Category Archives: Essays

Review in Wisconsin People and Ideas

My review of Thomas Peacock’s first novel, Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny, is in the latest issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.  Peacock is one of the most important writers and thinkers about American Indian education in the country, and his wonderful novel, published by Holy Cow! Press (one of my favorite publishers), has “the resonance of truth telling” in its pages.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the deepness of native culture and how that deepness draws people into and back to the place where the universe began.

I am also pleased to be published in Wisconsin People & Ideas, the most important publication containing the best of Wisconsin culture and thought in the state.  The publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters explores Wisconsin’s intellectual and natural environment with a substance that helps define the state’s true spirit.

My daughter, Sonja Bingen, tried to get the Academy to name me a Fellow, but that didn’t happen, so this publication made me especially feel good.  The magazine and the Academy is one of the best things about Wisconsin.

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Tribal College Movement Podcasts

When Ethel and I traveled to New Mexico in February, I worked at Navajo Technical Univerity’s (NTU) campus three days a week while Ethel stayed in our small RV at the Ancient Way Cafe near the El Morro National Monument.  At NTU Christine Reidhead, who is the head of the baccalaureate program in Business, and April Chischilly, an Assistant Professor and long-term NTU employee, got me to agree to do podcasts about the tribal college movement.

I was totally unprepared even though Christine has, for some time, threatened to write my biography.  She refuses to understand that I am not important enough to have a biography written and is absolutely persistent.  When she dragged out and set up this array of equipment she had purchased out of a tribal college salary to do the podcast, I was not only shocked, but felt like I should cooperate.

The introduction that Christine did to the series is more than a little exaggerated.  I am in no way a legend, and though I was around the TCU movement early in its formation, primarily through my association with Helen Scheirbeck, my claim to fame would not be as a pioneer, or founder of the movement, but as someone who was lucky enough in life to walk with the giants that created what I would consider one of the most significant educational movements of the 20th and early 21st century.  I tried to get Christine to change the introduction to the series, but she just laughed at me and said she loved it.

I thought I’d post all of the podcasts here, one at a time.  I am hopeful, even though they are off the cuff and a little rambling, they might have some historical value.  I am, in the end, grateful to Christine and April for tying me down to a project that I would never have contemplated on my own.

Since I know nothing about podcasts, I should note that the first one seems to have been sped up in some way while the second one is not that way at all.  Still, this has been interesting.  The link to Christine’s work is below:

https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/christine-reidhead/episode-1-tribal-college-x19zIm07_jl

Others will follow over the next month or so.

Thomas Davis

 

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A Review of John Looker’s New Book

Poetry, like all the arts, can be put into boxes, labeled, and then held up in the light as genius or foolery or something so old it is hoary with tradition. Still, the truth is that poetry is a multi-headed beast. Unlike Medusa with snakes hissing out of her hair, poets different heads can be glorious, beautiful, ugly, repellant, powerful, sad, enraged, dangerous, joyous, or any flavor in between all that is possible within the human spirit or mind.

I have to admit I am as guilty of constructing boxes for poems and labeling them as any other inveterate reader of verse. For every book of poetry I devour from Wendell Berry, or Mary Oliver, or Federick Turner, the epic poet, I purchase and read two or three books by more obscure poets. Still, I often have trouble appreciating what I call the poetry of a moment’s experience where a sunset or a minor incident is described inside feelings or ideas experience generates. I tend to subscribe to a more ancient definition of great poetry where the poem has to achieve a universality sense where Robert Lowell’s powerful details dredged from specific people and places are not the stuff of greatness.

Yet, I understand when I read Lowell or Sylvia Plath of any of the confessional poets, or John Berryman, a poet I struggled to appreciate for years, that my suspicion of the box of poetry as a moment’s experience does not hold water, not really. Poetry should not be put in a box labeled and shelved in the library of old dead poets. Not every poet who writes poetry has the ability to reach beyond self into significance, but sneering at any effort to write a poem is doomed to miss one of the beast-heads of poetry that grows, over time, into a meaning that is properly celebrated.

