Download PDF Maurice Kenny: Celebrations of a Mohawk Writer

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In addition to the portrayal of Molly Brant, the author gives voice to a number of other complex characters. Kenny begins his history in a traditional manner, with an evocation of the sacred. I use the terms legendary and legend because the author has expressed, in writing and in conversations, his preference for those words over mythical and myth. Kenny argues that stories have ongoing relevance and feels that the former terms express that sense better than the latter. And legends began drop drop5 Kenny links legends, dripping down through time, with water, the first element.

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Stories and creation occur simultaneously. A traditional oral historical sequence occurs in the poem. Kenny is a poet of concrete images, of vivid characterization, of realistic voices. When he employs symbols—blood and strawberries, for example—these work as recurring motifs that resonate with meaning because they have a place in the stories of his people, and they have a cumulative 78 CRAIG S. Kenny is not an obscure symbolist.

He believes in poetry as an oracular performance as much as a written form. Those who have heard him read know that, for him, poetry means movement, physicality, sound; the release of adrenaline and the pounding of the bloodstream. Spoken words are, by definition, actions, not arbitrary symbols; thus, word and deed are closely related. This is the way stories can be passed on and remembered in the absence of written backups—by total emotional involvement of both teller and listener.

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Stories, then, are a re-experiencing of events. They come to pass in their tellings. The storyteller uses gesture, movement, voice modulation, sophisticated imitations of characters, and other techniques that all reduce the objective distance between listener, teller, and story. A complete identification between word and audience occurs.

Maurice Kenny

Chant also has the larger spiritual purpose of creating being through language so that whatever is spoken of comes to pass. Through these Iroquoian voices, Kenny captures the superlative oratory for which his people are known. Kenny makes the historical treatment of Molly Brant and other characters particularly interesting by creating an imaginative dialogue between historical accounts and poetic voices.

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I have always proclaimed that I am a singer of poetic song, and that my betters in fiction—Simon J. I have, however, occasionally pursued narrative in both story and one-act plays, not necessarily to spin a tale but more to delineate character. Narrative is a challenge. For me, it is a morning exercise as well, an exercise in ridding poetry of the statement of prose.

The stories and one-act play in this book make a small bundle, and my clutch of narrative poems would make a smaller bundle, still. Both are books of narrative poems.

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In Molly Brant: Poems of War, the storytelling voice that the poet has been insecure about has risen to new heights of power. The genius of the book is that Kenny creates voices that are lyrical and, at the same time, convincing as speech. A good example is the character of George Crohan, an Irish immigrant, an important influence in the Mohawk Valley. A father. A friend. I till the soil, I arrow a bird, I shoot a deer. Examples of this diversity appear in the poems about Jennie, a Black slave held by William Johnson, and her daughter Juba.

When the reader encounters Juba for the first time, she is repeating something that sounds like a ceremonial incantation concerning fire, and one wonders if Juba is practicing some kind of voodoo: jumm jumm jumm jumm fire jump fire jump sprinkle beads onto these flames jumm jumm jumm jumm. WOMACK Juba continues by chanting a spell-like incantation, and a lively scene is created of a girl ritualistically feeding a fire.

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    He structures the book in such a way—as he did Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues—that multiple voices comment on the same person, and the characters are examined from many different angles. As with Juba, he reveals characters cumulatively, and their personalities fall together for the reader as the book progresses. The center of attention, and an omnipresence in all poems, is Molly herself.

    Through his creative act, the author has established a strong relationship between himself and Molly Brant, evident because the poems are so convincingly and lovingly rendered. Those who are grieving at the death of a longhouse chief offer this prayer to ease their sorrow.

    Take less, perhaps. A roof remains over our heads. We stand in a circle. As a clan mother responsible for the safety of the community, Molly regards the danger to her people as a personal threat. The sequence of seven poems is significant, of course, because of the sacredness of the number seven in relation to the cardinal directions and the realms of earth, sky, and water. It is the talk of women at ease among themselves, out of earshot of men. Berries, especially strawberries, are central images for the poet: In Iroquois storytelling, the Little People who lived in a quarry without meat, took in Ragged Boy, who shared game with them.

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    They, in turn, gave him the gift of strawberries and stories to take back to the people. When he returned to his community, he found that his people had moved and were starving, and the strawberries and stories restored them to health. Your face and gingham spotted with your first knowledge, your first Lesson. You were never able to wash the blood away. It stuck, hard And dark to your cheek, your hands. The omnipresent blood imagery creates a simultaneity of past, present, and future.

    Blood, in the sense of bloodline, connects ancestors with those in the present, as well as those to come. She proclaims Molly to have the stronger life, which lasts and continues to speak to people. The penultimate poem in the collection backs up this assertion. Beth Brant, the contemporary Mohawk poet and fiction writer mentioned in the title of the poem, is a blood descendant of Molly.

    Kenny depicts Molly as a woman in a community of women with strong voices; in Iroquoian culture, women have powerful positions in the longhouse and a strong influence on the political and social life of the nation. In her book, The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Barbara Graymont states, The practice of matrilineal descent gave women a unique position. Each clan was entitled to a certain number of chiefs, and the matrons of the clans could appoint and depose these chiefs.

    The white wampum belts which indicated the hereditary names of the chiefs were kept by the women. The mothers also had much influence with the warriors. The women, usually through a warrior chosen as their speaker, could always make their wishes known in council. Even an esteemed white woman living in Indian country could exercise unusual prerogatives, as did the Tory Sarah McGinnis when she prevented a wampum belt bearing news of an American victory over the British from going farther than her village. When the council could not agree on a certain issue, they referred the problem to the council of the clan mothers.

    Among the Iroquois, the women thus had greater status and more control over the affairs of their nation than did the women of the European countries and their colonial settlements. George Crohan, an Irish immigrant who became influential among the Iroquois, says of Molly in one poem, She knew how to hoe and how to sew. She could command servants and an army.

    Mohawk Fade