From the time long ago when Samuel Raffinesque so mysteriously was given and gave us the naked signifiers of the Walam Olam, the poets of our commonwealth were stung to powerful Iyrical guesswork, sensing there were better and truer sources for our land's earlier people than the sketchy and condescending records of their conquerors our ancestors. Recently some strong poets have brought close to us the complex mindworld of the "woodland Indians'' we even now continue to dispossess. Joe Napora has working from inwards out declared something of the cosmology (which is not other than humane letters) of the Walam Olam itself and the societies it reflects. Working from one of the hearths of the Munsee, Jane Heidgerd has been studying and articulating the dance of those same signifiers in the terrain we share - body in place, body as place, body as sagest guide to what the signs mean that loom through our doings. Stephen Budney has been working the Connecticut terrain, guided equally by what he can find of the lore and by what he is taught by the place. Now comes James Thomas Stevens. He gives us Tokinish, and from the first words we know he is working from the remnant and current languages of the Narragansett, as he finds them or half dreams them.
We know that every one of us has three bodies: the Little Body of meat and bone we sit and move by virtue of these days, then the Short Body of our present lifetime, and then the Long Body of all human lives. A great poet is one who speaks clear or cloudy from the alignment of all three bodies. Any decent poet is trying to do this all the time. And James Thomas Stevens, who is called Aronhiótas, is doing it, and is sure that in language he can find or forge the sure links between first body and third, so that we can hear him and his song be of use to us. For he works with the language of the Narragansett, which stiffens the text of his poems, and reminds us all the time.
I had got so far in thinking this out when I looked up from my wet feet squelching through a high meadow in rain, and saw beyond some trees in the clearing a deer browsing in mist. And past her, clouds lay low on the coombe or escarpement of the mountains over the river. It is hard to outwait a deer, but I tried to do it, and after a while she went back to her nibbling. By then I realized what an interloper I am, wet feet or not. What invaders we are in the land we try to learn, by dance and song and poem, the true history of. We learn what we learn at such cost to our teachers! But maybe it's always that way, this education.
And Stevens knows this, knows that just as Englishmen invaded these woodlands and did what they did, did what we are, in some similar way also the language, their language which has become, almost, almost, our language, the language keeps invading our experience of our local fact. And he reckons with this in this poem, he draws in that great English poet John Donne, and parses his own sensuous world, here, us, by the double linguistic logic of Narragansett statement and Donne's sermons. Never does he quote the O my America my newfound land! that we know is at the core of Donne's vision of his age and his body in it. Stevens knows we know it. What we don't know is what Stevens sets out to show us, the mutual invasions of morality and language, the multiplex mind with which we poor ex-colonials, ex-conquistadors, ex-natives have to face, sing, dance, our condition. He does a haunting job with his materials, which are, at their richest, in fact materials for thought and continuing meditation.
Robert Kelly, April 1994
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