Linda Hogan, The Book of Medicines
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993.

Joel Weishaus


 

 

Each critique arrives by a different route. With Linda Hogan, it was an e-mail posted on the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment [ASLE] discussion list by Ellen Arnold, who recommended Hogan's books to other teachers.
Specifically, it was the title of Hogan's The Book of Medicines that acquired my attention. As Hogan is part-Chickasaw, Amerindian traditions, visions, history and conditions are central to her work. Even while echoing the past, her questions are of current concerns about environment and habitation, of the relationship between who we are and who we are not.

How does water do it
strip a world to its bones,
how does it dance that way
without feet
(p.30)

 

1.

With weeks of rain in its belly, the creek rises and roars with wind that is churning its gray waters into a knackering rage. Sloshing up the trail in newly waterproofed boots, roots and boots on an equal footing gripping the slippery earth. Around 15,000 years ago, these hills and valleys were carved by a series of floods. Whether humans were here when the deluge arrived is indefinite. But within historical times, the trails I walk today were tribal lines of communication. Along this path, rocks still have calling, plants are listening intently to the music of their genes.

Leaves shake off a few raindrops, a tiny insect lands on my leg, walks around...no food, disappears. On the road above, a backhoe’s trailer hits a speed bump—metal peals against metal—the dump truck behind shifts to a lower gear.

I sit on a bench carved with the graffiti of romance under a square wooden shelter built on land protected from rain and the shadows our psyches cast. As one mystery gives birth to another, Taizokai mandara, World Womb mandala.

Many Amerindian poets learned their tradition from stories they heard from grandparents, read in books, picked up at pow-wows and academic conferences. They entered as they would a tree, embracing it; still it refused them entrance. Some cut it down. Others became obsessed with being "Native American." It is their heritage, after all, their identity. Those who reflected on their original face and prayers, what they found, more often than not, was dark and unutterable.

 

He could hear their voices at night
and tracks and breathing
at the fierce edge of the forest
where all things know the names for themselves
and no man speaks them
or takes away their tongue.
(p.40)

In the forest, thoughts are thoughts and the creek is pulsating water, anticipating snow melt in the mountains months upstream. Today I looked for the Green Man, a Western Jizo, even retracing my steps. Never knew exactly where he sat watching hikers, runners, strollers, dogs, stoically listening to chatter, but now he seems to be everywhere gone. Or is he?

The more you become aware of the Green Man, the more he seems to pop up in any number of different guises. The enigmatic and mysterious nature of the Green Man invites exploration and his persistence throughout human culture suggests that he has an important message for us today. What is the Green Man's message?

"In Oklahoma, the light makes the leaves extremely green and the soil is fire red." The Book of Medicines begins with "The History of Red," as the lineage of "us/who remember caves with red bison/painted in their own blood,/after their kind." (p.9) In the Old Stone Age, human bodies were laid in graves containing red ochre, ground hematite—sometimes mined some distance away—, along with shells, ivory, and bone. This powder was blown, sprinkled, smeared by humans around the world, including Native Americans in what is now Illinois 10,000 years ago. To some scholars, red is the blood needed for life after death, a Eucharistic theory embedded. To these minds, the Great Mother was left to bathe in the sun. I suggest the paleolithic caves were not painted by men alone, but by women too. They all crawled through. Red dots may be symbolic of menstruation.

The transformation mysteries of the woman are primarily blood-
transformation mysteries that lead her to the experience of her
own creativity and produce a numinous impression on the man.

We choose our ancestors, they don't choose us. Hogan's poems gather around her >fraternal grandmothers. "The grandmothers were my tribal gods./They were there/when I was born. Their songs/rose out of wet labor/and the woman smell of birth." (p.57) Those were the days when magic reigned—it still does!—, when "song was the pathway where people met/and animals crossed," when a woman

could fly to the deer
and sing him down to the ground.
(Ibid.)

 

2.

My maternal ancestors were Khazars who spanned the steppes of Asia, while Hogan chose her father's Chickasaw Nation. Though we all stem from the same migrations, trekking north and east out of Africa as the last Ice Age retreated, and from those who stayed behind. The story of Hogan's people begins where the setting sun goes home. From there they followed an oracular pole, an axis mundi, "essential to the beliefs and ritual practices of shamanism because it connects the three fundamental zones of the shamanic cosmos: its roots penetrate the Underworld, its branches rise to the Sky, at its base lies the serpent, and a bird sits at its crown." Planted upright each night; each morning it pointed east, until one day it remained silent, rooting in what is now the southeastern United States.

In Albuquerque, NM, before dawn on New Years Day, I stuffed what I owned into my car and headed toward a college town in Florida. A few hours later, winter sun cast its mild light over the harshly beautiful land. In the small vehicle,boxes falling on my shoulders, an intermittent loud noise coming from under the hood—water pump, I found out later—, I heard the voice of a dear friend from Santa Fe who when we parted a few days before had said, "We'll never see each other again." With eyes focused through tears, I could go no further. It was the second time I had tried to make a new life in the direction where I was born. Both times, I failed.