I suspect that those who see the title of John Looker’s new book, Poems for my Family (Bennison Books) will immediately begin constructing a poetry box. Oh no, how do you build any true poetry out of the sentimentality attached to our reactions to the specificity of our family members? Is that not a little trite? Just a little overworn?

Looker’s last book, The Human Hive (Bennison Books), as I pointed out in my review of the book, uses human labor as a theme while avoiding “the evolution of humanity toward the frenetic pace of the contemporary world, but instead shows the ley lines of relationship of humans over time.” It is a stunning book of poetry, original, ranging over the sweep of time into meanings about contemporary life and work that provide the ore of true poetry.

Poems for my Family has poems that achieve the same originality of purpose and song found in The Human Hive. “Marco Polo on the Silk Road” puts us “along Augean shores, Byzantine domes . . . even the Holy Land/where Christendom expires. . .” But more often the poems have a gentleness that wraps us into the blanket of Looker’s love for wife, children, grandchildren, and parents.

In the book’s first poem, “Bela’s Party,” we find ourselves in a much different place than we travel to when reading Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes”:

When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.

The scene of “Bela’s Party” could be in the memory of almost any contemporary individual, man or woman:

A warm summer evening, as I recall,
and not a whisper of breeze.
There in the garden the party-goers
were talking and laughing, their voices rising,
there was music playing
and coloured lights in the trees.

The final stanza is even more universal than the first. It could apply to any time or place even though it is clearly addressed, perhaps a little like Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Sonnets from the Portuguese addressed Robert Browning, to a singular woman:

I know I abandoned those I had come with,
moving to you in a dream
and scarcely aware of the cancers parting.
There would have been shooting stars in the sky
and a nightingale
if I had directed the scene.

There is love woven into every poem in this slender volume, but inside love there is always: life shattering tragedy as expressed in “Old Age Becomes Him,” the wonder of new birth found in “Newborn,” or the blending of science, observation, and wisdom conveyed to a young man in “Galileo’s Telescope.” The prism of emotions ranges across the span of a life where poems rise up as if they were plants in fertile soils and sing, thrash, celebrate the poet that John Looker is.

Courage can be found in a poet that titles a book, Poems for my Family. There is mundaneness hinted at in the title, an everydayness, a specificity that seems like it could have existed inside millions of lives that have flowed through all the generations since humankind became sentient. This is poetry that could be put into a box and labeled and placed among the library of humans that have loved and written about their family over all generations.

But, of course, poetry is a multi-headed beast with a range greater than criticism can penetrate with any intelligence. Poems for my Family exists inside a box that is not contained by the box it would be so easy to construct around it, and in that sense, readers should drop pretensions and enjoy a gentle draught of poetry sure to touch into who they as individual human beings are.

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Navajo Technical University Project

One of the projects I have been working on, along with a lot of other people, has been a new educational model centered on the Bond Wilson Technical Center in Kirtland, NM.  Kathy Isaacson, who has been key to helping put the project together, created this video of the project.  I appear in it toward the end of the video.

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Tribal Colleges and STEM

by Thomas Davis

I thought some of the readers of Four Windows Press might enjoy this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XyqwWR3_d4, which describes the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math work being done in tribal colleges across the United States.

This is obviously not about poetry, art, or photography, but I have worked in American Indian Education from 1972 up to the present time. I helped establish the National Science Foundation’s Tribal College and University’s Program (TCUP), working closely with Carrie Billy, then the Director of President Bill Clinton’s White Initiative of Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), that this video explores. My role was not that important really, but I am proud of the work I did throughout my career in the tribal college movement nevertheless. Carty Monette and Carol Davis, both featured in the video, are not only good friends, but played a major role in helping establish the TCUs nationwide.

What the TCUs are achieving throughout the United States is, at least in my opinion, some of the most important educational work being done in the world today. This video just gives a small glimpse of that work and might introduce to at least some of you the TCUs.

