Mihku Paul’s first chapbook

It’s a beautiful thing that Bowman Books is now publishing regional Native titles faster than I can review them.  I had been eagerly awaiting Mihku Paul’s first book of poetry, and it’s now out: 20th Century PowWow Playland.  You can order it here.

Paul is Maliseet, an enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, though she grew up in Maine, near Penobscot homeland, and lives now in Portland.  She’s a visual artist as well as a poet, doing colorful medicine wheel paintings like the one on the cover of 20th Century PowWow.  She did an MFA in creative writing at Stonecoast, and an exhibit for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, which is where I first heard of her.  “Look Twice: the Waponahki in Image and Verse” juxtaposed some of her most powerful poems with historic photographs of Wabanaki people from Maine and the Maritimes.

It was a pleasure to watch this book grow; if you have any opportunity to invite Mihku Paul to your school or library or other venue to give a reading, she’s a magnetic performer.  The poems from “Look Twice” are carefully amplified and revised in this sparkling volume (given extra gloss, I’d like to note, by a UNH PhD student, Michael LeBlanc, who is really a remarkable editor).  The ordering is striking.  The first poem, “Echo of Multitudes” begins in Maliseet homeland, the Wolastoq (St. John River) watershed:  “Picture this.  Great rivers snake through a forest; water road, traversed in season, straining and/swollen at ice out, moving endlessly to the sea.”  Paul returns again and again to the river motif; along the way, she moves between imaginative reconstructions of her ancestors’ lives, and grittier explorations of contemporary realities: racism, suicide, community trauma.

I love many things about these poems: their sheer music, their incandescent colors.  But I think one thing I love best, having seen “Look Twice,” is how Paul can seem to liberate the spirits within an image.  The old photos she has studied so lovingly can seem, as she says in the collection’s title poem, colonized and frozen by the “rigid lens of history, a dangerous weapon.”  But the poet has such imaginative empathy, such strong identifications, with those figures that she suggests a very strong sense of a Wabanaki “we.”

Mihku Paul maintains her own website where you can learn more; if you have any taste for academic reading, I published an essay on her poetry and Alice Azure’s  earlier this year in MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S..

Carol Bachofner’s new book is here

Abenaki poet Carol Bachofner’s new book is out!–thanks to the inimitable Joe and Jesse Bruchac (Abenaki), and their publishing venture, Bowman Books.

This is Carol’s fourth book, and in many ways the most overtly “Native” (raising the whole question, of course, of what makes poetry “Indian.”  I have heard Carol say that if she wrote that shopping list, it’s an Abenaki shopping list.) 

Daughter of the Ardennes Forest (2007) was a slim but powerful chapbook honoring her father’s military service.  Breakfast at the Brass Compass (2009) paid tribute to a favorite cafe in Carol’s hometown of Rockland and the landscapes nearby.   I Write in the Greenhouse (2011), also place-based, contains more poems about Maine and its people, including Andrew Wyeth and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Bachofner likes themed collections, and in Native Moons, Native Days, she turns to her Abenaki family, history, culture and language.   With her permission, I’m posting this sample:

We Speak the White Man’s Language

except when dreaming, except when our fingers
braid hair, weave blankets, knot bait bags,
when we are praying in Indian. Work brings words
from the belly, the soles of the feet.
Words walk the woods where our relatives
burned the way forward from camp to camp,
trading stories with people along the way.
We speak in our own tongues, syllables full
of consonants, echoing from the back
of the throat to the nose, to the wind.
Our words are a clearing, a place for fire.
Where did the language go when the black robes
threw holy water on it? Did it disappear
when the switch was on our backs? Into the trees,
into the streams, into our wombs to wait.

I’d like to invite anyone who’s interested to join a discussion of Native Moons, Native Days in our Indigenous New England reading group on goodreads.com.  We can start after the New Year, though the group’s discussion remains on goodreads for as long as people want to keep reading and posting.  Carol herself has been known to show up there!

You can learn more about Carol on her own website.  Happy holidays!

