Beloved Kin and Memory Lands: Poetry Reading by Cheryl Savageau


CHERYL SAVAGAEU: I
want to read a bit from MotherLand and a little
bit from Dirt Road Home. I want to talk
about how MotherLand came to be because
it was initially conceived as an unhistory. We don’t have anything
really called history. What we have are stories. And our stories are usually
organized around places. So I’m going to take you through
an unhistory of the Northeast, of the Dawn Land. But there will also be
historical components throughout that. But I didn’t want to do
it simply as, well, here’s the old stories. And here’s colonialism. Because it privileges somehow
that moment of invasion as the defining
happening for us. And it is emphatically not. So I want to start actually with
some poems from Dirt Road Home. Part of the amazing work that
Lisa Brooks has been doing is reclaiming the
Northeast as native space, really asserting that
that is native space and has always
been native space. And one of the things that I
want to thank my father for is making me know that
not by telling me that, but by helping me to
see in a particular way. This is called Trees. “You taught me the lands so well
that all through my childhood. I never saw the highway, the
truck stops, the lumber yards, the asphalt works, but instead
saw the hills, the trees, the ponds on the south
end of Quinsigamond, that twine through
the tangled underbrush where old cars
rusted back to Earth. And rubber tires
made homes for fish. Driving down the
dirt road home, it was the trees you saw first
on the [INAUDIBLE] Forest. I have seen you
get out of a car, breathe in the sky, the
green of summer maples, listen for the talk of
birds and squirrels, the murmur of earthworms
beneath your feet. When you look toward the house. You had to shift
focus as if it were something difficult to see. Trees filled the yard until Ma
complained, where is the sun? Now you are gone, she
is cutting them down to fill the front with azaleas. The white birch
you loved, we love. Its daughters are
filling the back. Your grandchildren
play among them. We have taught them
as you taught us, to leave the peeling
bark, to lean their cheeks against
the powdery white and hear the heartbeat
of the tree– sacred, beautiful companion.” So there was this way of
perceiving the world around you where the land is primary. Everything else is secondary
and can easily be gone. And if you have been around
here for any length of time, you know just how
easily that can happen. If you don’t mow the
grass for a year, your yard starts
turning back to forest. It doesn’t take very long. So I want to read
a few poems that come from the place where I
grew up, which is Quinsigamond. And when I realized after
having read some of these poems for years that people
were picturing me on some distant island
in the wilderness. Actually, where I grew
up is between Worcester and Shrewsbury, Massachusetts
on a little tiny island at the South End
heavily populated, but nevertheless
surrounded by water– and so in some way
defined by that. So I had moved all the way
from the island into Worcester and was in a poetry workshop. And someone in the
workshop said, you’re always writing about the land. You’re living in the city. Why don’t you write a city poem? So I went home with
the idea that I was going to write a city poem. And this is what I wrote. It’s called Bones– a City Poem. “Forget the great blue Heron
flying low over the marsh. Its footprints still
fresh in the sand. Forget the taste
of wild mushrooms and where to find them. Forget lichen covered
pines in Iceland moss. Forget the one-legged duck and
the eggs of the snapping turtle laid in the bank. Forget the frog found in
the belly of the bass. Forget the cove
testing its breath against the autumn morning. Forget the down field nest and
the snakes swimming at midday. Forget the bull had lilies
and the whiskers of the pout. Forget walking on black ice
beneath the sky hunter’s bow. Forget the living
waters of Quinsigamond. Forget how to find
the Pole Star and why. Forget the eyes of the
red fox, the hornets that made their home in
the skull of a cow. Forget waking to hear
the call of the loon. Forget that raccoons are
younger brothers to the bear. Forget that you are
walking on the bones of your grandmother’s.” So I want to start with this– well, I already started. I want to read some poems
that are from deep time. And this book Mother/Land
turned out not to just be an unhistory. It was going to be Northeast
on Turtle Island, an Unhistory. But then I wrote all these poems
