Now the giraffe-like lily, turning its head to look out the window in graciousness.
Now the blackberry, summer’s thimble, its shape discussed at a celestial seminar where Sun and Moon are merely attendees, two out of ten-thousand. The fruit is not on a bush beneath a tree in some faraway land, but here, now, staining my skin, its essence nestling in among the tissues of my hands, their skin softened by enough olive oil to last many lifetimes of a cook.
Now the argumentative weather, now the hawks circling overhead, descending as if on a grand and circular staircase. Now and again, the clean birth of plants, the messy one of animals. Now the mystic light whose source is unidentifiable even for scientists.
Now and again, the contemplation of time and how it doesn’t exist, confused by the human mind with earthly cycles and a construct of our own devising…
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If you were writing a novel and you had something you really needed to say, from deep down in the marrow of your bones, wouldn’t you love to turn the setting for your story’s climactic moments into a perfect stage upon which your characters could play out their final scenes, while at the same time using it as a means to drive your theme home? A setting symbolic of something greater, a way to point at a larger truth extending beyond the pages of your story? While reading Tommy Orange’s highly-praised breakout novel of 2018, There There, I found myself wondering – on multiple occasions – did the author intend the Big Oakland Powwow to be a stage upon which to set his climax, or was he using it as symbolism?
In the book’s prologue, Orange presents the idea of “Urban Indians”:
We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses — the city took us in. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation.
The Urban Indian characters in There There struggle with alcoholism, addiction, discrimination, depression, financial struggles and emotional trauma. They each have their own unique difficulties and backgrounds, but they all have one issue in common: they all struggle with their identity. Five of them (Blue, Orvil, Edwin, Calvin and Thomas) grew up removed from their Native American heritage, and feel disconnected from it. A little boy (Orvil) feels like a fraud when he puts on his grandmother’s old regalia. Calvin says he knows nothing about the culture, and consequently doesn’t feel like he should even call himself a Native American. Yet all of these characters (and several more) are involved in the powwow – either through working there, planning to rob it, or (in the cases of Thomas and Orvil) wanting to perform in it. The reasons for the collective characters’ going to attend the powwow are all very different, but at the same time they all share another reason in common: it’s a way to connect (or reconnect) with their heritage, and what it means for each of them, individually, to be Native American, regardless of blood percentage.
The word powwow in itself is from an Indian word that has been Anglicized. It is derived from the Algonquian term “pau-wau”, referring to a gathering of medicine men and/or spiritual leaders. “Pau-wauing” referred to a religious ceremony, typically one of curing. In the 1800’s, European explorers observed religious gatherings and dances, and mispronounced the word as powwow. Non-natives began using the term to describe any gathering of Native people. Eventually, even the Natives began using the word.
“As more and more Native Americans learned English, ‘powwow’ became the accepted standard for both Native and non-Native people.” ~ Chris Roberts (Powwow Country)
In the modern world, powwows have morphed into Native American gatherings (private or public) where the traditional rituals of dancing, singing, making music, and wearing detailed regalia are performed, displayed, described by commentators, and judged. People sell their arts and crafts (clothing, jewelry, herbal remedies, sage for burning, art, etc.) and there are often “Indian tacos” among the food and drinks being sold, though the tacos are not a traditional Native dish. But really it is a gathering, a meeting, a crossroads where people come to be together.
In the context of the novel, it punctuates the characters’ lives with ritual. It connects the personal to the ancestral, the individual to the group, and the group to its collective heritage. One might argue that a sense of worship is felt at a powwow, a sense of the spiritual, because the expressions of the performances often appear to be pointing toward an acknowledgement of God (the Transcendent, the Creator, Great Spirit, etc.) through tradition and ritual. It reminds me of the Latin term religio, the root of the English word religion, meaning to link back, to bind, connect, reconnect.
To quote from There There’s ‘Interlude’section:
We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum. We keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other. We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.
Tommy Orange’s Big Oakland Powwow could also be interpreted as symbolic of a massacre, reflecting the senseless violence suffered by Native Americans in their history of oppression inflicted on them by whites, and linking that historical trauma with Urban Indians. Orange opens the novel by telling us about the “Indian Head Test Pattern”, making the extreme to which Indians were thought of as disposable targets clear to us from the start. He then takes us through the fractured lives of his characters, showing us the present-day effects of historical trauma. Finally, he sets his climax on a stage where more senseless violence plays out, but instead of whites killing Indians in the wilderness, he shows us Indians killing each other in his urban setting. And he breaks our hearts as we once again witness death, hate, fear and ignorance, where there could have been life, peace, friendship, understanding and acceptance.