Carol Dana (Red Hawk), Penobscot Poet

A book I’ve loved for years is When No One Is Looking, by Carol Dana (Penobscot), writing under the name Red Hawk/pipikwass.  My friend Margo Lukens, who teaches Wabanaki literature at the University of Maine up at Orono, turned me on to it.  This beautiful little chapbook was first published in 1989 by a tiny outfit called Little Letterpress in Knox, Maine, which also published a great book by another Penobscot poet, ssipsis, called molly molasses and me.

Both of these books are now out of print, and it makes me crazy that I can’t assign them in my classes–at least until now, because Joseph and Jesse Bruchac have once again come to the rescue and re-issued When No One Is Looking through Bowman Books.

Carol is highly respected in Maine for her work in Penobscot language revitalization and education.  Perhaps because language is so important to her, she has a wonderful sense of sound, often smoothing indigenous words, place-names, and surnames into her lines:

Kthadin, Pamola, Atahando

Atteam, Susep, Nicola

Were people on the move

Who laughed, loved, cried and died

Over eons of time

We’re forever grateful to be

from Molasses Molly, Swasson, Susep

Francis, Neptune and Dani.

There are poems here about broken homes and loving ones, about past traumas and present successes (like the tribe’s Katahdin 100 spiritual run), about depression (“a stillness/ and loneliness/ I haven’t been able to shake”) and gratitude (“I must say we have been fortunate/ To have reached out, loved and shared/ in a way uncompared.”)

And there are powerful poems about powerful women–women raising children, struggling with deserting partners, women who “stand strong, stand together,” and at least one enigmatic grandmother who drives the poet to learn her native language:

Pensive in her rocking chair

stiff and straight faced.

The hard line of her mouth

I would wait to see crack

To know what was inside.

Sometimes I felt I should hide

from her sternness and harsh ways,

Although there were many days

she would talk and smile with her friends. . . .

Little did I know the ladies joked about having fun, teasing, and sex.

They talked about human qualities,

What the neighbors said or done.

2 new books from Alice Azure (Mi’kmaq)

2011 has been a banner year for Alice Azure.  She published her second book of poetry, Games of Transformation; and a memoir, Along Came a Spider.

The memoir appears thanks to Joseph and Jesse Bruchac’s Bowman Books imprint, which I’ve blogged about before.  Azure has had a complicated life, full of difficulty and success: at age 11 she was sent to the Cromwell Children’s Home in Connecticut after her father was sent to prison, and stayed there through high school.  She went to North Park College in Chicago, where she met her first husband and raised three children.  When she enrolled in the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning for a master’s degree, she met John R. Salter, Jr., a Mi’kmaq/Mohawk/Abenaki faculty member who changed her life.  Salter encouraged Azure to work with the Inter-Tribal League of American Indians and to investigate her own Native ancestry.

Most of the book is devoted to a compelling narrative of Azure’s genealogical research, her trips to Nova Scotia to seek out relatives,  and her growing awareness of her Native identity.  In this, it also charts a story not uncommon among Native people in the United States: one of being uprooted from family and home, and of reconnecting with land and kin, often in many locations.  Azure travels to the northeast every summer to visit family, but she maintains a home in the midwest, and has developed an extensive network of close friends and affiliations with place throughout Indian Country.

Games of Transformation is her meditation on the Cahokia Mounds in present-day Illinois.  If New England is often imagined as a place where Indians exist only in the past, this is doubly true for Illinois, which celebrates Cahokia as a romantic memorial to vanished races.  But Azure brings the mounds to life, sketching continuities between ancient games of “chunkey” and her son’s football team, between the ancient eradication of trees and current melting of ice caps.  She experiments with form: many of these poems are sonnets with interesting variations, and there’s a villanelle for the Cromwell Children’s Home:

Suffer the children to come unto me.

Years ago, churches built big children’s homes.

It was the practice of the times–I try to see.


I remain partial to Azure’s first book, In Mi’kmaq Country, published by the same press–Albatross in Chicago.  Small independent presses are so important in keeping great poetry like this alive.

Alice has started her own blog; stop by and tell her you’re interested in a copy of Games of Transformation, which I can’t seem to find available online.