about my mother, which were going to be called gem songs. And then at some point
they came together. And they became
Mother/Land So I want to read, actually, creation
story from each of those. The first one is First Diamond. And one of the things that
happened– those of you’ve already read the book realize
that a lot of the poems make shapes on the page. I was really
contemptuous of that. It’s called concrete poetry– making a picture on
the page with words. When I first saw a concrete poem
in probably 7th or 8th grade, it was this poem some of you may
have seen it’s like an apple. It says apple, apple, apple,
apple, apple, apple, apple. And at the very
bottom it says worm. And I thought,
joke, but not poem. So I always stayed
away from doing that. But in this book,
there are a number of poems that
actually took shape. And I’ll talk a little
bit more about this one. But this is a diamond. First Diamond. “This is the place
where time slows down, where light is
collected and flashes in all the colors of love. It is the eternal place
where she meets him in the heat of desire and the
pressure of [INAUDIBLE] bodies. Here, they turn the opaque
dark into radiant seed.” And this one is First Woman. I want to read it. And I want to talk
about it a little bit. First Woman. “It is because she
feels like this– sun on morning dew, a
drop of water on her heel, white butter gritty
against the teeth like corn in August roasted in
sea salt and sand.” So we have this
fragment of a story that basically says that
that first woman was created from dew– morning dew on a leaf
in the sunshine– sparkling in the sunshine. And it’s at her heel. We’re told it’s at her heel. And I was thinking about
this and how profound it is, how it means
that the ancestors paid so much attention to
where life came from. It’s really easy to say
that all life on the planet, basically, depends
on green plants. So I can see from all your faces
that you’re really impressed. But that is a reality. And somehow the
ancestors knew that. And they also knew
that what is it that makes green plants grow? They need sunshine
and they need water. Obviously, not knowing about
carbon dioxide and so forth at that time. And so the story is that this
is where first woman came from. And not just she came
from a green plant, but from that very moment,
from that very moment where sun and dew and the
green leaf comes together. And is at her her heel. She leaps forward into life. So within that story that
comes directly out of the land, there’s a sort of mythopoetic
power that blows me away. That it’s just like this
tiny, tiny little story, and yet it’s all in there. So I want to tell another story. We have this character Gluscabe
and Gluscabe is, I guess, a trickster figure. He’s a spirit person. He does a lot of silly
things that put the world out of balance. And then he has to put them
back into balance again. But he also matures
and eventually is the one responsible for
creating human beings in most of our story. So this is a story
called Game Bag. Grandmother Woodchuck–
“This grandson of mine always has a better idea. Why not capture all the
animals in one huge bag, he thinks to himself. Why not tie up the eagle
who creates the wind? And no sooner does he
think it than he does it. Still, that is
the way he learns. Someday he will grow up. People will speak well of him. Doesn’t he always listen to
his grandmother in the end?” I want to stop here and say
something I forgot to say, which is when I
was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who
told us with great glee that the Mayans had wheels. But they only had them on toys. And that it never occurred
to them to use them in a cart or something big. And I raised my hand and
said, well, maybe they decided not to. And he said, well,
what do you mean? I said, well, maybe
they thought about what a will would possibly mean. And they decided not to use it. And his answer was that
they couldn’t do that that– that progress was
its own imperative. And so then eventually
I heard this story. “Grandmother woodchuck pulls
the hair from her belly, from the tender place. Each pull stings. But she will do this for the
grandson who will bring tobacco back for her in her old age. She weaves the hair
into a game bag, one that will stretch
big enough to hold all the animals in the world. It is a woman’s strength
that will hold them. And a woman’s strength
that will set them free.” So Gluscabe has requested a game
bag from his grandmother, not just any game bag. She makes him game bags out of
several different kinds of fur. He says, no, grandmother. That’s not the right one. He throws them on the floor. And finally she says, what
