Reviewed by Margaret Rozga
Meditation on Ceremonies of Beginnings is both intensely local and powerfully global. The tribal college and world indigenous higher education movement described in these poems have their roots and growth in Wisconsin, home of poet Thomas Davis, as well as in many other places, including Minnesota, South Dakota, Hawaii, and New Zealand. The poems are set in many of these places, often at meetings of leaders in the movement. In “Knowledge,” that setting is Hawaii, in “a house with unmortared stone walls.” The construction of this house is an apt metaphor to describe Davis’s poetic approach as he brings to life this important recent history in danger of being overlooked and forgotten. The poems present key moments and key participants in this history without the mortar of a timeline to link the events.
Davis, himself an early and long-term participant in the movement, sees instead the “connection between peoples and hearts” and the “discipline of exacting work” as the construction bond. The book, then, unmortared though it may be by traditional strategies of Western history, reinvigorates history with images of people endeavoring to bring an enduring vision, an indigenous epistemology, into a new form of being.
Davis, who is not indigenous, opens with a preface that provides in prose the history of his role in the founding of the College of the Menomonee Nation and how that experience brought him into the larger fold of the tribal college movement and later into the World Indigenous Nations Education Consortium. Davis also describes in the preface his understanding of history.
History is not just made up of facts and events, as momentous as those events may be, but also of emotions, dreams, striving, failing, tragedy, struggling against long odds, laughter, joy, and personalities that make significant differences even as those contributions are lost when historians begin to shuffle through dust bins of primary sources.
Among those who made a significant difference is Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University. In “Lionel,” his assertion, “It’s all, of us or none of us,” opens the poem, becomes the refrain, and leads to the Kellogg Foundation’s funding for all of the tribal colleges. Omitted from this praise poem are details about whatever selective funding the Foundation had offered, so that emphasis on the significant difference Lionel Bordeaux made remains undiluted.
The elegies “Jack Barden” and “Jack Briggs” also praise their steadfast commitment to “the great song a movement sings / when it’s after remaking the world.” These poems extend the central metaphor of song as epistemology, song as a way of knowing, song as mortar. “Meditation on the Song” picks up this theme of song as connecter and uniter in an especially compelling way.
Their talking was a song.
My life, their lives are song.
The Indian song is deep,
a river flowing from thousands of years of voices.
The river is another recurring metaphor that unifies the collection. In some poems, it is shaded with a more complex meaning. “River of People” presents its flow as pain as well as success. Carty Monette, the speaker in this poem, says that some “fall into the flow / and join in the wail of suffering.” Jack Briggs figures again in this poem as Monette describes him: “he was one of those people who were in the river / and turned around once he was on the bank / and reached out to those he had left behind.” As he moves toward his concluding vision, Monette affirms, “And in those times, in the grasp of other hands, / I know the glory of humankind.”
As the poem “Knowledge” unfolds, it presents the “liquid fire” of the tribal college founders and world indigenous education leaders’ profound commitment to indigenous ways of knowing. The poem sees indigenous knowledge in terms of a construction without mortar, a building that requires “the discipline of exacting work.” In a taro patch in Hawaii, the speaker, presumably Davis himself, has an epiphany, becoming newly aware of the weaving we humans have made of information, thought, emotion, making by hand, the culture, and languages we come from, our past, the past of our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, our children, the land we touch, laughter, sadness, the power of human/earth condition, reflection, analysis, and at last, meaning.
This poem concludes with emphasis on the joy of engaging in this work and seeing its meaning.
Meditation on Ceremonies of Beginnings weds poetry to recent history. The book’s style, meditative and philosophical at times, conversational at others, and sometimes the two simultaneously, employs image and metaphor of fact to celebrate individuals and the connections forged in the process of working toward a shared goal. These are praise poems even when they recount setbacks. They give us the “unmortared” poetry of a movement whose participants, including poet Thomas Davis, are building enduring institutions of higher learning.
As 2019-2020 Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Margaret Rozga co-edited the anthology Through This Door: Wisconsin in Poems (Art Night Books, 2020). Her fifth book of poems, Holding My Selves Together: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press in May 2021. She lives in Milwaukee.