Category Archives: Thomas Davis

Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings

I just signed a contract with Tribal College Press (TCP) for the publication of a book of poetry titled, Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings.  In 1972 I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and found a teaching position at an alternative school, Menominee County Community School, which was one of the first seven school of the Indian controlled schools movement in this country.  It was through my association with Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, the greatest American Indian leader in Indian education during my lifetime, that I found out about the tribal colleges.

When Dr. Verna Fowler asked me to help her found what became College of the Menominee Nation in 1993, I started writing poems about the tribal college movement and its founding.  I have written a substantial number of poems over the decades, celebrating, mourning, living the tribal college dream of creating a new form of higher education driven by American Indian cultures and languages throughout the United States.

Most of the early poems were written during American Indian Higher Education conferences, or later, World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium conferences, in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia.  I usually wrote them on scrap paper or napkins and then promptly gave them to whomever I was with at the time.  Luckily for me, Marjane Ambler, then Editor of the Tribal College Journal, prevailed upon person after person to save them and send them to her.  Later on, once a handful of the poems appeared in print, I stated saving them myself.

The poems tell a different kind of history about the tribal college and university and World Indigenous controlled institutions of higher education movements in the United States and worldwide.  I am grateful that Bradley Shreve and Rachael Marchbanks at TCP unexpectedly offered to publish the book.

This has been quite a year!  In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams, my Washington Island historical novel about the black fisherman community that settled on the island before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the Civil War, should be coming out in the near future.  Now Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings.  I’m really going to have to do some marketing work.  I hope some of you might consider buying either one or both works.  I’ve certainly worked hard enough on both of them.

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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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In the Unsettled Land of Dreams

All Things That Matter Press has sent me the first edit of my new novel, In the Unsettled Land of Dreams.  I am working hard on the edit now, but it is slow.  One of the surprises is how long it is going to be in print.  I guess this is going to be one of the more significant works I produce in my lifetime, although I always am wracked by doubt about my longer works.

I thought I’d celebrate, though, by posting the first sonnet and paragraph in the novel.  Each chapter is prefaced by a sonnet and followed by text.  The book starts in Mingo Swamp in Missouri’s boot-heel country.  Joshua, a major character in the novel, is faced with one of several decisions that he will face on a day that promises to change his life forever.

Inflamed Imagining

A Spenserian Sonnet

Inside the swamp beside a cypress tree
(White herons in the water, bullfrog croaks
A symphony as dusk, as stealthily
As cat’s feet stalking small, shy birds, evokes
The coming night) the Preacher slowly stokes
The fire blazed in his heart and starts to sing
Songs powerful enough to loosen yokes
White masters forged through endless menacing.

The words he used burned deep; he felt their sting
And saw his spirit fire alive in eyes
Awake to dreams, inflamed imagining
Of days spent free beneath glad years of skies.

The darkness deepened underneath the tree.
He’d preach, he thought, then, later on, they’d flee.

Joshua did not want to go with his mother when she came down from Master Bulrush’s big house after dark where she was the Mistresses’ servant. He had gone through another miserable day. His stubbornness, born out of unfocused resentment, was always getting him into trouble. He couldn’t seem to want to protect himself.

The Overseer, an aging black man called Silver Coats who had terrorized Bulrush plantation slaves for years, had struck out with his whip and cut a shirt already threadbare twice that day. The last time the whip’s cord had cut him, leaving a long, red whelp crusted with blood on his skin. The deep, painful cuts were made on purpose. The Overseer was an expert at how deep his whip bit flesh.

Joshua, small for his age, mostly didn’t cry when the big black man, gray haired, light skinned, with a mean streak and perpetually snarling face, whipped him. He was fourteen years old and had long ago decided he was not going to cry every time the Overseer, or Master, brought out one of the whips hung in a small lean-to shed attached to the plantation’s red barn.

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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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