kind of game bag do you want? And he says, oh, grandmother. I want one made
of woodchuck hair. And so she pulls the
tender hair from her belly and she creates a bag for him. And it’s a magic bag. And it’s just the
kind of bag he wants, because he wants to be able
to get all those animals to go into it. “Inside we are a million
eyes open in the dark. We are chipmunk and mole
rabbit and squirrel. We are musk and fur
and claw and feathers. We are fox, raccoon,
mink, and fisher. We are chickadees, blue
jays, owls, and turkeys. We are hooves and hide, deer
and elk, moose and caribou, lynx and bear, cougar and wolf. We are all listening in the
dark for the sound of the world ending.” In the conversation– so
he brings the game bag back to grandmother woodchuck. He says, look. This is such a great idea. All the animals are in here. And all we have to do
is reach in and get one. And she explains to
him all the reasons why that’s not a good idea. Where are they going
to get sun and water? Who’s going to clean that? What happens when
they’re all gone? What are our grandchildren
going to eat? So this is the conversation. “Why are you always
doing things like this? It seemed like a good
idea at the time. The world is restored. When he finally let
us out, I thought there’d be nothing left. But here it is just as
before, only more beautiful– trees, air, water, and
the sound of all of us breathing in the dark woods.” I want to move to the
Connecticut River Valley. Have any of you ever been up to
the Amherst, Northampton area– that area of the
Connecticut River Valley? UMass is up there,
Amherst College. So if you’re up
there, you’ll notice that you’re in a big basin. You can see to the
south, the Holyoke Range which goes east and west. It’s the only mountain range
in the east that does that. And if you look north from that,
you can see the gray beaver. If you’re going
up route 116, you can see the head, body, and
tail of the gray beaver. So this is called At
Sugarloaf 1996 Ktsi Amiskw “In the big pond, Ktsi Amiskw,
the Beaver, is swimming. He has built a dam. The water in his
pond grows deeper. He patrols the edges
chasing everyone away. This is all mine, he says. The people and
animals grow thirsty. Cut it out, Creator says and
turns Ktsi Amiskw to stone. The pond is drained. There is water and
food for everyone. See those hills. Ktsi Amiskw’s head,
body, and tail. He’s lying there still, this
valley, his empty pond.” Two– Ktsi Amiskw’s Dreams. “For living out of
balance Ktsi Amiskw lies still, while for
centuries, his descendants are trapped in every stream,
caught in every river, killed by the millions for
fur-lust from across the sea. Their pelts buy blankets,
cloth, weapons, knives. In this world out of
balance, Ktsi Amiskw dreams a hard dream, a
world without beavers. Then far away, like the
promise of a winter dawn, he dreams the rivers back,
young mothers building, secure in their skins and
a pond full of the slapping tales of children.” So if we come to
the present time– or actually, it’s not
present time anymore. It’s 20 years ago. Time flies when having fun. This is another story
from that same place. It’s actually
during the time when I discovered that
story which had been sleeping for such a long time. Two of us were in the valley of
the same– two Abenaki women– in the valley at the same time. And we both came
across this story. It was a story clearly
that wanted to awaken. And it was during this time
that I was a student there. This is called Graduate
School First Semester. So here I am writing
about Indians again. It starts with a quote
from Winona LaDuke. “The conquest is
not sustainable.” “Thanks for bringing
that to our attention, she said the first time, to
my response to a history text about a famous painting
of the battle of Quebec that never mentioned the French
and only mentioned Indians twice– once as nuisances, once as
the noble savage kneeling by the dying English general. This was during the French
and Indian War, I said. Soon thousands of
French and Indian people would be displaced sold
into indentured servitude. My own family among them. There would be bounties on
the heads of Abenaki people in Maine. And the English would sow
the fields of the Mohawks with salt. Thanks for bringing
that up, she said. The next book mentioned
cannibals in the Caribbean. Indians who believe
the Spanish were gods. Indians killing themselves. Indian women in love
with Spanish pricks. Indians whose names
even when known were passed over in favor of the
ones given them by the Spanish. Stop writing about