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A Wrinkle In Time in Delta, Colorado

Photograph by Ethel Mortenson Davis
Essay by Thomas Davis

A Wrinkle in Time.jpg

When I was six years old and living in Delta, Colorado where I was born, Saturday matinees (mostly Westerns) were the highlight of those weeks when my Mom allowed me to join a few score squirming, and sometimes screaming, depending on the movie, kids at the Egyptian Theatre downtown.  Ethel took this photograph in Delta during our trip to Western Colorado, and we both had a good laugh.  What a movie, A Wrinkle in Time, to be showing as we drove through town!

Now on the national historical registry, the Egyptian is still standing proud on Main Street, a relic, with contemporary relevance since it is still showing first run movies, that not only is a time capsule to my early life and Delta and the nation’s earlier days, but also travels across the Atlantic Ocean to King Tut’s land, illustrating an all-Egyptian craze that lasted in the United States for only a short period of time.

We first parked in front of the theatre on the way to lunch with Delta friends, Linda and Terry Brown at Western Colorado’s best Mexican restaurant, Fiesta Vallarta.  Then, on the last day, as we drove to Grand Junction and the long trek over Loveland Pass toward Wisconsin and home, we stopped for a minute so that Ethel could take this photograph.

We could almost feel Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which transporting us through the universe by means of tesseract, the fifth-dimensional folding of the fabric of space and time in Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful novel.  I could still feel myself squirming in my plush theatre seat as the lights blinked, signaling the start of the movie, while the rest of Delta moved around in 1950 white Chevrolets and went about shopping at my Dad’s corner grocery store or sipping ice cream sodas at the fountain just a few doors down from the store.  At the same time I could feel the history of my two grandmothers living in Delta, the best-friendship of my Dad’s sister Viola and my mother, and then the marriage between my mother and Dad as they prepared to live in a tent on the Gunnison River just below my Grandma Davis’s place.

All of the people I just mentioned are gone now, except for my mother in a Grand Junction nursing home at 92, leaving a hole in my life and so many memories:  Of my cousin and I having a pie eating contest that got us into trouble, the first time I slid into a base during a baseball game at Delta Elementary, my Grandma Bauer all excited when I hooked a big catfish and lost it on the banks of the Gunnison River not a quarter mile from town.

All of this as Ethel and I maneuvered around, trying to get the best angle for Ethel’s photograph, driving a Toyota Corolla with more computer power than existed in anybody’s imagination at the time the Egyptian Theatre was built.  There is a story of America in the old building, of a time when the nation was building its middle class out of the completion of World War II, and, of course, of today when the Middle East is in turmoil and our lives sometimes seem out of control in the whirl of progress and national and world events and miscalculations.  Still, there is the Egyptian on Delta’s Main Street, just where it has been for so many decades.

Ethel and I loved Western Colorado and our visit to spring.  It is still winter in Sturgeon Bay, although the sun is shining.  Perhaps the fifth-dimension is folding again, and we will see a totally different, and hopefully brighter, tomorrow that has not yet been.

 

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On Writing Sonnets

by Thomas Davis

The writer who wants to write a sonnet must set out to write a sonnet. A free verse poem can conceivably come completely out of the subconscious. The poet might not even set out to write a poem, but a poem forms itself on the page as the writer is writing, or they select passages from a journal that can be turned into a poem.

Traditional verse poems like the sonnet demand that the poet set out to write in this or that form when they begin the poem. Creativity itself comes from blending sensations from the environment, thoughts, emotions, sight, sound, smells, touch, conversations, events, philosophies, and other elements of what affects human beings into a new whole whether that comes to be a poem, a painting, or a new scientific finding. Therefore the sonneteer draws upon innate creativity and sets out to pour it into a specific language and form.

