Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Editor,
Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing Pacific Rim.
Salt Publishing: Cambridge, UK, 2009.



Reading the biographical notes of these indigenous poets, I was suddenly no longer sure what indigenous means in a media-connected multicultural world. Cathy Tagnak Rexford claims to be Inupiaq, French, German and English; teacher, actor and arts administrator. Formally educated more in the tradition that stems from Presocratic Greek poets than from the shamanic voices of her Inupiaq progenitors; yet her poems waft from the northern Alaska's tundra, where "By light of an oil lamp, a child learns to savor marrow: / cracked caribou bones a heap on the floor."(1) Brandy Nālani McDougall: Kanaka Maoli, Chinese and Scottish. With an MFA in Poetry from The University of Oregon, she remembers when, in Hawaii, "We lived with nā lapu through half of that first year / before Kahu stood in the piko of our meeting circle, and asked them politely to move on toward God."(2)

Māhealani Perez-Wendt, who traces her lineage from Spain to Chinese and Hawaiian, has a BA in political science, attended law school, and has served on the board of many community-based organizations. "In the old days," she writes, "Huluhulu bag / Is what we use / For back pack . In my village Even for carry big game / Can pack anything / Use kukui nut / Or stone / To tie around / Each bottom corner...,"(3) stunting her syntax with "indigenousness." Although dg nanouk okpik is a native Inupait, she has a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, received a Truman Capote Literary Trust Award, among others, and currently lives in Santa Fe. Yet she creates poems in which "She put on a carved mask with snowy owl feathers / then, danced a long, limp, mukluk shuffle."(4)

Not to be outdone, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, the book's editor, traces her lineage from Cherokee, Huron, Creek, French Canadian, Lorraine, Portuguese, English, Scot, and Irish. Why not just say, "Homo sapiens."?

Long after our hominoid ancestors walked out of Africa during the Middle Paleolithic, then dispersed, taking different directions, whether at the same time or in several emigrations (5), some staying behind to populate the African continent—many centuries later they began to meet again. Having evolved the different physiques and colors needed for survival in various climates, along with customs and beliefs, instead of calling a family circle meeting, they saw "strangers" who registered as potential threats, or opportunities for exploitation.

Although Alaska and Hawaii are separated from mainland America, either by an ocean or another country, in a compromise between the two major American political parties, in 1959 both territories were granted statehood. Yet, more than fifty years later, Alaska and Hawaii remain somewhat alienated from the other 48 states, not just by geography, but mythology too. Although by the 19th Century there was Christian proselytization, from the United States in Hawaii, from Russia in Alaska, to this day the indiginous telluric spirits are still honored with those who were forced upon the psyche, beliefs, and into the classrooms of native peoples.(6)


He crawls out of the polar ice pack
wearing the mask of a whaler.
He hunts himself. Mining
blackened marrow. His flint knife limn
ignites blue flame against dark coastline.


My wooden face is carving
         the inua inside a birdbeak.
Nearby heads open the lighted
         crawlspaces of knotted plumage.


Along the dark shore
I saw the old gods
Fallen castrati
I saw the
Spectral priests,
The crumbled monuments,
Funereal canoes.


Out of her head,
Out of her breast,
Out of her mouth,
Out of her eyes,
Out of her skin,
Out of her breath,

Came the gods who lived
off the length of her body,
offering their piko in return.
(10 )


I began writing this critique one morning while flying along the Pacific Rim from Portland to San Francisco. Sitting next to me was a woman sipping a Bloody Mary. She told me that she lives on Maui. I replied, "Do you know Frank Bird? He lives there too." "No," she said, "We live in the hills." "Like a segmented pomegranate," I thought,

Ruby globules
Glistening red encasements
Plump and faceted
Seeds fitting marvelously together
Food for the gods.

"In Food of the Gods: The search for the original tree of knowledge, (Terence) McKenna points out that in indigenous and aboriginal societies, it's not the 'average person' who takes strong psychedelic plants to tear open what Aldous Huxley referred to as the 'doors of perception' and lead us into other worlds. Instead, it's the shamans. It's not the ill person who takes the drug—it's the healer. And using that substance, the shaman steps into the more-real-than-real world that parallels this like Plato's cave-images, to manipulate the fundamental stuff of reality or entreat the spirits who reside there to help and heal."(12)

