Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau

One of the most accomplished indigenous poets describing New Hampshire is surely Cheryl Savageau. She has been writing about her Abenaki and French heritage for years, to substantial critical and academic acclaim (including a Pulitzer prize nomination).

Her first book, Home Country (1992), is unfortunately out of print now, though you can still find used copies, as well as a cassette recording of some of those poems. The second, Dirt Road Home (1996), is a little more readily available, although its publisher, Curbstone, had to close recently.

Partly, perhaps, because New Hampshire doesn’t have federally recognized Indian tribes, or reservations, or a lot of the other structures that make indigenous people visible (like economic enterprise), many people seem to assume that there really “aren’t any” Native people here. Dirt Road Home really re-maps the Granite State as Abenaki territory (which it is, along with Vermont, and parts of western Massachusetts, western Maine, and southern Quebec). In one of the best poems, “Looking for Indians,” she remembers the night her father hauls out an atlas:
See, he says, Abenaki,

and shows me the map

here and here and here

he says, all this

is Abenaki country.

In her third book,  Mother/Land, Savageau is even more persistent in mapping specific places in New Hampshire (the Pemigewasset River) and Massachusetts (Lake Quinsigamond) as deeply Native spaces. And there are all kinds of other treasures here, too, like the poems about the rings and necklaces she sifts through in her mother’s jewelry box, after her mother’s passing; and some juicy indigenous erotica as well!

If you are academically inclined, you can check out my essay on Savageau’s poetry in Studies in American Indian Literatures 22.3 (2010).  But why not get yourself a copy of Mother/Land and join our “Indigenous New England” discussion group on Goodreads.com?  A dynamic group of readers (including at least one other Abenaki poet!) will be joining us until October 3.

3 thoughts on “Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau

  1. If you DO join our “Goodreads” group, you get to read absolute GEMS (yes) like this response by Mi’kmaq poet Alice Azure (whose books I’ll be reviewing next on this blog):

    Cheryl Savageau’s Book of Jewels
    by Alice M. Azure

    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.
    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!”

    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.

    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.

    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,

    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

    and finishes with

    …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.

    To me, this poem is a wonderful confluence of sounds, sense and meaning, to quote again the editors of From the Fishhouse (xxi).
    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.

    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:

    of cod
    the gold
    of the sea
    that will
    fill their bellies
    and their

    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
    The poet’s mother is then reported to say

    different milkmen, sisters
    different milkmen.

    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

    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, p. 61) 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

  2. My response to Savageau’s poems has to be that they are a slice of reality in a mad world. I feel confronted and comforted by the poems, as well as by her children’s book, Muskrat Will Be Swimming. I like being able to settle in with something I KNOW is not contrived or artificial. It makes sense to me that this poet chooses to explore her native roots, her family dynamic, her very sense of self as she writes. I feel like I am on a back road, heading to a roughed-up river, having a conversation with my relatives. I never get sidetracked, I never get lost. I just get to where I wanted to, hoped to, go.

  3. Pingback: the people shall continue | rae-anne montague

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