James Thomas Stevens.
First Intensity Press/shuffaloff books, 1994.
46 pp. $7.00
Tokinish (re)introduces us to the first impressions the "Indians" made on
Roger Williams as well as the impressions Williams (and the English) left on the natives. However, Tokinish is not a diatribe condemning the "rape" of the New World by the white "discoverers"; instead, Stevens (who is half-Mohawk) weaves a tapestry of quotations from Augustine to Winslow into this seamless poem. His precise use of the wide range of materials affirms Stevens's assertion, "I have learned to say each word with caution." It is from this caution that Stevens reminds us, despite how alien an "Indian" is in the New World, that "[d]eeds become obscure. Possession is transient."
Clearly, this is not a poem to rush through (nor into for that matter), and it is presented in a form that demands patience. The first impression on opening the book is that of white space: an extract from the diary of Roger Williams about the Narragansett tribe framed by white; a quote from John Donne among space; Narragansett text paralleled with English and more space. This arrangement allows the reader to taste every pleasure Tokinish offers - the strange beauty of the Narragansett language, the blisteringly accurate choice of historical detail, and the eroticism of poetry. Stevens writes, "The taste of salt / on the inside of your arm / calls to voyage . . . / The thrill of recognition."
In the end, this is not a moral tale. If there is a lesson to be learned from it, the poem will not preach it. Rather, Tokinish proffers the irreconciability of language and symbol, of native and alien - and how the two have seemingly changed places. At one point Stevens abandons English and Narragansett in favor of a symbol which "could mean island or the man who lives alone." In the context of the poem, this maneuver is not one of showmanship but common sense. There is no other way to say our language is impoverished than to turn from words to symbol.
This book is a fresh and calculated examination of the "native" poet's dilemma - where does the poet turn when the "native" tongue is vanquished and the "adopted" will not suffice? As Stevens writes: "Every translator has to be two people, / and Indian / assigned a mark on paper." In the end, Steven's "assigned mark on paper" culminates in the eerie and brutal, "Alone, the bloody tenant is left to translate the history without voice, / a language inherent."
Kevin Thomas Patrick di Camillo,
Notre Dame Review, Spring 1995
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