Turtle Island Quarterly 6
Sara Backer (1 Essay and 3 poems), Kevin Heaton (1 poem),
Michael Albright (1 poem), M.J. Iuppa (nonfiction)
AN ESSAY AND THREE POEMS BY SARA BACKER
On Looking Like the Indian I’m Not*
(*I use the term “Indian” because my friends call themselves that, not out of disrespectful Colonialism.)
The question is never “are you an Indian?” but “which tribe do you belong to?” The question distresses me. Only Indians ask me this, an assumption ventured during bond-building, and I don’t want to make a new friend feel wrong. Nor do I want to be the insufferable white chick who claims an “Indian Princess” as an ancestor or crushes on Indian culture in a self-involved quest for instant spirituality. (Don’t worry, readers: crushing on Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, or Jacoby Ellersby falls under celebrity umbrella rules and is no cause for shame.) I quickly plead guilty to my Caucasian forebears, which is the truth—but not the whole story.
White European descendants know me as one of them due to my fair skin, curly hair, and tiny nose. What Indians see is my dark eyes and wide cheekbones that shape my face into a hexagon. I have a big face. I also have a big mouth, which I sometimes blame on Coyote, as in: “I’m sorry—Coyote made me say that.” Which most white people don’t do, and perhaps I shouldn’t.
The mythological Coyote is a trickster with a wicked sense of humor associated mostly with tribes west of the Mississippi River. He is a spiritual cousin of the Scandinavian Loki, European Reynard-the-Fox and Japanese fox-like kitsune. Coyote is sometimes a god or half-god, sometimes human, and sometimes shares features with the animal coyote, Canis latrans. Several stories have him introducing death to the world or creating humans. He causes big trouble fooling others. He tortures and is tortured. Sometimes he marries and other times he’s a perennial player. He can be cast as a main character or walk-on, tends to be more annoying than charming, and can be refreshingly pointless. Despite or because of his intrusion into everyone’s business, his big ego, and his carefree manner, Coyote is very human. It’s easy to get mad at Coyote, but hard to stay mad. For example, he jumped into my essay and claimed this entire paragraph. While this was not my plan, I haven’t cut the paragraph—yet. (Dude, get your tale out of my face!)
I do not believe I have Indian ancestors lurking in the question marks in my family tree between Adriaen Backer’s nameless third son who sailed from Amsterdam to New Netherlands in 1640 and Casper Backer born in 1752. The Backers settled near Newark, New Jersey, home of the Wolf sector of the Lenni-Lenape tribe whom Dutch settlers called Delaware Indians. The Turtle and Turkey sectors inhabited central and southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. The “len” of Lenape means “people” and the prefix “Lenni” reinforces that: they are the people of the people, as in original or genuine people. Other Algonquin Nation tribes referred to the Lenape as the grandfather tribe, and the Lenape’s Great Turtle myth may have been the origin of the term Turtle Island (it was either the Lenape or Iroquois). The influx of Dutch settlers brought battles and smallpox; the Lenni-Lenape population dwindled by about 90% between the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 to the birth of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Casper. I hope the pre-Revolution Backers lived peaceably with the Wolves, but it’s more likely my ancestors killed Lenni-Lenape than married them. I’ll never know.
What matters to me is that four or five generations of question marks whose gene pool eventually created me lived in the same place and time as the Lenape tribe. They survived the same snowy winters and muggy summers, ate the same corn, squash, and beans, hunted the same deer and rabbits, farmed the same sandy loam, watched the same sun rising from the Atlantic ocean and setting in the Ramapo Mountains. The Lenape believed (as I do) that they learned how to live from what lived around them, much as immigrants learned from native tribes. For this, I owe the Lenni-Lenape not only my respect but my existence. In that sense, I belong to that tribe: not that I am one of them, but that they own me, a child of Caucasians who were born for generations on land that was inhabited by (and should rightfully still “belong” to) the original people. Thus, I owe and am owned.
How do I observe this debt?
I read that the woodchuck was a one of the Lenape’s sacred animals and vowed never to harm one. In other places, I read the muskrat was the actual sacred animal. Fine; I won’t harm either one. Same goes for turkeys, turtles, and wolves.
I once watched a turhen eat all the beet seedlings in my garden. She was methodical about it, snapping off the nascent leaves at the ground with her curved beak, going down the row as orderly as I’d planted them. A woodchuck ate most of my cucumber patch, one of the few vegetables I can grow in my sandy soil. While gardeners in my neighborhood are dismayed that I don’t shoot, poison, or trap them, I am dismayed by their eagerness to kill the native wildlife. Animals live in a world of right now. If I wanted to eat beet seedlings or cucumber plants at the same time they did, both turkey and woodchuck would have yielded to me. How could I kill an animal for the crime of not understanding my intention of saving food for later? The land was their habitat long before it was mine; they deserve to eat what is in their territory. Besides, unlike them, I always have the option of purchasing vegetables at the local farm stand.
