Category Archives: Thomas Davis

An American Spirit, An American Epic Published

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.

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All Things That Matter Press

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.

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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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An IQ of 20

To Sonja Bingen

By Thomas Davis

 They said he had an IQ of 20, she said.
Twenty!
As if he can’t solve free form math problems
and then type out right answers on his I Pad.
My God, you can read a book to him,
and then he can answer hard questions about the book
without any prompting at all!

The problem is he can’t talk.
They get him in a room and give him a test
and fail to get him engaged
in what they want him to do,
and he ignores them
and because THEY are ignored,
THEY discover he has an IQ of 20!

Of course, the truth is that their discovery is about money.
The law says they have to educate all young people
even if they can’t talk
and sit in a classroom without mannerisms
not like those the rest of the kids his age have.
But dealing with differences can be expensive.
You have to have trained people
to work one on one with severely challenged students
if they are going to prove they can learn.

What they’ve done is to convince people
that they’re gaining whenever they cut taxes,
but in the meantime average people like us
take home a little lesser percentage of the national income
after the tax cuts while the rich pile their wealth
into mountains of advantage
that the rest of us aren’t allowed to even know exists.

That means schools limp along,
overwhelmed with too many mandates,
resources stretched past the breaking point,
and, my God!, THEY say, I’ve got to tell you,
the American education system is failing!

An IQ of 20! she said.
How stupid!

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A Little Skin in the Game

by Thomas Davis

a poem from a book of poems I have been trying to get ready to send to potential publishers, Meditation on the Ceremony of Beginnings. The book contains poems I have written over a close to 40 year period as the tribal colleges and the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium became powerful educational movements.

Institute of American Indian Arts students,
empowered by their sense of 21st century American Indian art,
had arranged with the Executive Director of AIHEC, Veronica Gonzales,
to have a fashion show at the AIHEC spring conference in Albuquerque.
Della Warrior , President at the Institute, was worried.
She lectured them about no nudity, proper decorum,
and how they were representing an institution
that had taught some of the nation’s most respected Indian artists
and needed tribal college presidents’ support to survive.

When the big day came after a runway had been built
and students had labored over their creations for weeks,
the show unfolded to thunderous applause.
Traditional buckskin creations were followed by dresses, pants, jewelry, shawls,
and other works in a dramatic, wearables-color-filled explosion.
Della’s admonitions had resulted in a respectable, creative, glorious show
paraded down the runway.

Then the evening’s last creation came out
from behind heavy curtain protecting back stage.
Ron His Horse Is Thunder, body lean and sculpted
as if it were the product of an Indian Michelangelo,
President of Standing Rock Community College,
poster icon for the United States Bureau of the Census,
attorney,
soon to be Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,
one of the most distinguished educators in the United States,
came onto the runway, dark skin oiled and shining,
wearing nothing but a loin-cloth and carrying a war club.

The Institute’s students had filtered into the crowd
and joined in as students, faculty, Presidents, and distinguished guests
went wild,
and Della climbed into the hole of her emotions,
shaking her head, and looking bemused.

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At A Kellogg Foundation Meeting in Mesa, Arizona

By Thomas Davis

He was a big man in Arizona
And sincere.
We were in Mesa, Arizona during the winter at a meeting
Sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation,
Tribal college Presidents and administrators, students, Board members, and faculty.
The white man in the tailored black suit
Had shown up and was invited up front to speak.
The Foundation wanted the mainstream universities and tribal colleges to work together with a common purpose.

The Chancellor of the University was careful and polite to begin with,
But then, as if he couldn’t quite help himself, he said:
“You know, I really don’t know what you people want.”
He gestured toward the crowd of Indian eyes and faces.
“I mean, the University of Arizona has developed programs
And reached out to the Reservations
Since signing of the treaties.”

The crowd of tribal college presidents and the others there
Didn’t say anything, didn’t move, didn’t clap, but looked interested and polite.
He clearly didn’t understand what Indian people needed.

Note: This is a poem from the tribal college movement. The incident happened a long time ago.

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As Power Layers Over Power

A song by Thomas Davis

I thought I’d post a song from a play that I am writing. This is a first draft effort. I have one scene to go to finish the first draft. Called “A Gathering of Ravens”, the play is set in a mythical kingdom called Montrose and has a collection of wizards, witches, and kings. I haven’t written a play since our years in Carlton, Minnesota, so I have been enjoying the process

As power layers over power,
The world feels how the weirding shower
Of fates dance on the precipice
Of change, the whirling genesis
Where human will and human courage
Confront the powers that discourage
The dreams of what humanity
Can be if only sanity
Wraps power, hate, and fear with songs
That heal wounds festering from wrongs.

As power layers over power,
The world feels how the weirding shower,
Derived from flows that weakness stirs
In spirits craving power’s burrs,
Sings songs as dark as raven wings,
As frightening as the hate of kings.
We sing sweet songs of love and peace
As chaos dances, is released.

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