We have here an interesting dichotomy between food for the gods and food of the gods, as exemplified by Māhealani Perez-Wendt, whom I assume from her poems retains the aura of the Christian beliefs she was born into, and Terence McKenna, who ingested psychedelic drugs under the super-vision of shamans in the Amazon Basin, then returned north to lecture especially on DMT as a spiritual practice, amplifying the difference between experiencing spirituality within a handed down belief-system, and the creativity of using the imaginal resources of one's own mind as the Chalice. Another way of looking at this is monotheism's communal emphasis, with its churches, synagogues and mosques, as opposed to Joseph Campbell's"hero," who sets out alone on the perilous journey toward enlightenment. As Campbell puts it, "If the path before you is clear, you're probably on someone else's."(13)

While the ethnology of shamanism in the Arctic is well-known in the West, especially because of writings by the Danish explorer/anthropologist, Knud Rassmusen (1879-1933), and the Rumanian scholar of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the shaman, or kupua, or kahuna, of Hawaii, where ceremony trumps drugs or drums, has been studied far less. Serge King, who "was initiated by his father into an esoteric order of kahunas," says: "The model for the Hawaiian shaman is the great culture hero, Maui, known and loved from one end of Polynesia to the other."

"Maui was known for such shamanistic practices as turning himself into various animals and birds, being helped by animals and birds, visiting the heavens to gain the secrets and fire and cultivation and sharing them with humankind, and exploring the underworld."(14)

Brandy Nālani McDougall's poem, "Waiting for the Sunrise at Haleakalā," which begins, "Still half-asleep, I drive toward the summit / and find a rhythm turning sharp corners, / leaning with each familiar curve," reminded me of how, when I lived in Santa Fe, sometimes before dawn I'd drive through the empty plaza then climb to a grove in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Early Spring was my favorite time, when I'd pace between silvery islands of moonlit snow and the blackness of naked wet earth, as a nearby brook babbled indecipherable words I scribbled into a notebook as if I were Hermes delivering messages between worlds.

McDougall continues:

Outside, the dark forms of abandoned rock alters,
built by some ancestral hand, and high crowns
of silversword stand solemnly in black.

Then She curses the tourists, wraps herself in a blanket, and waits for the sun's first rays, as many native people around the world do.

Waking from this dream tonight, cold, restless;
afraid of forgetting where I came from,
I knew only to climb higher, to reach
the summit before sunrise, as Maui-
the-trickster did long ago.

Because we mistake the trail for the path, we desire to climb ever-higher, as if the answer to our deepest questions can be found at the summit, where the God, or Gods, reside. So, early one morning Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and in the fiery rays of the rising sun saw Yahweh/Maui/Coyote/Loki...the countless names and forms by which the Trickster appears. Later, he descended to the mundane world with a panoply of symbols burned into his stony heart.

The poet grieves over golf courses planted "over graves and hotels over heiau," (temples); jet planes roaring overhead fouling the blue air. "There's no rest in paradise," she writes, hearing:

nothing in the wind and clouds,
as the sky turns from back to blue, singing
a silent aubade the the swallowed stars,
to Maui, fading slowly with the moon.

As the sun was appearing over the mountain's tall collar, I drove into Santa Fe, my notebook filled with the promise of poems, or nothing at all.


Serge King is puzzled as to why Polynesian shamans do not use "masks or costumes representing gods or animal spirits...to enhance a sense of connection with such spiritual beings."(14) My favorite story of the shaman's costume is of the Siberian shaman Tubiakou, "who lost a patient and gave up shamanizing. Believing that his helping spirits had deserted him, he sold his unique costume to a government museum. 'But a shaman cannot simply walk away from the spirits of his shaman ancestors. Eventually, he realized that he must take up his profession again and asked for the return of his magical clothing. Museum curators prized it as a priceless ethnographic rarity, however, and refused to give it back. Only after a sympathetic ethnographer interceded did the Russian Ministry of Culture finally agree.'"(15)

I look to a North that is thawing, its permafrost melting and releasing gases it has stored for thousands of years, further warming the planet in a deadly cycle. dg nanouk okpik exemplifies what a poet can contribute to the sterile statistics environmental scientists crank out, "groveling before the facts."(16)

Now up in flames blue oil burns,
it fumes high at my shoulder,
the area at the end of the bone,
as vapor gouges earth into a different
form of wind.

However, it is a poem by Cathy Tagnak Rexford, the other northerner in this collection, that fascinates me, mainly because its images strike the same tone as the Dadaist Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi. Perhaps this is not strange, as Rexford did attend the Buddhist Naropa University, and both Alaska and Japan are sparkling jewels on the the Pacific Rim's "Ring of Fire."

