Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 68-71
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Opening the Box
During the changing colors of autumn when we prepare for the cold winter ahead, the people I know tend to build puzzles. The puzzle's closed universe opens them to a process of introspection, of rediscovering how their combination of abilities and perceptions, their internal pieces as it were, confirm selfhood. Although James Thomas Stevens's Combing the Snakes from His Hair is a vibrant text more suitable for [End Page 68] reading and celebrating in the spring, its sense of renewal and personal growth comes only through the poet's and our recognition that his influences and experiences interconnect to fashion a lyrical picture of his identity.
Borders and Edges
According to Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk), his collection of free verse poems, drawings, and autobiographical reminisces is an "attempt to center me between nature, love and history" (3). This concept of triangulation permeates Stevens's self-conception as he also situates himself amongst Mohawk, Welsh and Anglo cultural contexts. Three long poems, "A Half-breed's Guide to the Use of Native Plants," "Notes on a Music I Never Heard," and "Tokinish," dominate the text. His utilization of three as an organizing principle is no doubt in part due to his identification with the Mohawk tribe. The People of Flint, for example are comprised of three clans (Wolf, Bear, Turtle), and as horticulturalists, raised the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash.
Although the title commits the text to an Iroquoian worldview, referring specifically to the healing ceremony of Onondaga leader Atatarho, Stevens's work cannot be understood solely through familiarity with Mohawk history and traditions. Stevens was raised in an Anglo community positioned amidst the three reservations of his grandparents; he presents his identity as triangular, reflecting an ego at ease with division and displacement. He steps into division, finding himself in a "new old world—a world that half my blood fought to obtain and the other half struggled to hold" (5). "Displaced," as he says, in ways, and for reasons that remain tantalizingly ambiguous for Native American studies scholars. Stevens's sense of personal dislocation from the community might refer to his perspective of American colonization, that "False Sunflower":
Your hand against his spine
reveals the coarseness of his skin
worse the forked tongue [End Page 69]
a fertile forked pistil
Take note of his tendency to colonize
Or, as in "The Act of God," it may invoke both his rejection of the healing ceremony performed on him as a child after losing three fingers, and his love for men.
Stevens's multiethnic identity thus also confronts readers with the differences present to his body, love, and personal history. Readers are called to accept the poet on his terms. Stevens reconfigures the healing ceremony in which Atatarho's mind, body, and spirit are "straightened," playing with the ceremony's core metaphor that equates the act of straightening with peace and health. "The Prairie Milkweed," for instance, with its double entendres of the penis, implies that semen is a preventative medicine, "as psychic / a serum against those who may wrong you" (9). Rather than straightening his queer love, Stevens writes to straighten his account of himself and the world we share, taking that knowledge into his spirit and transmitting it to others. Seeking acceptance, he embraces his triangular boundaries as the poems resonate to code his literary, ethnic, and queer persona.
Combing the Snakes from His Hair has five sections; love poems and translations of Iroquois stories respectively, separate the three major pieces. Grouped loosely, many poems in the first section produce striking images of survival. In "Cream Wild Indigo," Stevens writes,
Others find other means to endure,
hook-like they hang
on the hides of the enemy.
Pollinated by Queens walking across their backs
and gleaned of precious nectars
This survival is often linked with mobility as in...