Perhaps one is more aware of it as one gets older and looks more and more for meaning in things, but serendipity seems to me to strike with increasing frequency and impact.
At our recent Dark Angels gathering we asked everyone to bring a new exercise. Richard Pelletier, appropriately since he lives in Seattle, brought with him a literary form employed by the Native American poet and novelist Sherman Alexie. A sort of prose sonnet, it’s a creative constraint of the kind that Dark Angels love: by forcing the ideas into a numbered sequence of 14 sentences or short paragraphs, they gain density and power, as well as a certain rhythm and narrative flow.
To set up the exercise, Richard read us Alexie’s Sonnet with Bird, an elegy to a dead friend, in which he describes his first ever trip to London and, alone in his hotel room, muses on the possibility that he is the only Indian in England. Richard then invited us to use the form to write ‘a love letter to being on the planet’. I knew at once what I wanted to write:
1. My great-great uncle was a writer. He was also a traveller and a horseman. 2. His travels took him to South America, the United States, Mexico, North Africa and Spain. 3. He understood the people he met. He learned their languages. He rode with them and fought with them. He lived deeply in their landscapes and loved their stories. 4. He came back to Scotland to sit in his ancestral home and write the tales of his adventures. 5. In Texas he met Buffalo Bill Cody at a rodeo. My great-great uncle was good with the lariat. Perhaps he taught Cody some tricks. Perhaps Cody taught him some tricks. 6. Cody came to London with his show. It was the 1890s. My great-great uncle went to see him. 7. In his troupe, Cody had an Indian. His name was Long Wolf. He was an Oglala Sioux. 8. Long Wolf fell ill. He was taken to hospital in London. The records state that his body was ‘covered with gunshot wounds and sabre cuts’. He may have fought at Little Bighorn. 9. Long Wolf died in London, far from his people, perhaps the only Indian in England. 10. Cody bought him a burial plot in Brompton Cemetery. 11. The years went by. My great-great uncle wrote an essay lamenting Long Wolf’s death and the neglected state of his headstone. 12. An Englishwoman came across the essay in an old book. She made contact with Long Wolf’s people. They sent a delegation to London to receive his remains. They would take him home and bury him on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee. 13. My mother was there to meet them. She was a titled lady in a tartan hat from an ancient Scottish family. They were a group of chieftains in coloured blankets from an ancient Indian tribe. 14. My great-great uncle and Long Wolf understood that to be fully human means dwelling not just on the planet but in the natural world. That’s where our hearts beat strongest. That’s where we learn kindness.
Fantastic, Jamie! Sherman Alexie is a wonderful writer and I urge people to get hold of one of his novels or, even better, collections of short stories about Indian reservation life: they are poignant, angry but also extremely humorous. Humour is a survival technique and by God Native Americans have needed survival techniques over the last half century. Your ancestor R.B. Cunninghame Graham knew all about the methods used to subjugate those people and destroy their way of life, and he understood the poisons of racism and imperialism. He wrote three excoriating letters to the press in 1890 attacking the treatment of the Sioux in the period of the Ghost Dance leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee, and they are worth tracking down in collections of his work. The outrage at the injustice meted out to the Indians in general and the Sioux in particular comes off the page as if his words are aflame.
When I wrote ‘last half century’ above, what i really meant to write was ‘last half-millennium’!
Wow, Jamie. Just – wow!
As a Californian poet in London I like the way this piece connects up so many different people throughout space and time. As I told my 14 year old Greek/Jewish/Quaker blue blooded American niece today, that’s the thing writing can do so well. Worth sharing.
Another excellent, thought provoking piece to reflect on.
I think there comes a point when some of us – it is clearly not all – no longer wish to shape the landscape around us, be it physical or psychosocial, but want to be shaped by the landscapes we encounter. We finally embrace the Portuguese concept of “minha terra” even though, in my case (like Don Roberto in the Americas), I have no historical roots in my current landscape.
Don Roberto both shaped and was shaped throughout his life without his passion ever being smoored. As a fighter for justice and fairness he tried to shape society through the political landscape of his day (a landscape he changed radically) just as he had allowed the landscapes in which he dwelt in is youth to shape him. To maintain both aspects throughout one’s life is indeed a high art that few will ever attain.