Univeristy of Arizona Press
80 Pages; Print, $16.95
Consider, for a moment, the nervous-system tracings of rivers in the American landscape before the construction of dams, the way the mouth of a river diagrams the nerves of a human hand. Ponder how memory lives in your nervous system like Shawnee panther-spirits live in rivers. Recall dead metaphors until they come back to life—river of time, river of memory, river of life, river of blood—how rivers meander or whirl or flow like thoughts; that they crawl along, rush over the edge, and sometimes even get lost. On return from your reverie, perhaps you’ll be prepared to experience Laura Dá’s Tributaries.
Tributaries is a complex yet approachable collection displaying a stunning mastery of figurative language structured by documentary poetics, informed by historical and cultural research, and infused with myth and history. The collection documents Shawnee tribal history from the birth of the poet-speaker’s son then back to the double-removal of the people from their homelands in Ohio, and, finally, like the tail of the Alligator Mound, the collection coils back on itself, returning through the poet-speaker’s experiences in schoolteaching to the same child’s birth and naming.
Dá’s poetry is deeply researched, utilizing sources as disparate as a visit to the basement storage at the National Museum of the American Indian; the “Journal of Occurrences” kept by Daniel R. Dunihue, superintendent in charge of Shawnee removal; the papers of Colonel John Johnson, agent to the Shawnee for fifty years “before and during the period of Indian Removal;” and the journals of John James Audubon. Family stories, tribal histories, both written and oral, and cultural myth and practice encircle and challenge the white men’s accounts.
The collection is divided into four sections: “The Always Frontier,” “Lazarus Shale: The Period of Removal,” “Lazarus’ Children: Severalty,” and “No Longer.” The first and last sections are set in contemporary America; the Lazarus sections treat the past. But the past is never past in Tributaries, and the present is threaded through with history. For instance, the opening poem, “Earth Mover,” is an account of the Caesarean birth of the poet-speakers’s son but “earth mover” is a term analogous to “mound builder,” which ties the Shawnee cultural past to the present.
I close my eyes and roll hills,churn rivers, press shovel to earth and brace
for the abrasion that draws the pastglistening into the present.[. . .]an effigy depicted in a perplexing mound—the Shawnee described a perilous being wrought
like a massive panther swimmingthrough rivers with the power to destroy
and renew. Alligator Mound.No. I net the past and future in panther skin.
Throughout the collection, the poet “nets” the past, present, and future in the skin of Shawnee culture. The poems are so deeply embedded in Shawnee culture that even in the “narrative” poems, metaphors and cultural references reenact and bring into the present mythic and historical structures. Raven “Talks Curriculum” and “Gets Meta.” Cultural beings like Panther and Bear prowl throughout the collection and tribal history and lifeways weave a tight basket of interconnected references.
While Dá’s word choice and imagery are beautifully profound in each individual instance, it’s the interweaving of imagery that brings to the poems in the collection a hybrid sensibility, a poetics that combines lyric and narrative. Imagery is repeatedly re-visioned from one section to another, from one poem to another. The overall feel of the collection is dependent on the interwoven imagery which creates a feeling of being caught in a web of history not of one’s own making, and therefore claustrophobic. The assault on Native communities is figured as it is, a recurring oppression. Yet, the tonal shifts of recurrent imagery reclaim problematic imagery, challenge the dominant narrative, and speak to the survivance of Native people.
Examples of recurrent imagery include several births: of the poet-speaker, her son, and her father; the auspicious birth of twins during the Removal, and the birth of a colt. Eggs are another recurring metaphor...