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Bonding with nature, native history through poetry

Ashley Denney

By A Contributor

In her most recent collection, Concow poet Janice Gould weaves together personal experiences, shared histories, and images of nature to show readers the world’s layered complexities.

“Tribal Histories,” the first section of the book, begins with “Indian Mascot, 1959.” Here Gould confronts festivities that involve the mock hangings of scarecrows meant to resemble Native Americans by linking such celebrations to physical acts of violence against indigenous peoples. Connecting such festivities with violent histories brings readers face-to-face with the historical realities behind the caricatures of Native American peoples in our own present.

In other poems, the connections are less blatant, but more disconcerting. “Tribal History,” for example, moves from the narrator’s memory of her mother’s hands to “all the other hands of Concow folk” whose hands were bound before being hanged. The shift from personal, individual memory to a shared, collective history is powerfully unexpected. Gould throws the reader off-guard, making the image of injustice more vivid. While jarring, the movement also makes sense. Throughout her poetry, Gould reminds us that all individual memories are linked to larger national histories. This image of memory layered on top of powerful memory resonates throughout the volume.

The second section, “It Was Raining,” at first seems to deal with images of nature rather than the fraught relationships between people. Yet, the initial three poems of this section —”Wind,” “Stones” and “Clouds” — not only personify nature, but also use such concrete language that Gould seems to have one person in mind for each poem. Wind is “the freest soul I know,” stone “cherish[es] the sedentary” and clouds are “like that circus life.” The natural world is used to describe human personalities. In this way, Gould pushes readers to see the world differently by depicting humans in terms of nature rather than considering nature only in human terms.

Gould’s overt examination of human relationships permeates the book. “Near Mosier, Oregon” begins with a description of a stable and the narrator’s insomnia. However, this ranch setting becomes the site of struggles over gender and sexuality. In painful terms, Gould illustrates the conflict between social expectations and personal identity. “Do I have a right to live?” the narrator asks, as she reflects on those who predict that she is doomed to unhappiness unless she abandons farm work in favor of beauty products. Gould’s recounting of lesbian identity and inner turmoil resonates loudly in a moment when LGBT youth continue to be at a high risk of suicide. For a Kansas audience especially, the rural setting of “Near Mosier, Oregon” can be provocative, forcing readers to recognize the impact of their words on those who do not fit into the terms of heterosexual society.

New recognitions and revelations lie at the heart of “Doubters and Dreamers.” This point is made most clearly in “Somnabulista,” the book’s closing poem. In spite of popular uses of sleepwalking as a metaphor for an unthinking path through life, Gould’s sleepwalker is one who “can negotiate anything” whose “eyes see through this darkness.”

The volume ends with Gould’s admonishment to her readers to follow the lead of her Somnabulista, to “wander among stars and clouds” as “doubters and dreamers.” By offering readers poems where the world is always more than it first seems. Gould gives us the tools to see through the darkness.

Ashley Denney is a graduate student in English at Kansas State University.









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