“In the Home of the Famous Dead,” by Jo McDougall (250 pages; University of Arkansas Press; $24.95, $49.95 cloth)
Jo McDougall has inspired readers with her work for more than 30 years. Her collected poems, “In the Home of the Famous Dead,” presents all her books, from 1983 through 2010.
McDougall, a 20-year resident of the Kansas City area, now resides in Arkansas. Both places recur in the writings. Each poem is an essential lesson about how to find joy in this beautiful but blemished existence.
McDougall teaches readers how to view landscapes. She presents stark panoramas, then adds a human dimension.
In “Driving Alone,” the briefly sketched setting evokes enormity: “Sunset takes the light, the sound.” The title sets up the drama of loneliness as the poem develops a story: “She reaches for the radio, / already on.” This woman is adrift in a car. The solitary journey is familiar, a shared metaphor for life itself, and also a very real emotion. The straight line of a horizon is a blank slate that needs a person to show scale.
This poet encourages acceptance of all the quirky people who populate public and private lives. “Privilege” is a catalog of characters in Wal-Mart. One is “a round-faced madonna, / a little on the beefy side” and another is a woman with “her hair falling from several crooked parts.” Both remind her of deceased family members whose snapshots are in her wallet.
Hauntings of memory are among the most powerful poems in this charged collection.
McDougall folds stories into each poem. These instruct readers how to relish this beautiful and sometimes desolate place of living beings and how to gain wisdom. In “Why I Get Up Early Each Day,” the narrator hopes “maybe sunlight will discover one red leaf.”
This is the ultimate understanding this master poet has to offer: How beauty helps people stay alive.
“Report to the Department of the Interior: Poems,” by Diane Glancy (97 pages; University of New Mexico Press; $21.95)
Diane Glancy’s earlier books describe her Cherokee father’s heritage and her own upbringing in the Kansas City area.
Glancy is a filmmaker, novelist, essayist and poet. This new book of poetry shifts focus to the Native American boarding school era of the 19th century.
“Report to the Department of the Interior” refers to the federal agency that still has oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Glancy’s versified history, sometimes called docu-poetry, stretches from the first prison school to Minnesota’s Red Lake Reservation, which was the site of a school shooting in 2005. She writes, “Indian education began in prison / in boarding school / in upheaval / in defeat. / It was one call away from death.” Historical trauma resounds through the book.
The cover photograph is a classroom drawing by Wohaw, a Kiowa student in the 1870s. The image shows a teacher before Native students sitting at desks. To the side is an outlined Kiowa wearing a blanket and long hair, the spirit of ancestors. Glancy is like this observer at the side.
She voices a Native point of view with monologues from historical figures like Lakota leader Spotted Tail’s daughter. She speaks as a Greek chorus in fictionalized memos like “Report (1),” “bushes become wolves / and the wolves wrote the government reports.”
Glancy personalizes research sources with her own experiences. In a conversation with Adroit Journal, she recalls difficulties as a Native child: “school was hard. It was a place I didn’t fit.” The poet also told Adroit Journal that school lessons are a new “sun dance,” a ceremony necessary for survival.
This innovative collection about assimilationist education uses primary texts and original verse to get inside the grief of Native people. It is a revelation as well as a ritual of condolence.
Denise Low, Special to The Star