Ndakinna: Our Land by Joseph Bruchac
(West End Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2003)
Joseph Bruchac is a prolific writer of books relating to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Of Abenaki ancestry, (one part of an ethnic background that, in his case, also includes Slovak and English blood), Bruchac is best known for his particular focus on North Eastern Native American folklore and culture. His poems, articles and stories have appeared in over 500 publications and he is the recipient of numerous literary awards, all of which reflect in various ways the critical acclaim with which his work has been received. As a scholar of Native American culture, he is much in demand as a performer and story-teller for Native American organizations and schools and, in 1999, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.
Ndakinna: Our Land is Bruchac’s poetic monument to the Abenaki peoples. The poems in this volume are steeped in Abenaki folklore and some of them bear titles in the Abenaki language. In each case, the title is explained in a footnote for the benefit of the reader. This is helpful. With hindsight, it would have been even more helpful if some notes had been supplied to explain the background to some of the narratives where matter remains obscure to the wider reading public. That said, this is a generous selection and there is much to be admired.
The book is in two parts. The first section celebrates the natural world of New England and the people who live there. In the second section, Bruchac sets his poems in other places—but even here his thoughts are never far from his native homeland.
Some might consider this preoccupation to be somewhat introspective but Bruchac avoids falling into this trap by turning his subject matter into a force that is universal.
The poem “Digging” is a good place to start: our affinity with the earth is neatly conveyed by the imagery which centres on the inseparable link between man and his environment. When a spade hits a stone, it
shivers like the nerve
in a tooth
through your bones
vibrating your back
like a tuning fork
but whatever is there,
to dig down takes its toll,
makes hands callous, backs stiffen
and into your arms
the heaviness of the earth you displace
will settle as the day grows thinner.
The digging here is almost like a kind of archaeology. On the one hand there is the uncertainty of what lies beneath the surface; on the other, as history unpacks itself, he knows he is himself a product of everything that has gone before:
whatever you dig
whatever is hidden
will be seen in your eyes.
Other poems speak of this affinity as well. In “Walking In November Across The Stream To The Sweat Lodge”, a poem to the memory of Sam Ray, he writes of fallen maple leaves that no longer blaze as red as embers—
Earth brown, they close
like fists around
their own lives,
loosening into soil.
Animals of the land and animals of the sea feature prominently—there are poems about dogs, horses, ravens, wolves, humpback and finback whales, tiger salamanders…the list goes on. Their presence is much more obvious than the footprint of man, although man also makes his impact in the few poems which are set in the city, such as “Gross National Product”, “Before the Quake: Four Images in San Francisco” and “Turning From The Klan”. The image of man in the city is sometimes menacing but largely that of a broken spirit.
For Bruchac, strength comes from tradition which in turn is seen as something precious handed down from one generation to another. It is not found in the city, it is found in the land where
…rivers and streams
link like sinew through a leather garment
sewed strong to hold our people,
patterns of flowers
close to the brown soil.
His imagery is often striking. In “Forest Fire From The Air” the scene is neatly described as
…an ideogram written by the frustration
of small men with gasoline and matches.
In this dry fall of the heart,
the lights of arson are confused sentences
scrawled on the autumn lands
with brushstrokes of flame.
In “Snapping Turtle On The Expressway” Bruchac expresses with consummate skill what is perhaps at the heart of this book—the meeting-point of two very different ways of life. A turtle is in the process of crossing the expressway. At every line of the poem we fear for its life:
Back ridged, ancient as a walking rock,
the turtle moved, step by stalking step,
across the double lane as cars
and trucks slowed to avoid its bulk.
The irony comes in the middle of the poem where a Greyhound bus, symbol of the modern age, is described as
a dinosaur of blue metal, less sure
of its right of way than the turtle…
All through the poem there is this juxtaposition of the slow, measured pace of the turtle and the fast, rip-roaring pace of modern man and the way in which the sight of the turtle causes the frenetic drivers to slow down, if only for a brief moment in time. The hope that the old way of doing things, the time-honoured way which is in harmony with nature, will remain in place is expressed poignantly in the last lines of the poem:
You prayed that it went on, survived,
its slow certainty something we
have learned to celebrate in our lives.
In another poem, “Four Poems for Ndakinna” Bruchac sums up the essence of the Abenaki way of life:
That’s the way it was
a long time ago,
that’s the way it is today.
Elsewhere he says:
that when my time comes
to give up my breath
may my own flesh
of civilization, let it find
new life in death.
This is an inspirational book, a reaffirmation of a culture and a tradition that is very much a part of the Abenaki heritage. It is full of close observation and has been written with a passion which Bruchac successfully transmits to his readers.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His poems and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.