It was the same way
I have looked so many times at others
in clear light
before lowering my eyes
and turning away
from what lives inside those
who have found
two worlds cannot live
inside a single vision.
(p.27)

In his essay, "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory," Michael M.J. Fischer argues that "ethnic autobiography and autobiographical fiction (and poetry) can perhaps serve as a key form for exploration of pluralist, late industrialist, late twentieth century society." "Fischer insists," writes Betty Bergland, that "we must develop a concept of the self that is pluralist, multidimensional, multifaceted—and one which might be 'crucible for a wider social ethos of pluralism.'"

By the mid-19th Century, there had been much intermarriage between Chickasaws and the white population. Even so, white settlers and speculators coveted fertile Chickasaw land. Aided by Congress, the Indians were forced to sell their land and make a slow painful walk to "Indian Territory" in Oklahoma, the journey known as the infamous Trail of Tears.

We have seen each other
inside mortal dusk,
and what passed between us
was the road
ghosts travel
when they cannot rest
in the land of the terrible other.
Red spirits of hunters
walked between us
from the place where blood
goes back to its wound
(p.27)

By early 1838 most of the Chickasaws had arrived in Oklahoma, where they were "duped by contractors out of the millions of dollars they had made in the sale of their land. Sent by Congress to investigate, Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock reported that 'Bribery, perjury, and forgery were the chief agents in these infamous transactions.' It took the tribe half a century to obtain a settlement from the government for the food Washington had not sent, the baggage it had lost, and the rotten provisions which had killed so many.”

What moral burdens did the Indians carry? "In the Indian Territory there were four tribes of Indians—Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks. Under the fostering care of their governments slavery had become so firmly established that (White) slaveholders thought them worthy of political fellowship, and articles in the form of their admission began to appear in the southern press.” Winchester Colbert, a relative of Hogan, became governor of the Chickasaw Nation in 1858. In 1861, he was one of the signatories to the Confederate-Choctaw-Chickasaw Treaty, with which the tribes formally sided with the slave states in the looming Civil War.

Fifty years after the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal,
Chief Prosecutor, Benjamin Feremcz, remarked:
                    "The world is
                            still a savage
                        place crawling, crawling toward
                                                 civilization."

3.

Today the trail is wrapped in a wet gray blanket. On one side there's a hill that shelters a homeless soul in a yellow tent shining between trees, standing as a proxy for the absent sun. Benches, set far apart, are usually wet this time of year. So why am I doing this? What is this walking about?

In an interview, Hogan said that “The poet, Kenneth Rexroth, was the first contemporary author I ever read. Before that I really didn’t know what poetry was or what it did." An accomplished scholar and poet, Rexroth asked:

What is it all for this poetry
This bundle of accomplishment
Put together with so much pain?
Twenty years at hard labor,
Lessons learned from Li Po and Dante,
Indian chants and gestalt psychology.

At various points along the road to maturity we begin questioning again. Not the same questions we asked as a child, not the ones we asked of parents–corporeal or transcendental–, ministers, or teachers. This time we question ourselves. Why am I doing this? What is this walking about?

what's ahead, rambling the coast,
closing in on my mind? pairs of
              shadows in a bear's gait
   slipping
              slipping through strands
                                     of dawn.

Bear Doctors—Gawk burakal stalked their prey in the woods of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Hogan recalls a man who shot a bear and heard

    how it cried like he did
    and in his own voice
(p.25)

 Madness is its own country,/desperate and ruined./It is
 a collector of lives./It's a man afraid of what he's done


and what he lives by. Safe,
we are safe
from the bear
and we have each other,
we have each other
to fear.
(p.26)


On dimly-lighted street in the Haight-Ashbery District, San Francisco, 1967, a group of figures were approaching. For a moment I felt threatened. Then I heard ankle bells, and relaxed. Not the Anglican Church's amplified bells that vibrate my windows today. Not organized hymns to a domineering God, but "the temple where crow worships/walks forward in tall, black grass.

Crow waits within itself for wolf to finish the feast of its prey. When it trots away,"what remains of moose/is crow walking out/the sacred temple of rib..." At this point, I remember the story of a pope who, alone in his room at night, would open a cabinet in which his skeleton was stored. Standing before it naked, he performed "a dance of leaving/the red tracks of scarce and private gods."(p.31)

Hogan's poems are knife, wound, and dressing. But there is no cure for a large-brained species that still murders its own, exploiting and destroying its home—

where the road ceases
to become the old forest

where crow is calling,
where we are still afraid.
(Ibid.)

 

4.

There are the ancestors: Earth, Water, Sky. There is the forest: Bear, Mountain Lion, Crow—if we could see them again and follow the seeking not the sought. There, too, is Death, the insatiable wound: "they say/everything inside us opens,/mouth, heart, even the ear opens/and breath passes/through the memories/of loves and faces." (p.58) But "along the way/earth sprouts and blooms." (Ibid.)

