the importance of a huge swath of our northeastern ocean in “The Grand Banks.”  Reading the poem aloud, there is much activity of the tongue, to use a phrase in the introduction to the anthology, From the Fishhouse(Persea Books: New York, 2009, p. xx).  Starting out with short lines of few stresses,
                        this great underwater plateau
                        this dinner table for fish,
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she quickly extends later lines to almost a prose poem,
                        this feasting place where haddock and cod
                        gather like buffalo, their numbers too great to imagine
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and finishes with
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                                                                                             …Whales come
                        from the warm waters of the south to raise their young here
                                                           …filling the waters with a song that can be
                        heard for a thousand miles, more.  Ocean is their word for world.
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To me, this poem is a wonderful confluence of sounds, sense and meaning, to quote again the editors of From the Fishhouse (xxi).
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                        In another poem, “Cod,” Savageau shows us how the European’s realization that the Wabanaki people’s method of drying then smoking cod was commercially more viable than
                        [Filling] the ships
                        salting the fish
                        down in barrels,
                        til the hull is full.
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Soon the French needed a land base.  Then the poet starts to pull in her lines, ending the poem with terse, nearly all single-syllable words mixed with hard consonants:
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                        dreams
                        of cod
                        the gold
                        of the sea
                        that will
                        fill their bellies
                        and their
                        pockets
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Her poetic brilliance—the mix of humor, history, family stories and recast old Wabanaki stories—are other reasons I keep returning to Savageau’s poems.  I get tickled funny with how she can give a light twist to a poem like in “Mendel’s Milkmen.” When some nuns comment about how all of Savageau’s brothers and sisters don’t look alike, and the poet remembers that
                        a great-grandfather’s
                        eyes can lay hidden for
                        generations then
                        flash in a newborn’s face
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The poet’s mother is then reported to say
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                        different milkmen, sisters
                        different milkmen.
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Another poem, “Genealogy,” (from Dirt Road Home, p. 80) gives a clever, but a more poignant turn to its last lines:
                        Her maiden name
                        she always told me was
                        LaForte, the strong,
                        but now I find it Lafford,
                        as in a place to cross rivers
                        as in having to pay the price
                        of a crossing
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            Savageau’s list poems are a delight to read.  She challenged me once to compose a few, but I got very discouraged, never being able to approach the simple elegance of “What I Save” (in Dirt Road Home, p61) or “The Liar” in Mother/Land.  It is this kind of poem as woven by Savageau that gives me—to paraphrase Molly Peacock—much pleasure and where I involuntarily, but happily begin to engage my senses and intellect (How to Read a Poem and Start a Poetry Circle, Riverhead Books: New York, 1999, p. 4).   That last stanza of her end poem in Mother/Land is, to me, one of the most beautiful in her collection, a talisman of such clarity and brilliance that leaves me breathing “Oh!” in pure joy:
I will knit a spider web beaded with
blueberries, I will knit a bed of corn silk
I will knit prayers of smoke I will knit coverlets of
cricket song pillows of milkweed down
scarves from the long howls of coyotes
I will knit embraces of warm spring rains
sweaters of squash blossoms I will knit
whatever we need my fingers
will never be still

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