Indians, she told me. You’re making
everyone feel guilty. But the next book was back
in Maine, home territory. The Diary of a Midwife
right after that same French and Indian War. And she was using herbs not
found in English herbals. And wrote that a young
Squaw visited her over a period of three weeks. But the famous historian
said only that there may have been Indians in the area. While she wrote at
length about white men dressing up as Indians to
protest against the rich stealing their lands. Stop writing about Indians,
she told me again, only louder, as if I was hard of hearing. You have to allow authors
their subjects, she said. Stop writing about what
isn’t in the text, which is just our entire history. This week, she said,
I’m really upset. You’re telling the
same story three times. Because there’s only
one story about Indians. And we all know what it is. So I asked her if there
are an infinite number of stories about white people. And she told me to
stop being racist. So I stayed away from
class for a week. Because they were reading
a book about a mystery in the Everglades. And I knew there had to
be Indians in that swamp. And I didn’t want to have to
write about Indians again. It was on to the next
book written, she said, by a Cherokee writer
which Leslie Silko who as Laguna will be interested
to find out because the book was Ceremony. But that is a small
mistake sort of like saying that Dante is Chinese. So I overlooked it. Now, she told me,
write about Indians. And I might have
done that except she went on about Indians putting
on a mask of whiteness like white people
put on blackface. And some of the students wrote
it down in their notebooks. And everyone started talking
about minstrel shows. Then she wanted me to tell
her there is such a thing as an Indian world view. And I said, well,
yes and no, which I figured was safe since I
would be at least half right whichever answer she wanted. But when I mentioned
the European world view, she said there isn’t
any such thing, which was quite a relief to me. I hate to think there are a
whole lot of people thinking in hierarchies and
as if the Earth is a dead object and
animals and plants and some people
not having spirit. Then she said I’d
better stick to what I know that is Indians,
which is what I was trying to do in the first place. And that maybe
European philosophy was too much for my primitive
brain in spite of its being my undergraduate major. And I pointed out that
the oppressed always know more about the
oppressor than vise versa. So she just glared
at me and told me that I looked Scandinavian,
which was a surprise to me. And I wondered why I
never was a prom queen. Since it was always the
Scandinavian girls who got that honor. Maybe they never noticed
I was one of them. Exactly how much Indian
are you anyway, she asked. I told her I guessed I
was pretty much Indian. I suppose she wondered
why I wouldn’t accept mask of whiteness she
kept talking about as myself.” I always think that if I
put these little note things I will know what I’m doing. So the other thing
that you probably know about the Connecticut
River Valley in that area is Northampton. And so I want to read
a couple of poems that have to do with being there
and being in North Hampton. The first is You Bring
Out the Butch in Me. It’s for Diane. “I want to lift weights,
display my arms, throw out underwires and wear
a white ribbed tank t-shirt. I want to carry a wrench, drive
a truck, cover you with roses. I want to order
artichokes and lemon and watch the olive
oil darken your lips. I want to wear a
velvet jacket and eye the heart shaped ruby pendant
nestled between your breasts. I want to look at you,
look at you, look at you. I want to know you in
the biblical sense. I want to watch you
put on lipstick. I want to open doors,
do all the driving, walk on the outside
of sidewalks. I want to wear leather,
strut in Doc Martens, twirl you around a dance floor. I want you to know when I love
you that you’ve been loved.” So Northampton is
this lesbian haven. But even so with my
first love affair, there’s that thing about
being public that still didn’t feel safe even in Northampton. This is called Deep Winter. And it was a deep winter. This was a winter of much snow. “I wanted to kiss your neck
in the middle of traffic, but instead, I just
brushed your cheek. We’d been eating Greek food– [INAUDIBLE],, moussaka, hot flat
breads with olive oil and feta. I wanted to kiss you
then in falling snow, bring on an early thaw.” So this is one of these poems
that turned into a picture on the page. It’s called Red those of you
