Black Elk & the 4th of July

I recommend a book to anyone interested in America... that is, America as a spiritual/historical/cultural... entity. Something. The book is Black Elk : Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism (Orbis Bks, 2005). I just sent a copy to my son for his birthday.

Full disclosure : I am not, & have never been, a Catholic. Though I guess some might say I'm a crypto-Catholic (Episcopalian). How did I become an Episcopalian? That's another story. My grandmother, Florence Ainsworth Gould, born on July 4, 1900, was the 1st Episcopalian in the Gould clan (our local clan, anyway). Why? Because her father died when she was about 15. Of TB, or pneumonia : one of those scourges running through America in 1915. Florence became very gloomy... so a school friend invited her to a youth group at her church (which happened to be Episcopalian). Everything else followed (my infant baptism, for instance)...

The Episcopalians, I think (I'm not very informed on this) had a lot to do with missionary work among the Ojibwa, in Minnesota. But that's another story. THIS story is about a book, about Black Elk's conversion to Christianity, & what it all means...

This is a very valuable book. I would hazard to say that there is only one Truth - universal, local, personal, cosmic : but there are many ways of expressing it, paraphrasing it, or denying it.

This book is especially valuable to me. I've been dancing for a few years now around a long poem called Lanthanum. The poem emerged out of a dream I had, one night, about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. And this book (Black Elk, by Damian Costello) seemed to materialize in my hands, in response to some intuitions or hunches I was having with respect to the poem. (One of the advantages of working in a library.)

In my intuitions I saw - in a vague way - I kind of conjunction of 2 circles. First, the circle of old Europe (see, for iconic example, Henry Adams' book Mont St. Michel & Chartres) - and beyond that, old Byzantium (St. Maximus, WB Yeats, Osip Mandelstam) & old Israel (Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam). Second the circle of the New World (I could cite a lot of examples here... but for now let's just say Hart Crane, Roger Williams, William Blackstone, Malcolm Lowry, Black Elk).

Anyway, I had a vague sense of these two circles intersecting, forming a vesica (geometrical shape something like a canoe - formed by 2 intersecting circles)... around the space of the Gateway Arch. Old World, New World. Pound, Eliot/Crane, Stevens. St. Louis/Black Elk.

I was having these impulses before I read Damian Costello's book (& others about the Lakota) : & reading these things seems to have complexified my understanding as well as confirmed my intuitions.

It was the impulse, as a poet, to shed my (Anglo-European) skin : because there seems no other right way to get in touch with the sensible actuality of American soil... the feeling of the prairie & the woods & lakes. (Which is also part of my childhood nostalgia. My Dad & my brothers & I were active in the "Indian Guides", in the 60s - a sort of alternative to the Cub Scouts, based on "Indian" values... & there was a lot of this incorporated into Boy Scouts, too. I was initiated into the "Order of the Arrow" in Scout camp (which also happened to be an Episcopalian summer camp... Camp Lawton, near Balsam Lake, Wisconsin).

The funny thing is that as I started going in this direction I realized I was repeating myself. The very long poem Forth of July (finished in 2000) is a kind of Anglo-Native masque... a real (Ojibwa-style) Dream Song.

An aside : my mother was a childhood friend of the granddaughter (the daughter of "Laughing Allegra") of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They grew up as neighbors on the River Road, along the Mississippi in Minneapolis. The Longfellows invited my mother to their vacation place on the coast of Maine when she was 12 or 13... & so she had her first alcoholic drink (my mother's parents were Iowa teetotallers) - a glass of sherry - in the Longfellow House in Portland, Maine. HW Longfellow, of course, wrote the famous "Hiawatha" - a poem my father memorized (in part) in elementary school, in Minneapolis - based on an Ojibwa story (& set by Longfellow to a meter from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala). There's a statue of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha across Minnehaha Creek, in Como Park, in Minneapolis, near the Falls... where we used to have a picnic on the 4th of July every summer...

No comments: