“Bear, Coyote, Raven” by Jason Grundstrom-Whitney; Resolute Bear Press, Robbinston, Maine, 2019; 118 pages, paperback, $12.95.

For most of the semester, our class had been reading Native American autobiographies and novels. It was a literature course, so it necessarily covered native cultural and social history, which can be chagrining if you are a white American with a conscience. My ethnic ancestors, not to put too fine a point on it, tried for about 400 years to exterminate the American Indians. So the overarching theme of the reading so far had been human suffering. Wearing material.

Toward the end of the semester, the reading list turned to ritual texts, myths and folk stories, for lack of a better term. The students perked up. One week we looked at the “Popol Vuh,” the Central American “epic” (for lack of a better term) which reads more like a transcription of a series of peyote trips than like a long poem containing history (as Ezra Pound put it). “Professor Wilde, this is what we wanted to be reading all semester,” one of the brasher students announced, apparently speaking for the whole class. Me too, I said.

There had been, however, a problem about this part of the course from the inception: I did not really know how to talk about this stuff. The novels and autobiographies, while written by Native Americans, were nonetheless conventional literary texts you could discuss conventionally. The “Popol Vuh” — no way. The same went for the poetry, much of which amounted to transcriptions of songs, which had no fixed text at all. Just whatever the anthologists had access to. And the folk stories mostly just went over my head. They’re sort of like fairy tales, sort of like dream narratives, sort of like drug visions, sort of like fables, sort of like comic book stories, but none of the above. Animals behave and speak exactly like people, yet are clearly not metaphors and are impervious to conventional allegorical interpretations. A coyote in a Native American story is almost never a coyote that stands for a human being. It’s just a coyote, speaking English (translated from his native language) and having some crazy adventure he got himself into, half the time up in the sky.

So when I opened “Bear, Coyote, Raven” by Jason Grundstrom-Whitney, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, my fears were realized. He writes poems based on, or developed from, or modeled after the folk stories. He understands who these coyotes, bears and ravens are, and I don’t. I was back in that classroom from long ago. I’m going to have to say something useful about this, because it’s good stuff. But what?

Funny story. Grundstrom-Whitney’s poems, it turns out, blend the fundamentals of the native tales with material conventional to 21st-century lyric poetry. So a coyote in this book is just a coyote doing ridiculous things with a great sense of humor and some kind of implicit wisdom, or lack thereof.

 

Bear came out of Glacier unwillingly.

Raven and Coyote harassed him

until he stood upright and

tucked hair under his hat.

“Unh, unh,” he muttered.

 

But at the same time, there is often a conventional theme or idea implicit, sometimes even explicit, in the story. There are a lot of poems here, for example, in which coyote, bear and raven rue the degradation of the land (native eco-poetry). In others, they get knocked around by the ever-present authorities and end up, for example, “three Indians / in lockup,” a familiar image in Native American history.

This blending of native playfulness that sounds like it has some kind of wisdom out of reach of conventional reading, together with easily identifiable themes about the environment and institutionalized social oppression, created a kind of dawning on me. These stories have no clear boundaries between your thinking mind and your feeling heart. The gist of the stories is not the rational ideas you can make out of them, but the feeling you get when you hear them. The humor you feel in coyote’s craziness or the sympathy you feel for bear’s weird cosmic conundrums (that seem to make no sense at all) are the meaning. There is no “point.” Or rather, the feeling is the point. Which is what I’ve been saying about poetry for years, and needed these poems to wake me up to how it works in Native American stories.

I don’t know how to teach this in a literature class. I’ve tried before. When you suggest to the students that there is no point, you are all suddenly in over your heads.

 

At night Bear dreamed Ursa Major and Minor

into being and poured his generous medicine

to all in need.

 

Jason Grundstrom-Whitney, of Monmouth, is a member of the Passamaquoddy Bear Clan and works as a counselor at the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta. He’s read his poetry in the Bookey Readings series at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, and his next scheduled reading is July 15 at the Eastport Gallery in Eastport. “Bear, Coyote, Raven” is available from Resolute Bear Press, local book stores and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.