Ultimately, it seems Orange intended the powwow to represent a chance for his Urban Indian characters with identity issues to connect with their heritage, while at the same time being symbolic of a massacre, as well as serving as the ideal stage for his novel’s finale. Either way, it’s a beautifully written, powerfully orchestrated, brilliantly executed story that helps dispel the cultural myth around what it means to be Native American in present-day society, giving depth, range, and a broader scope to the so-often narrow, single-story that so many non-Native Americans have about Native Americans.
“We can train in rejoicing in even the smallest blessings our life holds. It’s easy to miss our own good fortune; often happiness comes in ways we don’t even notice.
It’s like the cartoon I saw of an astonished-looking man saying What was that?! The caption below read ‘Bob experiences a moment of well-being’.
The ordinariness of our good fortune can make it hard to catch.”
~ Pema Chodron
You have known many takers, known many givers, walked many pathways, crossed many rivers.
Maybe you’ve known a husband or two, some lovers or wives. You’ve died a few deaths, lived a few lives.
You have been a seeker, you have been a finder, you have found the forgotten and remained a reminder.
You have worn many costumes and fanned a few fires. You’ve cleaned up the mess but then tangled the wires.
You have been the wild, and also the idle, swung up in the saddle and borne the bridle.
One gardener, many flowers. One eternity, many hours.
You have written the song, invented the singer. You are a happiness giver, sadness bringer.
You have danced on the roof, curled up on the floor. All this you have done, and more.
All these things, I too might be. All these things, I too may see.
And though we come from different places, look out through eyes on different faces –
Many roads, one destination. Many rhythms, one vibration.
“Gratitude To Old Teachers” – Robert Bly
When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers?
Water that once could take no human weight –
We were students then – holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness.
The cardinal, for one, content to go about his business. The fox, for another, at ease for the moment in his auburn jacket. The groundhog, wisely putting off her errands until March, depending on the weather. The soft gaze of the doe regarding me, seeming for a brief moment to consider me as something vaguely interesting.
The frozen arteries of streams drawing lines to the lake that is the heart of this place. A cascade of water stopped dead in its tracks by a change in molecular structure. Snow turning almost blue just after the sun slips behind a hill to the west, like that framed photograph of Sweden in the doctor’s office waiting room, its top edge dusted once a month to the lonesome sound of an occasional cough, the next name called exactly as the last name was, a clean copy of how all names will be called for the rest of the day, week, year, barring any unforeseen shift in the ratio of consonants to vowels.
Standing beneath spruce boughs watching snow descend, unhurried, like bits of ash or feather. Standing in close to the heart of the tree while wind sways the limbs, as if you were sailing an evergreen ship, charting an imaginary course to Nova Scotia, then on up into Iceland and even Norway.
Another storm warning issued, another mug of hot liquid slurped, welcomed into a body cocooned in fabric layers, some woven by hand, some by machine, another silent Hallelujah expressed. An obsession with time and temperature, forecast and calendar, and with saying we know the new year will be a great one – this last among so many other unfounded claims, clothed in a strangely American propensity to keep one’s chin up.
If I didn’t have to go to work today, I’d write a clever turn-of-phrase or a cryptic suggestion only you would understand the meaning of. I’d spend my time among the dead, paying my respects with a few well-put-together lines destined to become a classic. I’d write a poem for you because you’ve been on my mind lately, maybe even work on one of those novels that have been sitting in a shoebox in the closet for half as long as it takes children to grow up and finish school.
I’d write about the embroidery of music leaving an indentation where it makes contact. I’d casually sip my tea, considering how art, relationships and weather can all be fickle and tough to predict. I’d consider how, of all the woodpiles I’ve seen, the German Beehive requires the most patience and is a thing of beauty.
