by Katherine Faigen
To date, one of my favorite books of poetry is Jennifer Elise Foerster’s 2013 publication Leaving Tulsa, published by the University of Arizona Press. I was excited, therefore, to visit an AZ Press representative at AWP this year and explore recent publications. After recounting my love of Foerster’s mystery and rich images, their rep introduced me to Laura Da’s new book Tributaries. It did not disappoint. Tributaries, a mostly narrative collection that explores Da’s identity as a Native American, opens with “Earth Mover,” a poem that recounts a birth as seemingly violent as Da’s Shawnee history. As the poem’s speaker “…brace[s] / for the abrasion that draws the past / glistening into the present” Da’s reader understands that this past will be visual, difficult, and intermittently bloody. We, too, brace ourselves.
In Tributaries, Da’ seems interested in sourcing her personal streams to a greater ancestral body of water. Her book is broken into four sections that separate Da’s childhood and present from the past travails of her family.
Of these sections, “The Always Frontier” is the most personal. The speaker is an “I” who gives birth, who “rode the bus,” who “resist[s] the urge to panic,” and who, during the staging of a play about Shawnee leader Tecumseh, wonders “are we mocked or honored?”
The first poem, “Earth Mover,” contains visceral imagery and sets up the reader for an examination of Da’s recent and inherited past. “Earth Mover” begins with the birth of her son and a description of her cesarean section,
Ferocious and sly, my mind’s talon
plucks liquid movements from rivers.
arteries, ink, amniotic fluid, delicate webs of optical nerves.
Puckered prospect of the Cesarean veil.
Da’ juxtaposes the image of “my skin twisted in stainless steel pliers” with Ohio Valley settlers who, “enamored with the idea of excavation,” “pilfered” the work of Native American mound builders, searching for “feather headdresses, flakes of mica, pot shards.” From the beginning of Tributaries, we understand that this birth is as violent and invasive as the desecration of sacred mounds, and it is the catalyst for Da’ examination of her history.
More than personal, “The Always Frontier” is an examination of where Da’s personal identity and her society engage. Throughout Tributaries Da’ is interested in education and its influence by and on Native American culture. In “The Always Frontier” we first meet the native American God, Raven, interacting with a seventh grade textbook:
Raven curls his talons
against a newspaper rag…
that attributes his myth to an anthropologist
who travelled along the Pacific Coast
fifty years ago
“Raven talks of Curriculum” is a poem in which a young, Native American speaker, moves through her early history learning about Native American culture in school. The poem, in multiple sections, moves back and forth between rich, phonic visuals:
with the patchy lichen-skin
and bulky silhouettes
of kids slumped on a coach
under the murky slush of flood water…
and moments of narrative exposition:
2013: the school district procures
new texts – feigned Native narratives.
As if to say with a shrug,
Colonialism had children and grandchildren too.
Other poems in this section work with similar themes. As Da’ travels from the Northwest to Ohio’s Miami River and Chillicothe – from where the government relocated Da’s family during the period of removal – she encounters more “feigned Native narrative” and struggles against these appropriations. As she recounts her experiences, Da’ refuses to provide specific clarity and context to those Native narratives she encounters. The history of Tecumseh, the Shawnee, the period of removal, and the mission schools is not something Da’ explicitly recounts. She keeps these histories close and narrates them only as they relate to her personally. By doing this, Da’ challenges her reader’s sense of history. Ours is partial and exists in textbooks. Da’s version is blood-filled.
In “The Tecumseh Motel” the speaker is amongst a group of “honored guests” who attend a locally performed tribute to Tecumseh’s War in which scalping and death by gauntlet are bloodily reenacted.
Crack the egg onto the actor’s head.
Red matter will slide down the crown
And eggshell will mimic shards of skull.
In “American Towns” a museum curator teaches students about relocation by
…stippl[ing] red paint onto the sandy ground
simulating the gore of a military flogging.
As these histories and encounters begin to heap, Da ending to “The Always Frontier” is perfect and poignant:
I want my ink to bellow –
Where is the ground unstained with blood?
When “Lazarous Shale: the Period of Removal” begins, we don’t actually see the blood of the Shawnee battles Da recounts in “The Always Frontier.” Instead, Da sets her second section in 1830 with a quote from President Andrew Jackson. The second and third sections of Tributaries are narrative, telling the stories of Lazarus Shale – Da’s great, great grandfather – and his family. While blood might not be present, Da writes about starvation and the estrangement, misuse, and misunderstanding of a culture. In these sections, language – as a theme – is important. Da begins “Lazarous Shale” by writing,
There was a word for village
That meant all at once:
All human systems working in harmony
We never learn what that word is, and this is purposeful. “Names” Da’ says, “were to be guarded” and so we are invited to witness a history, but not partake. As Da’ narrates moments from the story of Lazarus Shale, we learn about the Quaker mission schools and the renaming and Anglicization of Native Americans. In this section, children and compliance are traded for goods: “Tawny coffee beans, bolts of calico, molasses.” Names and language are personal, are evoked, but are not shared.
