Book Bag: ‘Through a Red Place’ by Rebecca Pelky; ‘Uncertain Acrobats’ by Rebecca Hart Olander

Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2021 6:12:01 PM

Through a Red Place By Rebecca Pelky; Perugia Press

 

Perugia Press of Florence, founded in 1997 to bring more attention to female writers, has had a unique mission for nearly a quarter of a century: publishing the work of one new female poet each year, following a contest that can attract more than 500 applicants from across the country.

This year’s winner is Rebecca Pelky, a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation of Wisconsin, whose new collection, “Through a Red Place,” is a powerful exploration of the Native American experience, of personal and national history, and of the complex issue of heritage.

Pelky, who was born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now teaches film studies at Clarkson University in upstate New York, uses a range of forms in her work: free verse, prose poems, short poems that read almost like haiku, with some written in Mohegan (with English translations).

“Through a Red Place” also includes photographs, old news clippings, Indian school records and other graphics that bear witness to her efforts to trace her roots and to the more general struggles of Native peoples. As publisher’s notes put it, the book is “an inventive collage of geography, history, myth, translation, lineage, erasure, journalism, and photography.”

Some of Pelky’s poems are intensely personal. In “Landmines,” she tries to recall her father, a Vietnam veteran who later struggled with addiction and whose “black eyes never rested.” Searching for information on the man through “musty archives and computer screens,” the poet’s memories still prompt old fears, and she decides to abandon her hunt for information.

“Some stories belong underground, / unfound. Landmines seethe / like yellowjacket nests. Everyone knows / it’s best to leave them alone.”

“Parrish,” by contrast, takes a hard look at how Native children — girls in particular — in the U.S. and Canada were for decades taken from their homes to attend white schools or live with white families in a push to “civilize” them and force them to abandon their language and culture.

“Men arranged this / with other men, / sent Indian girls away / to learn good godly ways. // And the women learned / things they already knew: / how to clean, how to cook, / how to serve. For their teachers / were devout and only wanted / to save the Indians.”

Pelky also writes of her search for her roots and for ancestral land and markers, such as Indian earthen mounds and old graveyards. Many of these markers have been cut off by fences or roads, or plowed over to make way for housing or other construction, such as one mound that now “wears a street like a loincloth, / and has a house pressed into his chest.”

The poet writes feelingly as well about her connection to the earth itself, to forests and streams and fields, especially in Wisconsin. But there are always reminders that this land once belonged to Native peoples, many of whom were forced from their homelands by the relentless push of white settlement.

There’s no more vivid reminder of that than “Between the Lies,” a work Pelky created by eliminating most of the text from a message President Andrew Jackson sent to Congress in 1830, calling for moving Native Americans from the Southern states to land west of the Mississippi River, ostensibly for their good as well as the good of whites.

Against a mostly dark background, like a heavily redacted document, Pelky lets stand just enough words from Jackson’s message to make the meaning of the removal policy clear. One lengthy section of text is reduced to “It will relieve / the Indians / of / power / happiness / progress / lessening their numbers and, / cause / their / certain and / complete execution.”

Pelky’s website is rebeccapelky.com. A virtual book launch for “Through a Red Place” is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. You can find the link by going to perugiapress.org and clicking on “Events.”

 

Uncertain Acrobats by
Rebecca Hart Olander;

CavanKerry Press

 

Rebecca Hart Olander of Florence is the editor and director of Perugia Press, a writing teacher at Westfield State University, and a regularly published poet herself. She’s now published her first full-length collection, “Uncertain Acrobats,” that probes a painful subject: the death of her father, Thomas Seymour Hart, in 2012.

The title, as publisher’s notes put it, refers to the “fumbling for balance” that a dying father and his daughter engage in. The poems themselves offer a rich portrait of Olander’s father as a younger man while also describing the end of his life, her deep sense of loss from his death, and how her father’s life intersected with hers.

In “Origins,” Olander describes her father as “Omar Sharif-in-Doctor Zhivago handsome. / He came from acoustic guitar, ponytail, and patched / bell-bottoms. From a first marriage to a girl he loved / that lasted just three years. He got off the school bus / he and my mother were riding with friends toward / Colorado, deciding to go instead to divinity school.”

Olander also traces her ups and downs with her father as she was growing up, spending time with him after he and her mother divorced when she was very young. In “College Cathexis,” she relates that many of her girlfriends seemed to hate their fathers and that she, too, “wanted to burn with righteous fire,” given that fathers “represented patriarchy and restrictions.”

But thinking of her father that way didn’t work, the poet writes: “I fanned my modest disappointments / to try and catch a spark. It didn’t take. / I doused the sputtering flame, / let time transform that old terrain.”

Other poems take readers through the difficult journey engulfing father and daughter when he is stricken with cancer, his life ending in a hospice. In “Husk,” Olander remembers all the things her father had been — writer, teacher, musician, runner and running coach, enthusiastic reader — when at the end “This is what is left / when language leaves / us — the humming, / the seesaw breath / in and out.”

Then comes the difficult work of mourning, remembering, and finally coming to terms with loss. In “My Heaven Would Be Studded With Fathers,” the poet recalls many scenes with her father, including a walk in the woods, and she now senses his presence there: “[M]y father, in the woods / like stars in the ether, spangling / everything in a wash of light.”

Olander’s website is rebeccahartolander.com. She will read from her new collection Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. in a virtual event sponsored by Straw Dog Writers’ Guild; contact  brownjaneroy@gmail.com to register. She reads Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. as well in a virtual event sponsored by CavanKerry Press; you can register here.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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