This intentionality is also present as the sonnet flows from the poet’s pen. Tools like a rhyming dictionary or thesaurus can be helpful. English is not as natural language for rhyming as Italian. There are fewer rhymes available. That’s one of the reasons near rhymes can be useful at times. To avoid a trite singsong quality to the verse the sonneteer also needs to avoid always using a single syllable male rhyme at the end of every line. Multiple syllable, and even alternate feminine/male rhymes, can be useful in creating a more complex music. Enjambment between quatrains, octaves, sestets, or even couplets, as well as alliteration and assonance, can also help in pursuit of a music that breathes and engages the reader.

Iambic pentameter, as has often been pointed out, is the most natural rhythm for language in English. This is not nearly as true in other languages. The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, an epic masterpiece by Nikos Kazantzakis, written in Greek, has seventeen syllable lines. In Greek it sounds magnificent, although I cannot speak Greek. In English it looks and sounds impressive, but mostly because the lines seem wildly long and filled with a rich, “O sun, great Oriental, my proud mind’s golden cap,” overblown profusion of metaphor, personification, and other figures of speech. Iambic pentameter, with its simple patterns of un-accent, accent, comes much closer to everyday speech.

From the first line on, the sonneteer needs to write lines using Iambic pentameter. I often think in meter on my morning walks with my wife just so that I can use meter without straining when I sit down to write. I also try to listen to the rhythms of speech is people’s voices and listen to the meter I hear. This is not necessary, but one of the most vital rules for writing a good contemporary sonnet is to not use tortured syntax in order to get either the meter or rhyme to work. Practice can help achieve this end whether the practice is in your head or on paper.

Also important, as in all other writing, whether it is an essay, a poem, or a novel, is to mix sentence styles as the sonnet comes into existence. A sonnet can be written using a single sentence, or course, but this can be extremely difficult, especially if the volta is to bring life to what is being written. Sentences, properly constructed, but also varied, are important. They become part of the overall music.

There are exceptions to the mixed sentences rule. Repetition can be a powerful device for building both music and emphasis. One of the great examples is from the King James Bible, Samuel 2, 18:33: “And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Repetition, either words or sentence types, repeating, say, a declarative sentence, if used rarely, can be a powerful literary device.

A sonnet is, in the final analysis, a poem. It involves the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the logical and intuitive spheres. It is derived from a long poetical history that stretches from narrative poetry like Beowulf or the work of Homer to the white goddess incantations of Celtic poets to the innovative work of Hopkins to the genius of William Shakespeare to the contemporary anguish of John Berryman in Berryman’s Sonnets. In some ways the sonneteer is drawing from this history each time they sit down to write. Its form is incidental to that long history. By writing a sonnet the poet is become part of the long flow of poetic history.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote the first sonnets in English, using primarily the Italian, Petrarchan, form. Wyatt’s use of iambic pentameter was not as sophisticated as later poets. Henry Howard was smoother and created the English sonnet that later became known as the Shakespearean sonnet. Most early sonnets written in English were lyrics, but the river of poets that followed these pioneers have written narratives, lyrics, and descriptive and didactic poetry. Giacomo da Lentini, a Sicilian, who wrote close to 250 Italian sonnets, was the first person to write a sonnet. Most early sonnets were love poems. Lending itself to compressed intensity, it was, at least at first, considered the perfect medium for the expression of love and passion.

The sonneteer writes a sonnet by sitting down, either at computer or table, and writing one. They write in iambic pentameter, choosing a traditional rhyme scheme or experimenting. They draw upon the nature of their creativity, drawing inspiration from nature or their humanity or their philosophy, becoming a part of the river of sonnet writers that have flowed through literature’s history.

May your sonnet dance like a song, sing the fragrances of lilacs in spring, touch like a lover’s touch under the oval silver of a full moon.

being to timelessness as it’s to time, by e. e. cummings

being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land
(do lovers suffer?all divinities
proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
are lovers glad?only their smallest joy’s
a universe emerging from a wish)
love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star
-do lovers love?why then to heaven with hell.
Whatever sages say and fools, all’s well

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