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.