Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
The Jesuit Relations, chronicles of missionary work among the First Nations peoples in what was claimed as New France between 1632 and 1673, contain dismissive descriptions of the power objects of these peoples, coupled with praise for the ingenious use of trinkets as “prizes” to lure children into reciting prayers and competing to memorize the most bits of catechism. The Jesuit Relations are documents of cultural genocide that, simultaneously, stand as the best ethnographic record on certain customs, even as the missionaries are at war with these customs, urging the natives to adopt new, Christian practices and beliefs, frustrated by the “usual reply . . . oniondechouten, ‘Such is the custom of our country.’”1
Yet even while insisting that these custom-followers are doomed to “eternal torment,” the Jesuit writers can’t help but marvel at some of the humanity behind the “savage” traditions they seek to eradicate. Notably among them is the practice, among the Huron, of “the solemn feast of the dead,” in which “the bodies are taken from their Cemeteries,” and, in various states of decay, gazed upon by the community in which they lived before being lovingly rewrapped in new, fine robes and interred again. “Is not that a noble example to inspire Christians,” writes Jean de Brebeuf, “who ought to have thoughts much more elevated to acts of charity and works of mercy towards their neighbor?”2
There’s a tragic irony here: appreciation, by the extinguisher, of that being extinguished. And this is one example of thousands, from a war of annihilation that while, at times, was (and is) bloody, more often is worked through relocation and re-education, through forced adoption of custom and ideology, through haircuts and the handing out of prizes for the best regurgitation-on-cue of imposed beliefs. Such is the tone stitched throughout Sarah Sousa’s collection of poems memorializing and imaginatively voicing the experience—of loss, of life, of the bludgeoning of one culture by another—of Native American nations. She describes grave goods and sewing kits, fire-starting tools and foods, all as means of testifying to human dignity against the crushing weight of conquest. Every object, Sousa tells us, is a story. For instance, we see here a pubescent Pequot girl buried with a fragment of psalm in her medicine pouch, an interpretive appropriation of the new religion, reverence for the “ant-letters’ magic” an understanding of the book’s supposed spiritual strength. Another poem presents us with a “bricolage from the bible marginalia of Massachusetts Indians,” offering up such paired fragments as “I am a person. / I am pitiful.” A third piece enters into the mind of a grammarian, considering the translation of the Bible into Algonquin, and how important it is to convey the way context determines meaning, as how “cleave is both / cut and cling to.”
Such paradox, such absurdity: like the parade of the Caucasians in mock-Indian get-up, waving “scalps cut from cowhide” as they pantomime defeat and expulsion for the audience at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exhibition, 1898. A real “Indian band strikes up Stars and Stripes Forever— / familiar distress signal of circus performers everywhere” and as the Improved Order of Red Men work their routine on stage, “Three Indians die and one attempts suicide / behind the scenes.” On another page, Mary Rowlandson, in captivity, turns “wolfish” with hunger, devouring the fetus inside a deer. Sousa quotes her words directly: “I eat the soft bones as well as the flesh,” a phrase at once celebrating vitality and foreshadowing the ravenous consumption, by Rowlandson’s people, of this New World, its resources. Shadows pass over these poems, the death of individuals and the death of cultures, customs, and communities reflected in the darkness that falls over objects as they turn to artifacts, to remnants of the lost. In Sousa’s phrasing, this book bears witness to the life those objects once had, but also how “God’s black wing blots the trinket-shine.”