My shaking keeps me steady
as I go. Without it
I wouldn’t know
if I’m alive or dead.
This past spring break I was fortunate enough to spend on a service trip in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, part of the Cherokee Nation. I could go on about all the things I learned, did and saw there for about ten blog posts, but this one is about a book of poetry I picked up while visiting the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah. The Cherokee have a tragic past, unique sense of community and the larger world, and a resilience in the face of past and present adversity that is fascinating, heartbreaking and inspiring all at once. That, combined with their rich history of oral storytelling, gorgeous spoken language, I thought would be a combination for some truly beautiful, unique poetry. While in the Center gift shop, I picked up and took home On the Landing: A Book of Poems by M.W. Simpson.
Michael W. Simpson is Cherokee, Yakima, and Celtic by heritage. The poems in this collection, published in 1984 by Indian University Press, deal with a lot of issues one might expect a Native poet to, particular after learning about those facing contemporary Native Americans and indigenous peoples on my trip and in classes at UConn. Indeed, Simpson’s lines touch descriptively and poignantly on the historic and current loss of land and legal struggle for sovereignty of Native Americans(“Elk in the Fields”); the maintenance of familial and ancestral connections (“When Grandmother Was Born”, “Grandmother Gone”) preserving cultural practices (“Making a Red Clay Pipe”, “The Birds of Paradise”); spirituality (“Three Visions”); and health issues like diabetes, alcoholism and substance abuse (“My Father’s Ashes”). There is also a deep sense of connection to nature throughout the collection that Native peoples are often portrayed and expected to have – i.e. the stereotypical “natural” Indian. In fact, I found some of the strongest poetic voices and my personal favorite pieces were those written in the second-person to certain animals such as, “The Rhino Courtship”, “The Man Who Rebuilt the Dodo Bird” and “Dragonfly”. These particular pieces came alive with a unique voice of admiration and yet empathy, as the plights and emotions of these animals mimic the poets’ and Native peoples in general. These lines from “Dodo Bird” demonstrate parallels between the extinction of this bird and the threat to Native peoples:
Your comical eyes hold in them an intense emptiness,
through which the moon moves its puncturing white,
that could be mistaken for your intelligence….and the
only suit of your feathered bones left untrampled
by Europe’s dogs, horses, hogs and missionary hunters
when they leveled the equatorial forests was almost
mistakenly burned by the janitors of the Oxford Museum.
(they were embarrassed, in 1953, by accumulated dust),
who thought you were merely ragged, not rare.
That being said, one of my favorite aspects of this collection was how personal many of the poems still felt, despite dealing with topics on a grand scale of a whole people and history colliding with the present. Even before reading Simpson’s personal history, one can tell how autobiographical many of the poems are, and are dealing with issues of identity, leaving and returning home, and navigating relationships. The trace of his travels and interest in other cultures besides his own heritage are present as well, and where that is most evident is where his writing is the strongest and he is most interested as a poet himself. Pieces like this include “Hitchhiking South” and “The Venus of Joy”.
The collection could stand to be more cohesive, especially in form. Some poems are three short lines, while others are several pages of long-form. It is all mostly free verse. The voice though, is consistent in a haunting matter-of-factness, combined with gorgeous, precise description tied to introspective pondering that carries the writing. While it could be tightened up, I found the eclecticness of the pieces in form and content to be most often stimulating, and the choices made by the poet are evident and beneficial to certain pieces. Interestingly enough, my favorites include some of both the shortest and longest pieces; it seems the middle ground is where Simpson loses strength.
Overall, a beautiful, eye-opening and unique read, that shows the breadth and depth of a personal, contemporary, and historic culture.