In addition to co-existence, I practice the usual eco-lifestyle—recycling, minimizing use of chemicals, reducing waste, etc. I am an ardent enemy of lawns which require ungodly amounts of pollution to maintain. My front yard is covered with wild violets (which deer eat) and scrubby blueberries (which rodents and birds eat). I don’t do this to change the world. I am well aware that anything we do on a personal level is minuscule compared to the ongoing pillage of nature by corporations, but in my small way I attempt to acknowledge a large debt to the land. I call the woodchuck by its Lenape name: munhake.
The Lenapes didn’t have Coyote in their mythology, but they did have a trickster figure called “Crazy Jack” or “Little Jack” known as Wehixamukes, Kupahweese, Cheekiitha, or Chekitha. In these stories, Wehixamukes follows directions to the letter, not the meaning. For example, when he accidentally cuts his hand with an axe, a hunter tells him to tie bark to the wound to heal it. He climbs a tree and ties himself into it. When the hunter finds him and tells him he should have cut the bark from the tree, instead, Wehixamukes replies: “I’d have done that if you had told me!” I love the way he demands exactitude in wording. He is a teacher of poets.
Finally, I want to say that people see what they look for more than what they look at. When I visited France, French people thought I was French—until I spoke. When I visited Panama, Panamanians thought I was Costa Rican because of how I spoke, as I’d learned Spanish living in Costa Rica. In Japan, two Japanese friends even asked if I had Japanese ancestry. And when an ex-boyfriend (Navajo) complained about how “white” an acquaintance was until I got irritated and pointed out, hey, I’m white, too, he replied: “You’re not nearly as white as he is.” So, perhaps I am a racial Rorschach. Wherever I wander, I try to learn from the life that surrounds me and maybe that attitude (along with brown eyes) triggers the question.
Thus ends my white woman ethnicity narrative.
* * *
Sometimes, my close observation of nature leads me to write a poem that others might misinterpret as sentimental (the horror!). Often, that poem will call to Coyote to express the banal side. Here’s an example.
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision
that stays with you always.” —John Steinbeck
My first redwood forest planted a vision in my mind
of a house connecting earth to sky.
A bedroom in the basement roots, pitch dark for sleep,
where dreams feed on thick river silt.
A kitchen in the lower trunk, eye level with black bears
foraging salmonberries in misty understory.
Azaleas make their own pink light in deeply dappled shade.
Higher in mossy branches, I sit on a slanted porch,
eyes shut to fully hear dissonant warblers and thrushes,
percussion of woodpeckers, and wingbeats of hovering
flycatchers. Closets are crevices in rough, grainy bark
holding scrolls of poems and maps.
I climb a stairway of erratic burls up to a crow’s nest
above the fog where I might almost see the ocean
were my vision not scorched
by the giant needle-splintered sun.
A few days after drafting “Redwood Vision,” Coyote showed up and dictated this poem:
That Darn Coyote Again
I tell him when I said redwood, I meant the tree,
one word, not two—
—yeah, sure, he interrupts, the tree.
Women always want to see the tree.
No use talking to him about habitat
while he's pissing on azaleas.
I have second thoughts about this camping spot.
Not thrilled about smelling his urine.
I came alone to be alone. He was lounging around
the park station. Him with his creepy-charming smile,
rotten teeth, and long-winding jokes. Followed me
like a—I know who you are!
Coyote says he never heard of no coyote,
but if I want to brag to my white folk
that I fucked a full-blooded Tolowa,
well, maybe he could help with that.
The truth of human experience is not one poem or the other, but both. This defies the nature of publication, as journals that would like “Redwood Vision” would not care for “That Darn Coyote” or vice versa. And then there’s the whole appropriation issue: are white people allowed to write about Coyote?
While I try to avoid writing poetry about wolves as that could be construed as misappropriation, sometimes the muse pushes me in that direction. This poem symbolizes Western culture as Romans, and while I cast it as pitting Romans against Goths, it’s also a 99% poem, and other, more personal wolves marinate the text.
Each year begins
when starving wolves
grow bold enough
to raid cities:
We call it January
after the god of entrances
who guards the city gate,
staff in his right hand,
keys in his left.
A hand to open
and a hand to close.
Nothing to hand
to the wolves.
One face looks back.
The other looks ahead.
Roman gold. Internet stocks.
We're eager to toss
the first coin with two heads.
We're eager to ignore
a glimpse of gray tails
matted with snow
climbing metal stairs
on the fire escape.
Sara Backer, runner up in last year's Turtle Island Poetry Award, has poems coming out this year in Wolf Willow Journal, Crab Creek Review, Gargoyle, Mobius: A Journal of Social Change, Arc Poetry Magazine, and The Rialto. She lives in the Merrimack River watershed and has recently learned to bake. She invented a wicked recipe for strawberry shortcake involving white chocolate chips. She is also the founder of Poetry Thursday and invites everyone to join her commitment to drafting one poem on that day.