who have already read this. But if you haven’t, I will
just do the teacher thing and show you that it’s basically
a maple tree on the page. It wanted to be a maple tree. I wrote it as I
wrote all my poems, initially left justified. And it didn’t look very good. So I centered it. And it was a tree. And with only a few tiny
tweaks, it became this poem. So there’s a few things
I want to say about it. First I want to say that
our creation stories tell us that we were created
from the trees– Abenaki people were
created from the trees. So in a very real sense
they are our relatives, our close relatives. The other thing I want
to say about it is it’s a poem that’s also
in conversation. It starts with a
poet that I’m driving with down this back country road
between Amherst and Worcester. We were going to
a poetry reading. And it ends up with
a quote from Chrystos who’s a Menominee poet. So Red– “In his new poem
the red autumn woods are a metaphor for leftist martyrs. We are traveling east
through a maple forest that blazes the hillsides on both
sides of this winding back country road. Look at the trees,
I want to tell him. Listen. The trees have their own stories
to tell like the story of fire deep within the heart. They too have been
martyrs in the long war against the land, a nation
cut down, children denied. 100 years ago these
hills were bare of trees. The stone walls that
wind through them, the illusion of ownership. Now, the hills are
red with maples. My heart is leaping
out to meet them. My eyes cannot be full enough. Though acid falls
from the clouds, maples have gathered on the
hillsides in every direction. See how they celebrate. They are wearing their
brightest dresses. Come, sisters. Let me dance with you. I offer you a song. Let me paint it
red with passion. You are all the women
I have ever loved.” So let me move for a
minute to Cape Cod. Actually, no. Before that, let me
move to the Grand Banks. We’ll do the ocean. The Grand Banks– “From the ocean’s depths,
from the dark place, rising up from the sea floor,
this great underwater plateau, this dinner table for fish,
this underwater banquet, this feasting place
where haddock and cod gather like buffalo. Their numbers too
great to imagine. The currents hit the
slopes feeding nutrients from sea bottom. The water rich with plankton,
algae, diatomic life. Whales come from the
warm waters of the south to raise the young here
where food is plentiful, filling the waters
with song that can be heard for 1,000 miles. More– ocean is their
word for world.” So what a lot of
people don’t realize is that colonization really
started on the East Coast– really started out there
in the Grand Banks. Within a period of
10 years, you started seeing 200 ships from France and
400 ships from Britain and 600 ships from here and there– all kinds of places that
you wouldn’t even think of. You would think of them–
well, that’s an inland country. Why would they have a fleet? And yet they all ended up
there in the Grand Banks. So they were extracting
all these fish before they ever came to land. Everywhere– “Suddenly
they are everywhere. They circle like vultures. But they are not vultures
for they kill their prey. They circle like eagles
but they are not eagles, for they take their prey not one
at a time but by the thousands. They cast nets like spiders. But they are not spiders,
for they have forgotten the strands of connection. They look like human beings. But they leave no gifts. And the songs they sing
are only for themselves.” So when the English
came to the Northeast, everyone thinks about the
Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. But they actually landed
on Cape Cod first. And I was reading
William Cronon’s book on Changes in the Land. And there was this sentence– this little sentence that
was just a transition from one thing to
another that basically said that before they
moved onto Plymouth, they saw something that
looked like a grave. And they dug it up. And then it went
onto something else. It just went onto
something else. And I was just flabbergasted
that somehow this could be something that
wasn’t a main point. And so as a poet, I felt like
we need to slow that down. Because this is something
that didn’t just happen once. Let’s slow it down
and take it in. Before moving on to
Plymouth from Cape Cod 1620. “They find what
looks like a grave– what looks like
a grave, a grave. And they dig it up. They find a grave. It looks like a grave. And they dig it up. They dig it up, the grave. It looks like they dig it up. And they dig it up. And it looks like a grave. And they dig it up.” I wanted to write a poem. I started to write