I stop at the Stone House, its roof long gone. A lone bird hops across a snow-speckled log. Cold pierces my cheeks like tiny teeth, nose leaks into beard. I reach into my pockets, but there are only shreds of old tissue. Hogan remembers how “A whole group of Chickasaws were moved up into Kansas (at the time of the Civil War) from Oklahoma. They didn’t have shoes. There was a blizzard; it was in November, terrible circumstances. One man who was freezing to death had only a handkerchief between him and the elements. He held it up trying to shield himself.”

Why does her work recall so much of the past? "There is a life deep inside me that always asserts itself. It is like the dark and damp, the wet imagery of my beginnings. Return. A sort of deep structure to myself, the framework.”

The poet has to produce out of (her) own inner self, not only
the poetry, but also, as it were, the climate, the temperature
in which it can breathe.

Hogan opines that English “has more to do with economics than emotion. We do not have words in English for our strongest feelings. It’s not a language that can touch the depths of our passion, our pain.” She goes on to say that English “has little to express about reverence for the land or the human need for wilderness.” I do not agree.

Whose language carries emotion better than Shakespeare’s? Whose poems embody the forest's spirit better than Hogan's? What amazes me about English is its ability to grow roots that absorb other languages, or to produce new jargon that other cultures are wont to broadcast. It is a complete plant, embodying the beauty, gravity, and limitations of the anthrosphere.

A language is as linguistically primed as those who project it. It’s not the language that makes the poet, it’s the poet that makes the language sing.

 and the rain is old men, bent and dancing.
 I know their wet song. It is thunder.
 It is sage, stripped down to the warm

 

smell of healing.
It carries me down
to its yearning dream of tides

  

 
        with red turtles swimming in it,
        dark turtles, old and silent
        with yellow, open eyes.
(pp.85,6)
 

A bioregion can only be thought of as being universal, its ties too integrated to be limited a single state. Linda Hogan is a poet who sees Earth as a single living system spinning within a galaxy, no matter where on it, or how, she lives. Hogan's work, like the poetry of Ancient Greece, is "merely a more glorious flower of the common soil, related to it as the sunflower is mysteriously related to what looks prosaic enough: the seeds, the roots, the ground from which it grows.”

 

References

 

1.

The more you become aware: A. Rothery, "The Science of the Green Man." http://www.ecopsychology.org/journal/ ezine/green_man.html
In Oklahoma: L. Hogan. In, J. Bruchac, Editor, Survival  This Way: Interviews with American Indian  Poets. Sun Tracks and The University of  Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ., 1987. p.129.
The transformation: E. Neumann, The Great Mother.  Princeton University Press: Princeton,  NJ, 1991. p.31.
her fraternal grandmothers: "Among the ancient Chickasaw, descent  was  established in the female line, thus the  ties of  kinship converged upon each other  until they  all met in the granddaughter."  H.B. Cushman,  History of the Choctaw,  Chickasaw and  Natchez Indians.  University of Oklahoma  Press: Norman,  OK, 1999 p.435. (First  published 1899.) E. Neumann, The Great Mother.  Princeton University Press: Princeton,  NJ, 1991. p.31.

2.

essential to the beliefs: J.M.Vastokas, "The Shamanic Tree of Life."  Artscanada. Dec 1973/Jan1974.
Fischer insists: B. Bergland, Postmodernism and the  Autobiographical Subject: Reconstructing the  'Other'." In, K. Ashley, et al., Editors,  Autobiography & Postmodernism. University of  Massachusetts  Press: Amherst, 1994. p.133.
In his essay: M.J. Fischer, “Ethnicity and the Postmodern Acts  of Memory.” In, J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus,  Editors, Writing Culture: The  Poetics and  Politics of Ethnicity. University of California  Press: Berkeley, 1986. pp.195-96.
duped by contractors: G. Jahoda, The Trail of Tears. Wings  Books: New York, 1975. p.172.
In the Indian territory: A.H. Able, The American Indian as  Slaveholder and Secessionist. University  of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NB, 1992.  p.32 note.c.

3.

In an interview:  "An Interview with Linda Hogan.”  The  Missouri Review (1994).  p.114.
What is it all for: K. Rexroth. From, “August 22, 1939.”
what's ahead, rambling the coast: J. Weishaus. From, Bear Doctors." www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Poetry/bear.htm

4.

A whole group of Chickasaws:  "An Interview with Linda Hogan.” The  Missouri Review (1994). p.119.
There is a life deep inside: L. Hogan. In, J. Bruchac, Survival This  Way: Interviews with American Indian  Poets. Sun Trails and The University of  Arizona Press: Tucson, 1987. p.123.
The poet has to produce: E. Heller, In the Age of Prose. Cambridge  University Press: Cambridge, England,  1984. p.8.
has more to do with economics: L. Hogan. In, D. Jensen, Editor, Listening  to the Land: Conversations about Nature,  Culture, and Eros. Chelsea Green  Publishing: White River Junction, VT,  2004. p.122.
merely a more glorious flower: E. Heller, In the Age of Prose. Cambridge  University Press: Cambridge, England,  1984. p.4.