POEM BY KEVIN HEATON
Tree trunks gather barbed wire lifetimes,
and follow timelines that track ring years
through furrowed grains.
Crimson sumac—autumn’s psst, debuted amid
the hushed green tones of a thousand talking
leaves; now butterscotch or Chianti red. A single
loosened star sunders then falls to a foothill,
neither summoned nor snuffed by the black
coyote shucking chipmunks in the chickpeas.
A simple floor plan pines beneath a browning bough
cathedral country once called home—not silent, not
heard: dovetailed to a broad-axed forest, wedged
within clay-chinked pen walls, and a yoke-tasseled
puncheon porch limb-lashed to shake shingles.
The ‘Great Room’ toasts its loft quilt, golden—
hearth of my heart to the bride’s side. Wine sap
barely curls one toe for the lesser fires we tend.
Angst and forgotten passwords fritter out the wattle
flue. There’s a near-to-being-far here from regrets
and similes. Far from backswimmers maneuvering
trump cars for their daily tally of shin splints. Far
from gadflies dropping all the right names on rap
beats with truncated click tracks. Wood chipper
clippings meander firefly ambience and unseen
moth kisses to a shadow eating burn pit with still
moods. The brook accepts my swirling mind: its tics
and fidgetings, its slip-knots of rage and rancor—
then babbles them away to the afterlife.
Kevin Heaton is originally from Kansas and Oklahoma, and now lives and writes in South Carolina. His work has appeared in a number of publications including: Guernica, Raleigh Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Vinyl Poetry, The Adroit Journal, and Mixed Fruit. He is a Best of the Net, Best New Poets 2013, and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.
POEM BY MICHAEL ALBRIGHT
The Venus Gate
“Once you have the stones, anything is possible,”
-New York Times on Vermont stonemason Thea Alvin.
Once a year,
on summer’s eve,
they come and take it all apart,
so they can put it back
hewn and built
from good, hard stuff,
an aperture embodying
no trowel or mortar,
the devil’s cream,
constructed in the ancient way,
every rock supported
by each other,
by a makeshift cult
of modern druids,
needing this whispering eye
of virgin granite
to buy abundance,
not of the soil,
but of the coming wind,
thrusting stiffly from the north,
to fertilize this womb
Michael Albright has published poems in various journals, including Tar River Poetry,
A Narrow Fellow, Pembroke Magazine, Rust + Moth, Blast Furnace, Uppagus, and others.
He lives on a windy hilltop near Greensburg, PA. with his with Lori and an ever-changing
array of children and other animals.
NONFICTION BY M.J. IUPPA
A wish: Let’s get out of here.
Your face looks placid when you’re suffering. Ennui strikes when it’s too hot or too cold. You know the signal—the lone feather descending from a blank sky makes you drop everything. You turn and run— arms outstretched— black wings sprouting like barbed wire beneath your ankles; you fly to your car that’s set to cruise west down a never-ending county road where you’ll come to find a tree that hold its worth in shoes.
220 pairs in 1986.
Sneakers, waders, flip flops, stilettos, baby’s first, golfer’s last, shoes that no longer fit—shoes that never did. Nailed, strung, tied to the tree for forty years of whether or not wishes come true. You’ll touch the cracked soles. See the small nest made in a wingtip—a ballet slipper dangling on the threads of its pink satin ribbon. You’ll look down at your weathered shoes and see how practical you are. You’ll wonder if you could step out of your life completely and give up your shoes. The grass beneath the Poplar tree is thick and lush like a Persian carpet. It invites you to settle down in its shade, which you’ll do naturally, and when you look up at all those shoes, you’ll begin to imagine what the others wished for until you take aim and send your shoes sailing, and when they don’t fall back to earth, hitting you twice on the head, you’ll think it’s a good sign.
M.J.Iuppa lives on a small farm near the shores of Lake Ontario. For the past ten years, she and her husband Peter Tonery have been committed to food sustainability. She has numerous publications (poetry, fiction, nonfiction and plays) in national and international journals as well as two full length poetry collections Night Traveler (Foothills, 2003) and Within Reach (Cherry Grove Collection, 2010) and five chapbooks; her latest prose chapbook Between Worlds (Foothills, 2013). She served as the poetry adviser (2007-2012) for the New York Foundation for the Arts, and since 1986, has worked as a teaching artist in the schools, K-12 for a variety of agencies (RCSD, BOCES 2, Young Audiences, Genesee Valley BOCES, Project U.N.I.Q.U.E. and V.I.T.A.L. Writers & Books, and others) Currently she is Writer-in-Residence and Director of Arts Minor Program at St. John Fisher College.