I’d mull over all my fears and desires, go for a walk, stare out a window, hope I might be of use to someone by the time my head meets a pillow, contemplate my dream about Paul Simon where I attended the opening night of a play he wrote, and afterward we sat and quietly drank pint-glasses of beer, me telling him how much his music meant to me that time I rode the bus in the rain. He understood and – of course – will be coming for Christmas.
But whether I have to go to work today or not, I’ll remember nothing has ever been mine to claim – all is given, even my name. I’ll not forget I’m blessed, palms pressing together in front of my heart. I’ll take a look at all the circles in which I’ve lived, gain some perspective, as if seeing them from the tiny window of a passenger plane with my forehead pressed against the glass. And, pulling the sword of my life from the stone of the world, my heart will recall how to make the much larger circle of thank you, thank you, thank you, spoken in a silent and wordless language.
The state trooper walked so slowly up to my driver’s side window, it had to have been deliberate. Either that, or he was trying to mimic what he’d seen in all those Looney Tunes cartoons he’d watched as a boy.
The only sounds were those of July cicadas, one other passing car, and the trooper’s boots munching on gravel as if it were potato chips. The gravel had a clean look, and must have just recently been laid over the red clay by road workers along the shoulder of that country highway’s blacktop ribbon.
“What brings you to Georgia?” he asked, after an illuminating discussion about how fast I’d been going. Having noted my Florida plates, followed by my New York driver’s license, this was naturally his next question. He didn’t sound much like Mel Blanc. Kind of looked like him though.
I must have sounded a mite confusing in my long-winded answering of that simple question, as I tried to explain how my uncle had passed away, and that my father had left me my uncle’s car, and how I’d flown to Florida to pick it up, and now I was driving it back to New York, and I had decided to stop and visit my grandfather on the way.
“Who’s yer grandpa?” He asked this question in such a way that made it clear he wouldn’t give me a ticket if he knew who my grandfather was. So I told him who my grandfather was, and the name of the road he lived on.
The trooper took the rim of his hat stiffly between thumb and forefinger, adjusting it while I held my breath. He ten-mile stared down the road from behind his aviator sunglasses for a long slow southern moment, back in the direction of Moultrie. You had to watch closely to see him shake his head no.
“Welp”, he said, “sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
That money has long since been paid to the state of Georgia, but it’s still funny to think back on how – all the while I was pulled over and waiting for him to look me up, write the ticket, and have a conversation – a fat black film canister containing no less than nineteen joints lay beneath the driver’s seat, its existence (and, more important, its whereabouts) unbeknownst to me until two days later when I stopped at a Virginia gas station to write something down, and dropped my pen down the crack between the seat and the center console.
In hindsight I reckon this makes him the coyote, and me the road runner.
But you know how it is, sitting on piles of undiscovered treasure, or sometimes potential hornet’s nests, that – for long stretches of time – you never even know are there. You just carry on, keep going, twenty miles over the speed limit.
Some days you forget to check your rear-view mirror, some days you look back a little more often, and still other days you catch yourself staring. But always you hope, against hope itself, that one day you might learn to use your head for something besides a hat rack.
Of course, let’s not be so eager to smile about it that we forget this crucial point: I wouldn’t have had to part with one red cent, had Georgia law enforcement been acquainted with my grandfather. That trooper would’ve smiled, tipped his hat, clapped his hand twice against the roof of the car, and said “Well, you have yourself a nice day.”
A brief interview about poetry with Homebound Publications:
HB: Why did you start writing poetry?
CMR: I’m not sure which is more true: if I began writing poetry, or if poetry began writing me. All I know is, at some point, it became a necessary creative way for me to understand the world, my own experience of life in it, and to express whatever needs to be expressed.
HB: What inspired your first poetry collection?
CMR: I’ve been creating a body of work for several years, and have multiple collections I fiddle around with when I succeed in making the time and having the energy. I make amalgams of old poems and new poems that seem to have something in common thematically, trying different combinations. So it feels like cheating to say my first collection is “inspired” by something (though certainly the conception of each poem began with an inspiration, epiphany, reflection, or observation). It feels more like finally hitting a home run after striking out several times.
HB: Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?
CMR: No. Maybe if I were a woodworker I’d have a favorite table or something.
I might be a little too working-class for that notion. Just keep trying to make yourself available to the muse, you know? Roll up your sleeves and get in there and do your art.
HB: What poets have inspired you over the years?
