The Book of Big Dog Town: Poems and Stories from Aztalan and Around by Jim Stevens. Fireweed Press, 2013.
Review by Mary Riley
In this collection of poems and stories published by Fireweed Press, Jim Stevens chronicles his experience of deepening relationship with one sacred Native American site – Aztalan – which is located in south central Wisconsin, more commonly known as Aztalan State Park. His term for Aztalan, Big Dog Town, refers to the spirit-horses he encountered during the time he spent there. Stevens, who is of German and Seneca ancestry, explains how the works comprising Big Dog Town came into being through the relationship he developed to the place of Aztalan itself. As Stevens recounts in the introduction, “Searching for the Hearthstone”, he has gradually reclaimed his Native American heritage through this deeply-felt connection to Aztalan and its sister city, Cahokia: “I have come to realize that the modern world is just a thin overlay upon indigenous Turtle Island.”
In addition to providing needed context, Stevens’ extended commentary emphasizes to the reader the importance of interconnectivity and relationship in the Native American worldview. This I personally found quite helpful, as it permitted me to see connections across Stevens’ poems and prose works in Big Dog Town. Although each of Stevens’ poems and stories is perfectly capable of “standing alone”, it does not necessarily mean that they should stand alone, given the portrait of the world that Stevens presents through his works.
In Big Dog Town, Stevens presents a world that appears timeless, where past, present and future are either imperceptibly collapsed together, or the order in which they are conventionally conceptualized simply has no relevance. Stevens’ use of consonance to illustrate harmony and order in this sacred world shows his skillful technique as a poet and storyteller: I was hard-pressed to find an abrupt or harsh sound when I read several of his poems aloud. (Just try it. You’ll see!).
Stevens, in describing his relationship and place within the natural world, further illustrates the connection between the natural and the sacred to the reader. In the poem, “Living In The Poem,” the speaker states:
Where I live in the north woods of Wisconsin, Pleiades is closer to the soul than the horizon. At night there grows an intimacy with the dark well of the heavens. There becomes an increasing love for the shadowy realms, as with an owl who is returning home.
After reading Stevens’ Big Dog Town in its entirety, you just might feel like you’ve traveled to somewhere new as Stevens accompanies you on the pathways through his poems, introduces you to the spirit-beings with whom he has conversed, and shows you the places he has seen and experienced. And you might feel all the better for having gotten a glimpse of Stevens’ world, especially as the modern world becomes increasingly busy and cluttered with distractions that monopolize our ever-shortened leisure time. In Big Dog Town, Stevens leads us away from our stressful, time-bound, everyday existence in order to see a more sacred reality, even if only for a short space of time.
Mary Riley grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In addition to writing poetry book reviews, she has written articles in the areas of indigenous people’s rights, traditional medicine, and cultural anthropology. An avid poetry fan, Mary lives with her husband in Chicago, Illinois.