“We speak a strange tongue. / We are ghosts haunting ourselves.” Wow. This is how Mihku Paul ends “Mother Tongue,” part of 20th Century PowWow Playland. This collection of verse concerns itself with histories of displacement—personal and tribal. Mixed-blood Native people are a central topic, and she coins the term “Amerindia” (in the poem of the same name) for the place where “Those hybrids roam from Mexico to Montreal.” Erasure of language is one concern, and physical changes are another as she writes:
face will hover, imprisoned in silvered glass?
What name will you call her,
whose eyes were you own, staring back,
as the mirror shattered and
the tree bore this new fruit? (53)
The North American diaspora aftermath leaves children “honey-dipped, tea-stained” and with “green eyes.” Paul explores what is lost in communities with disrupted narratives as she writes, “We are, all of us, cast on a burning wind.” Such phrases as “Ghosts haunting ourselves,” “captive faces,” and “burning wind” illustrate the strength of the poet’s voice.
“The Anishinaaabe and other natives have endured in virtual cartography, the certain mete of native sovereignty,” writes Ojibwe author Gerald Vizenor, who comes from a similar Algonquian language tradition as Paul. She re-maps the continent, the shore, the rivers, and the cities. “Acadia” is a love poem to a person and to a place. She asserts personal as well as community sovereignty as she creates a literary work that reimagines form. She selects her own subject matter.
This book is an act of courage. “Before the ships, nature was our only mirror” is another zinger (from “Bright Colors from the Earth and Sky). The poem continues to catalogue the colors of nature:
A scarlet-feathered cardinal
perched on a spruce tree.
Umber-striated quills on
a grumbling porcupine’s back.
Silver winter’s whiteness, snow and ice.
Black shadow of a bear’s silhouette.
Purple sheen, chokecherries
drooping from a thin branch.
Pale green skunk cabbage
sprouting from the brown earth.
Orange ochre riverbank clay,
indigo night and robin’s egg.
Golden, the morning sun’s eye. (60)
These images reclaim a worldview. The poem continues from mapping land to reconfiguring time into “Beaver Moons.”
Throughout this collection, Paul is startlingly original. Never does she fall into easy, homogenized lines. Always, her intelligence is at work. She joins other Native poets of the Northeast who revitalize Indigenous traditions.
20th Century PowWow Playland by Mihku Paul (Greenfield Center: Bowman Books, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-1105786105, Paperback: 82 pages
Mihku Paul is a Maliseet poet, writer, and visual artist with an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Her poetry appears in Cabildo Quarterly Online, Maine Wabanaki REACH, Native Literature: Generations, and others. Paul’s first multi-media installation “Look Twice: The Waponahki in Image & Verse,” went on exhibit in October 2009 at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. The exhibit is a compilation of twelve panels that combine archival images of Waponahki history and culture with original poems. She is an enrolled member of Kingsclear First Nations, New Brunswick, Canada. She lives in Portland, Maine.