CMR: So many. Basho, Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Tony Hoagland, Whitman, Frost, Louise Gluck, Rumi, Wendell Berry, W.S. Merwin, the Beat Generation…..the list is endless.
HB: What are you working on next?
CMR: More poetry, and a prose poem collection.
When I was a boy, one of the things I loved most was a collection of 45-records, passed on to my Grandma Ruth from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine business Keystone Amusement based in Silverton, a small Oregon town in the Willamette valley an hour’s drive south of Portland. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grandma Ruth would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, diners, roller skating rinks), changing out records in jukeboxes and replacing broken flippers in the pinball machines, or delivering new machines and hauling away damaged ones, returning them to my great grandfather’s shop to be fixed by “mechanics”. That was years before I was born, but those records would become an important part of my childhood, creating memories that became tangled up with meeting my grandfather for the first time.
I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning. Growing up as an only child with a mother who refused to own a television, I learned to love reading, and read piles of books on rainy gray Oregon days, of which there are plenty. My love of stories and characters merged with the thrilling discovery of my grandma’s vast 45 record collection. A few were old jazz and disco, but the vast majority were outlaw songs, trucker songs, and story songs from the 60′s and 70′s, both popular and obscure. Often the songs would depict bad guys as heroes, involving cowboys, outlaws, gold prospectors, trains, truckers, knives, guns, booze, and women. To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein – ‘these are a few of my favorite things’.
The summer I turned eleven, my dad came and whisked me away on a summer vacation to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. “Get ready to meet Grandpa Buddy,” my dad told me. “He’ll tell you that ‘you gotta be tough’, and that ‘gettin’ old ain’t for sissies’.” For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure. Flying across America, I stared down in amazement at the Rockies, the circles, squares, and rectangles of the Midwest, the silver ribbons of rivers, the palms and cypress trees of Florida, all the while doted upon by stewardesses.
What kind of name is ‘Buddy’ anyway, I thought as I bounced around in the car, my dad navigating a sandy old pothole-riddled road that plunged us deeper into the tropical forest around the Withalacoochee River.
To my delight, grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of those characters in the songs I loved so much. He’d lived an adventurous life as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I idolized, though I was much too young to understand that. And so I came to idolize him, practically overnight. He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished them with the chops of a master storyteller. My dad and I would sit for hours listening to the syrupy accent of his deep Johnny Cash-like voice, going on about Key West, the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche, Veracruz, Matamoros. He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on the old 45’s: heroes, outlaws, tough guys, sailors, pirates, thieves, swashbuckling heartbreakers and unknown legends.
“You gotta be tough,” Buddy would say again and again. It was the takeaway, his mantra, the moral of every story he told. He continued to say it into his nineties until he passed away. He loved to lie back in his chair, clasp his hands behind his head, and think about all the different lives he had lived, all the chapters of his story. “Watching the re-runs”, as he called it.
In my overactive boy’s imagination, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen. He lived in the Florida jungle on a river full of alligators and snakes. He made shrimp nets and hammocks by hand out in his workshop, where an industrial fan – so large it looked like it should be in an airplane hangar – hummed. There was a hand carved out of wood in the window by the front door, giving all visitors the finger. He had tattoos, a topless jeep, nine machetes and an earring. Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my kid-mind it was definitely nine.
It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, do this or that for me”, or “Thanks buddy”, and the name stuck through the years until he had his own shrimp boat and was known as Captain Buddy.
After that trip, I returned to my familiar quiet life with my mom in our little house in rural Oregon. I stayed in bed all the next day, heartbroken, unable to stop the tears. My mom kept asking me what was wrong, and I kept telling her I wanted to go back to grandpa Buddy’s house and live with him in Florida. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination and a shortage of male role models in my life; I didn’t understand that he was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head and my heart, he was way larger than life.
I spent the rest of the summer loathing myself; I suspected I wasn’t tough by anyone’s standards – least of all, Buddy’s. And I figured that – when it came down to it – I probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value that I would carry with me from then on, though I wouldn’t identify it clearly for many years to come: through my grandfather, who I barely knew, a light had switched on inside me, a light that shined inside my mind. It was the light that comes from the magic of storytelling, sparked by all the books I’d read, kindled by the old 45’s, and fueled by the power of character – fiction or non.