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.
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.
does water do it
strip a world to its bones,
how does it dance that way
without feet (p.30)
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
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,
are listening intently to the music of their genes.
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.
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
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?
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
persistence throughout human culture suggests that he
has an important message for us today. What is the Green Man's
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.
transformation mysteries of the woman are primarily
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
fly to the deer
and sing him down to the ground. (Ibid.)
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
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
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
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,
passed between us
was the road
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)
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
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.
after the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal,
Chief Prosecutor, Benjamin Feremcz, remarked:
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
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
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:
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 parentscorporeal
or transcendental, ministers, or teachers. This time we
question ourselves. Why am I doing this? What is this walking
ahead, rambling the coast,
closing in on my mind? pairs of
in a bear's gait
Doctors—Gawk burakal stalked their prey in
the woods of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Hogan recalls
a man who shot a bear and heard
it cried like he did
and in his own voice (p.25)
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
murders its own, exploiting and destroying its home—
to become the old forest
where crow is calling,
where we are still afraid. (Ibid.)
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
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.”
poet has to produce out of (her) own inner self,
the poetry, but also, as it were, the climate, the temperature
in which it can breathe.
Hogan opines that
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.
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.
language is as linguistically primed as those
who project it. It’s not the language that makes the poet,
the poet that makes the language sing.
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
red turtles swimming in it,
dark turtles, old and silent
with yellow, open eyes. (pp.85,6)
bioregion can only be thought of as being universal, its ties too
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.”
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.
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,
to the beliefs: J.M.Vastokas, "The
Shamanic Tree of Life." Artscanada. Dec 1973/Jan1974.
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,
by contractors: G. Jahoda, The Trail of Tears. Wings Books: New York,
the Indian territory: A.H. Able, The American Indian as Slaveholder and
University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NB, 1992. p.32
an interview: "An
Interview with Linda Hogan.” The Missouri Review (1994). p.114.
What is it
all for: K.
Rexroth. From, “August 22, 1939.”
rambling the coast: J.
Weishaus. From, Bear Doctors." www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Poetry/bear.htm
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,
has more to
do with economics: L. Hogan. In, D. Jensen, Editor, Listening to the
Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros. Chelsea
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.