Douglas Thornton, Woodland Poems, (Lulu.com, 2014), 81pp, £5.10. ISBN 1505238471
Reviewed by Kyle Cooper
[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]
Navigation has never been my strong point. I like having a map, a path and a clear day on which to follow both. Woods pose a challenge for me – tracks meander, double back on themselves and disappear down warrens. The experience of being lost, of wandering, can be pleasant. The dappled light forms new effects, and one can come out of the woods seeing things in a different way.
This collection poses a similar problem for me. In it, Douglas Thornton examines Native American myths and folktales, retelling some and inventing others. He creates a colourful world, tactile and mystical. Characters travel through dense forest, using the materials of this world to construct it – Tamosemis, a squaw, uses berries and roots in a ritual to remember her dead husband. The prophet Wapiniwiktha weaves spells using the carcass of a deer. I admire Thornton’s prowess in this – the materiality of the woodland creates the rituals that inhabit the poetry as much as within the poems. Thornton roots the world of the poetry securely within the woodland; the metaphors and similes do not borrow from the environment out of the woods. For instance, Wapiniwiktha’s ritual summons the spirit of a boy which speaks “as silent as the fallen leaves”.
The effect of this is to draw the reader more completely into the world of the poetry. You begin to wander through the poems, deeper and deeper into the text. The language has the same effect. Thornton adopts a register which twists and turns, sentences meandering through the poem with scattered syntax. Personally, I found this a touch hard to penetrate, but perseverance bears fruit. I found myself drawn deeper into Woodland Poems by the language, immersed in the lore of Thornton’s world.
Thornton imagines a pantheon of characters, from the prophet Wapiniwiktha to the squabbling brothers Joskeka and Tawiscare, who struggle to clear foliage from a stream so that it will dry out, a stream that they sate their thirst from in order to carry out this task. Amongst these are sown retellings of stories of real people, such as Scoouwa, a white man who is raised amongst Native Americans, searching for his own identity.
These characters deal with love, war and man’s position in the world. While they vary in topic, they all focus on a central theme; on how “the hearts of men rest / Far from where they sleep” and “Fall to a moment of dissolution”. This is introduced in the first poem, ‘Anectahi’s Chant’, which ends with the tantalising question “What will I become?” This “moment of dissolution” is considered throughout the poems, in which identities appear to be in a continual state of flux. Wapiniwiktha considers that even the “most tangible objects…both the hardest matter, the hardest hearts” are mutable; this later leads to a kind of metamorphosis in which Wapiniwiktha observes the movements of an eagle to such an extent that he feels himself to be one with the bird. Later in the collection, the “captive” Scoouwa, in a retelling of a true story of a white man raised amongst Native Americans, undergoes the mental struggle of finding his identity. He thinks to leave his Native American brother to die, but at the end of the poem returns to feed him.
Perhaps this poem reveals something about Thornton’s mind when writing it; Scoouwa initially says “I am not an Indian, nor am I / A man to wait upon a faith too high / When a better life may be lived”, but eventually he relents, and concludes “I’m no Indian, but I’ll not let die / The man who told me faith was nearby”. It is possible that Thornton is accepting the cultural differences between himself and his subject matter, and attempting to reconcile those by saying that what he has gained from his studies of Native American culture is greater than the problems that such a study may entail – the “faith” which Scoouwa thinks of is a great enough prize that Thornton is willing to overlook the problems of cultural appropriation of which he might be culpable.
The poetics of this collection are also worthy of praise. Thornton writes with technique and flair, with a tight metre and a well-managed rhyme scheme. Particularly of note is ‘The Indian Ballad of Gitch Naigow’, a fluent and clever sestina which deals with an aging father’s feelings of being a burden to his young daughter. However, I would note that while the technique is strong, it may be somewhat overused – leading, in part, to the density of the language. However, if you persevere with the poems, then this does not become a problem.
This collection is dense and occasionally tangled, but contains a rich cache – the folklore is intricately crafted and relayed, the poems are well-constructed and the fruit that you may discover make the search worthwhile. If you are willing to lose yourself in the poems and wander awhile through this woodland world, the paths that reveal themselves are worth exploring.