a poem that was like a list of things not to do
if you go to a strange country. If you see something that looks
like a grave, don’t dig it up. My initial idea
for this book was that every poem would have
some kind of a footnote. And so I found myself
just finding information in all kinds of
different places. And this one actually was from
book but like a field guide to editable plants. It’s called
Englishman’s Footprint. And it does make a footprint
on the page, I have to admit. Englishman’s Footprints–
“Plantain makes a good tea. Its seeds are crushed
and used as a laxative. It is found in every
English garden. Now, its leaves are
pushing up everywhere. You can find it outside
every English settlement– its long leaves with parallel
veins, its central stocks of tiny flowers,
wherever the English go, plantain grows in
their footsteps. When you see it, you’ll
know that they’re near. That English boy found his way
home following those footsteps. When you see it,
go the other way.” I had a great big
Newfoundland dog– my favorite dog ever. And during the time
I had him, someone told me that those
were our dogs. They were called
Indian bear dogs. And that they’ve
actually found them in graves that are
2,000 years old. In Newfoundland when they
went in there and basically massacred people, they
also massacred the dogs. And there was an
English couple there who saved some of the dogs
and brought them to England. And then they eventually
were reintroduced. But a friend of mine found a
reference to a Newfoundland with Joseph Brant,
a Mohawk statesman who did a lot of walking
around the Dawn Land. And I was just really happy to
know that there was this dog. Newfoundland, Walking
with Joseph Brant– “He is a good man
though like all men. He doesn’t stop
often enough to smell the trees and melting snow. On the island they are all dead. The pups drowned,
the old ones shot. They say some escaped in boats. I jumped into the sea saving
myself at least this time. No one knows I’m here, walking
these inland woods where rabbits are plump and
pups won’t drown.” How are we doing for time? Let me read two more poems. So I’ve been finally
learning some language. And one of the first
words I learned was nebi. And it means water. And there’s another word
connected to nebi which is [INAUDIBLE] which
means medicine water. But it also means all
those streams of experience that flow through us. And I was astonished, because
I wrote an entire poem to express that. And there It was in one
word in our language. Abenaki as a language of verbs. And I was told that, for
example, you wouldn’t say, could I have a cup of coffee. You would say coffee me. And so I wanted to use
that construction in a poem so this is called Nebi. It starts with a
quote from Polin, an Abenaki leader
from 1739 who said, this is the river I belong to. “We breathe the traveling
clouds and drink what falls glistening from cliffs. And into Whirlpool basins
carved in granite on its way back to sky. Water me. Glisten me. Carve and whirlpool me. Cascade me. White water me. Sing me. Babble me. Pull me. Pond me. Swamp me. Bug me. Trout and salmon me. Frog and dragonfly me. [INAUDIBLE] and otter me. Breathe me the humid
sky while leaves gather pools of summer air. Nebi we say, [INAUDIBLE]
Nebi, the water is good.” So I’ll move now to
the White Mountains. There are two rivers there
that are very important to us. And this one is Pemigewasset. And I’ll end with this one. Pemigewasset– have
any of you ever been up to the
Franconia State Park? On one side there’s the flume
which is really well-known. And on the other
side is the basin. And the basin has
been carved out of the pemi over many probably
millions of years into this– it’s just the water
swishing round and round creating this bowl. But before you get
to that, there’s just the little water cascading
all over the granite rock which are the bones. We are down to the bones
here in our mountains. Pemigewasset– “We
are at the source the place where the
pemi streams out of the lake over the granite
and cascades and whirlpools. Tourists rush past us. Two Abenaki women gazing
silently into water. I feel like a ghost, she says. They can’t even see us. Tourists follow the signs
to the next attraction. They don’t want
to miss anything. Below us, around us
water is flowing. That’s because they are
in a state park, I say. And we are at the
center of the world. The rocks are full of water. Everywhere water is moving.” Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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