Ethel Mortenson Davis’s drawing is the perfect artwork for the cover of the epic:
Ethel Mortenson Davis’s drawing is the perfect artwork for the cover of the epic:
by Thomas Davis
On January 1, 1975 I was working as a teacher at the Menominee County Community School when the Menominee Warrior Society took over the Alexian Brother’s Novitiate in Gresham, Wisconsin. Ethel and I were living in the Gresham trailer park at the time, and on January 2, a Monday, I drove into work as usual. I was a little nervous about taking my usual route down County Road VV since the news about the Novitiate was dominating local media and the old building was not far off my route, but I was pretty dedicated to the Community School and had no intention of missing work.
Sure enough, as I drove toward the Menominee County line, men in uniform, holding rifles in their hands, were blocking the road ahead of me. I remember a lot of snow on the ground, and it was cold. January in northern Wisconsin can be brutal. I drove up to where the men were standing, stopped, rolled down the window, and, after a conversation of several minutes, convinced them I was a teacher on my way to work. The men were tense and nervous and that was obvious in their questioning of me.
By that evening the Novitiate takeover dominated television and print news all over the world. However, other events were brewing in Shawano County where the Novitiate was located that would not make news until later. The Posse Comitatus, conspiracy minded, anti government, anti Semitic, white supremacist Christians, was beginning to stir and develop as an armed militia force, and even a cult with a mysterious origin was preparing to form a compound on land purchased not far from the old Menominee Reservation’s borders.
Four Windows Press has just released an epic poem that blends these, and other elements present in Shawano County from those momentous times, into an epic story. An American Spirit, an American Epic is a fictional poem. I worked hard to avoid portraying any real individual, even though I knew several of those who took over the Novitiate, in a story that rages with reality and magic, blending all the elements of Shawano County and the Novitiate takeover into a massive river of events told in traditional iambic pentameter meter. But there are powerful truths woven out of the heart of where we are at in American society today in the story.
The Editor of a small literary journal in Stevens Point, Wisconsin published two brief passages from the epic in Hepcat’s Revenge in April of 1995. Just before the passages appeared Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building, giving warning of what was about to become a significant thread in American life. In his commentary on the passages he published, the Editor said that An American Spirit was prophetic. He also commented that there were a lot of pages of strong poetry. Given events such as the deadly Charlottesville riots and President Trump’s racist attitude toward American Indians, it’s difficult to avoid the prescience of the Editor’s judgment.
I have not published the epic before now partially because I was reluctant to self-publish it and partially because I have always wondered if it would be more controversial as a work of art than I wished to face. There are so many questions about it in my head. This is the only R rated work of literature I have ever written. The Posse Comitatus still exists under another name, and the epic does not treat them well, as is appropriate, and I used a lot of American Indian content derived from books noted in the footnotes. Should a non-Indian author do that? I have worked for the Indian controlled schools and tribal colleges and universities movements most of my life. The wisdom of American Indian culture is deep and wonderful, but it is their culture and belongs only to each tribe’s unique ethos.
The truth is that even though the epic is available through amazon.com, I do not intend to market it aggressively like I do my other books. I believe it explores the American spirit in a way that it should be explored. American society is not a melting pot where races, ethnicities, and political identities are blended into a single whole. Rather, it is a complex explosion of identities played out inside the great pageant of history that is always becoming an uncertain future. Conflict and resolution stir in surprising and unexpected ways, giving Americans an identity that is never static, but spins its forces in ways threatening the continuance of the natural world and even human beings who depend upon that world for existence.
The magic elements of the epic are derived from two main sources, although other sources can be found in the body of the poem. Many of the magical allusions are drawn from the Old or New Testament of the Holy Bible. American society for a large part of its history up until the current day has been a culture imbued with the Christian religion. However, in counterpoint to Christianity, the also epic explores the power of the feminine and fertility based upon the tenants of the White Goddess of Celtic lore and other ancient symbols of female power. The conflict between the father dominance and the fall out of the Garden of Eden and the powers of Mother Earth has long seemed to me to be a ferment helping to define current day American society.
Even though, I admit, I am hesitant to invite comments from those who read An American Spirit, An American Epic, I hope those who are willing to delve into its pages feel free to tell me what they think. This is one of the major works, written a long time ago, of my life. I need to steel myself for whatever reception it does, or does not, receive.
a photograph by Sonja Bingen of our grandsons and Boulder
All Things That Matter Press (ATTMP) is in the process of publishing my new novel, In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams. I first learned about ATTMP when I started reading Diane Denton’s new novels. Then I read some of Mary Clark’s books and became familiar with other ATTMP writers. When Deb Wayman of Faire Island Books Washington Island suggested that I might consider writing a book about the black fisher community that had settled on the island before the Fugitive Slave Act, and then I got busy and spent a year working on a novel, I decided to submit the manuscript to two publishers: ATTMP and the University of Wisconsin Press. To my great surprise ATTMP responded immediately to my query letter and followed that with a contract. Since they responded so quickly I was excited to sign with them.
ATTMP has some really great books in their catalog. I hope some of the readers and supporters of fourwindowspress might consider going to their website at http://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com. I can recommend several of their authors and especially Diane Denton.
Ethel has really been on a role lately. The Peninsula Pulse, a Door County publication that has a winter circulation of 9,000+, has just published one of her poems and a short article on her. Last night she performed at concert and poetry reading that a relatively large audience was raving about after it was over. Poets from all over Door County and Wisconsin performed poems as part of a powerful concert by Nine World’s Ensemble. There was a sustained standing ovation afterwards.
The Door County Auditorium also produced a small chapbook of the poems performed that was handed out to the audience after the performance. The weather was awful, freezing drizzle after days of brutal below zero weather and dangerous wind chills, but a sizable audience still managed to make its way to Fish Creek, Wisconsin.
Ethel’s performance was among the best during the evening. Of course, it helps when your poetry is as strong and imagistic as her poetry always is. Other sterling performances were given by Ralph Murre, Sharon Auberele, and Albert DeGenova among others. Every poet who performed swirled the night’s skirts into a sky glistening with silver stars. What a magical night!
A link to the Peninsula Pulse article and poem online is here: https://doorcountypulse.com/tag/ethel-mortenson-davis.
Photograph by Sonja Bingen, our daughter
Ethel has gotten news that one of her poems, “Migration”, had been selected for an anthology that will be published by Water’s Edge Press. When the anthology is published it will be available from amazon.com or the publisher at https://www.waters-edge-press.com.