Rexford's "Migration" begins:

I am a cedar mask, devouring my own tongue,
I close the space between my teeth with permafrost.
From this I will heave forth the Brooks Range,
leach my ears into the shape of whale flukes,
mount my face to the white wall
of a gallery.

Takahashi's "Ice" begins:

Lately I sat on ice and spat clouds about—
To whom shall I speak of the delight
Of being transformed into a weird little spirit?

There I was, merging with all those colors
Which, after swimming between Mars and Saturn,
Passed the other side of the frosted glass.

Rexford emerges from an exhibition of Native American Art, and confronts "a cab driver with a cigarette drooping / from his lip," who "swerves as you stand in the middle of the street, your left foot / on the painted white line, your right / on the edge of a melting polar icecap....," straddling the line between waking and dream.


Of idea with a knife that can rend a wall. Don't count
On the exquisite calculation of disrupted feelings.
O wind full of carnal odors, slap feet to ears!

Then, burning at once that mop of wild hair,
Face yourself as for the first time:
Cherish the distance from joy found in its denial.

Rexford concludes her poem on a note of warning:

We carved bare-breasted women into
coastal bluffs of the Chukchi Sea,
They are beaten every autumn as
wind passes its hand over the waves.
We run into the city, into concrete nightmares;
we fault ourselves into the glass hallway where we stand.

Just as shamanism "takes its place within a set of complex adversial relationships: between the developed world and indigenous peoples; between science and magic; between established and charismatic religion; and between institutional and 'alternative' medicine;"(19) perhaps, then, a linguistically fractured literature of metaphoric worlds, darkly beautiful, would be a crafty way of finding ourselves in a networked world, along with our niche in a nature that no longer tolerates our gluttonies, morphologies, expanding economies, or systematized hierophanies. A sensual poetics, wise beyond the illusion of its years.

A handful of broken caribou antlers, the smell
of fresh wormwood, fresh snow on beech greens,
clefts of skin burning on one side of her face,

frozen on the other.(20)


References and Notes: 

!- Rexford, C.T. From, "The Ecology of Subsistence."
2- McDougall, B.N. From, "Back When We Lived With Ghosts."
3- Perez-Wendt, M. From, "Huluhulu Bag."
4- okpik, d.n. From, "The Pact with Sedna."
5- “The study suggests a first wave of Africans traveled to Australia between 62,000 and 75,000 years ago and gave rise to the Aborigines, while a second dispersal---one that ultimately went northward and another eastward---some 25,000 to 38,000 years ago led to modern Europeans and Asians.” G. Naik, “Clues to Man’s First Migration.” Wall Street Journal, 23 Sept 2011. (This theory isn’t supported by older studies that see a single dispersal from Africa some 60,000 to 70,000 years ago.)
6- See Brandy McDougall's poem, "Ka 'Ōlelo."
7- Rexford, C.T. From, "Baleen Corset."
8- okpik, d.n. From, "Mask of Dance." In Inuit mythology Inua is the soul of people, animals plants, mountains, etc.
9- Perez-Wendt, M. From, "Bury Our Hearts at Wal-Mart, etc."
10- McDougall, B.N. From, "Haumea" Piko is the Hawaiian equivalent of the World Navel, the central place of the soul. It is perhaps the equivalent of the Japanese hara, which is the point of balance found a little below the navel.
11- Perez-Wendt, M. From, "Segmented."
12- Hartmann, T. Review of Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods. (New York: Bantam, 1993.) http://blog.buzzflash.com/hartmann/013
13- Campbell, J.
(2008) The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.
14- King, S. (1987). "The Way of the Adventurer." In, S. Nicholson, Editor, Shamanism. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.
15: Weishaus, J. (2006-7) "The Way North." http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/North/North-4/text-4.htm The original story is by M.S. Milovsky: "Tubiakou's Spirit Flight." Natural History, July 1992.
16- Campbell, J. (1987) Quoted by J. Halifax, "Shamanism, Mind, and No-Self. In, S. Nicholson, Editor, Shamanism. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.
17- okpik, d.n. From, "Oil is a People."
18- Takahashi, S. (1986) In, The Triumph of the Sparrow. L. Stryk, Translator. New York: Grove Press.
19- Hutton, R. (2001) Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination.” London: Hambledon & London.
20- okpik, d.n. From, "Utkiavik: a Place for Hunting Owls."