Throughout these two sections, Da’ remains narrative and continues the type of writing seen first in “Raven Talks about Curriculum.” Her poems are comprised of stanzas depicting brief moments. Where the stanza breaks, time has passed, something has happened that the reader has missed. These moments of apposition convey the normality of hardship and loss:
The siblings ride double to the mission.
Lazarus signs the ledger,
fingers wrapped around the quill
like gripping a rattlesnake fang.
Rations for the destitute Shawnee.
He reaches back reflexively to steady the burden,
Judy’s slight weight replaced by
the wool, lard, sacks of cornmeal.
Through these characters and these moments, Da’ conveys a clear picture of a history we’ve only ever received in shards. This history is important and so her language is direct; her colors are dull and, because of this, those brief moments of brightness we see are even more striking. “Bright purple coneflowers” aren’t real but are an image that Lazarus’ sister keeps in her mind. More frequently we see shades of brown and ochre, and the occasional red, described simply as blood. Her characters pass no judgment but continue their series of actions. In “Poor Lazarus,” Lazarus, having traded his sons “for the release of seven barrels of winter rations” takes a nephew onto his horse:
The horse dances nervously
Sensing my frenzy.
To his credit,
keeps a steady hand on the reins.
As Da’ moves from “Lazarus Shale” to the third section, “Lazarus’ Children,” we continue to see her purposeful, powerful string of images, but those images have become more “Americanized.” Where we saw in “Lazarus Shale” animal hunts, births, and tales of panthers and loons, “Lazarus’ Children” show us “unfinished moccasins” “aprons” “marching bands,” and a trip from Ohio to Washington. However, we still see the same deprivation and fatigue. Da’ writes through the seasons and “Lazarus’ Children” begins in winter and moves through spring and the graduation of her great grandparents from the Haskell Indian school. In “Della” we see the transition from a Shawnee landscape
I rose every morning on the beach
of our summer grounds, pushed aside
a veil of butter yellow deer hide –
lake water so fast
it bowed across my sight.
to that of the Haskell Indian School, where the speaker finds herself for the next ten years. Da’s writing follows her relatives as they leave the school and head towards the Columbia River. Yet even this seemingly positive change is a lament. In “Irreversibility,” Da’ conjures the image of “stunted rivers/ whimpering and scratching” and commands,
Recollect – before the dam, salmon in the river swam so thickly
they could be speared from horseback.
As Da’ moves into her final section, “No Longer,” she doesn’t leave her reader with many questions, but circles back to issues she raised in “The Always Frontier” and connects her circling images of streams, rivers, weariness, and migrations.
Gazing at maps,
water calls attention through absence.
Lakes and river reaches
in Northeastern Oklahoma
the Scioto, Rio Grande, Kaw,
Columbia and Snoqualmie.
Watery seduction –
Sultry stroke of fatigue.
In “No Longer” Da’ “Measur[es] the Distance to Oklahoma” and retraces the steps of her heritage. Where “I” was so present in “The Always Frontier” it seems to be less so in “No Longer.” Instead, the speaker has become a spectator, following a “you” throughout “Measuring the Distance to Oklahoma,” and a series of seeming strangers in “Baselining.” There are no figures present in “The Myth of the West,” and Raven becomes personified in “Raven Gets Meta.”
Mid-semester, the administration calls Raven to the carpet
for a certain cavalier attitude
toward test-prep curriculum.
After Raven appears in the public school system, Da’ returns to a personal narrative. One of her more powerful poems in this section is “Passive Voice,” which starts, humorously with Zombies, but quickly moves into a more serious depiction of neglect. Da’ discusses her students’ summer vacations, their visits to American historical sights and Indian villages:
Where trouble was brewing
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred
Where most were women and children.
Here, Da’ displays a deliberate misuse of language. Through passive voice, no one actively directed the US army to enter Native territory; no one ordered the village razed. It is this exact passivity that Da’ creates and confronts throughout Tributaries. As readers, our only role is a passive one, as we view what happens to Lazarus and his family in the wake of removal, relocation, and reeducation.
It is our passivity in the face of Mis-Education that frustrates most. One of the main focuses of Tributaries is Da’s attempt, as a teacher, to come to terms with her identity in the face of her history. In “Sixth Grade” we leave Native American history in favor of a recitation of a Washington Irving tale and a girl upset over tempera paint. When the speaker notes, “A bright hair/molts from my scalp” we understand her awareness of her own inaction. In stark contrast, “Raven Gets Meta” provides us with a teacher who scoffs at the system: “These tricksters/ Looking into galaxies and yearning for self portraits.” Tributaries does a great deal of work responding to those issues in education that we see throughout all four sections of Da’s book. Her exploration is personal and yet embodies the struggles of the Shawnee people and, often, the role education played and continues to play in those struggles.
Tributaries is filled with evocative storytelling, rich images, and an affecting depiction of recent Shawnee history. Laura Da’s book makes vivid and intimate a past that, up until this point has been distant.
University of Arizona Press: $16.95
Katherine Faigen lives near Boston where she writes, coaches rowing, and teaches at Emerson and Babson Colleges.