Maurice Kenny was born in Watertown, New York on August 16, 1929 to parents of mixed ethnic heritage; his father, Anthony Andrew Kenny, was of both Mohawk and Irish ancestry, while his mother Doris Herrick Kenny, was both Seneca and English. He was raised in both Watertown and Bayonne, New Jersey, alongside two older sisters, Mary and Agnes. He left the North Country as a teenager, initially traveling to New York City and then matriculating at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he began his formal training as a poet and a scholar under Werner Beyer and Roy Marz, among others.
He began publishing his poetry in the early 1950s, with his first book – Dead Letters Sent – appearing in 1958. Over the course of the subsequent six decades, he brought more than thirty volumes of poetry, prose, fiction, and drama into the public eye. At the same time, in his roles as publisher, editor, and teacher, he mentored countless other writers at various stages of their development.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kenny moved around extensively after a temporary return to the North Country to study with novelist Douglas Angus at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He returned to New York in 1957, intending to begin graduate school at Columbia University, but instead began studying at New York University with noted poet Louise Bogan, to whom Maurice attributed his development of the distinctive consciousness that would become the hallmark of his mature work. After six years in New York, he lived for various periods of time in Mexico (where he served as personal secretary to renowned novelist Willard Motley), in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in Chicago (where he wrote obituaries for The Chicago Sun-Times), before eventually settling again in Brooklyn Heights, where he lived in a small brown-stone apartment within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1967 until the late 1980s.
During the early and mid-1970s, Kenny became intensely engaged with Native American activist movements and his writing began to reflect a deeper connection to both his paternal Mo-hawk and maternal Seneca roots. His 1976 work, I Am the Sun, is a modernized rendering of the Lakota Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi ceremony (the “Sun Dance”), inspired in part by the 1973 Wound-ed Knee incident on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
By the 1980s, Kenny’s reputation as an author had been firmly established by such publications as Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues (1982) and Between Two Rivers (1987), both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Mama Poems (1984), which won the American Book Award. He considered his 1992 book Tekonwatonti: Molly Brant (1735-1795): Poems of War to be his most important work, stating that he intended it to “assure [Molly Brant’s] prominence in the starry firmament.” Kenny also fostered others’ writings during this time by co-editing the influential Contact/II literary journal and by running the independent Strawberry Press, which focused primarily on publishing work by Native American authors. He also traveled throughout North America – generally by train and/or bus – giving hundreds of readings of his poetry annually.
In the midst of this busy literary life, Kenny also found the time to share his insights in college classrooms as a member of the faculty of the University of Oklahoma, the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Paul Smith’s College of the Adirondacks, North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, and at SUNY Potsdam. In 2012, he retired from the latter after a fifteen-year stint as Writer-in-Residence and moved back to Saranac Lake, a small town in the Adirondacks in which he intermittently lived for much of the second half of his life. In 2014, he was enshrined in the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.
He died in Saranac Lake on April 16, 2016 at the age of 86. At the time of his death, he had five books in various stages of the publication process, including a memoir, a collection of poems about Monahsetah, a volume of collected poems from the later decades of his life, a selection of poems about ghosts and spirits, and a collection of poems about Frida Kahlo. His papers contain a number of other manuscripts, both finished and unfinished, on a wide range of topics, as well as hundreds of unpublished verses that date from the 1960s up until six weeks before his death. --Derek C. Maus
stones must form a circle first not a wall
open so that it may expand
to take in new grass and hills
tall pines and a river
expand as sun on weeds, an elm, robins;
the prime importance is to circle stones
where footsteps are erased by winds
assured old men and wolves sleep
where children play games
catch snow flakes if they wish;
words cannot be spoken first
as summer turns spring
caterpillars into butterflies
new stones will be found for the circle;
it will ripple out a pool
grown from the touch
of a water-spider’s wing;
words cannot be spoken first
that is the way to start
with stones forming a wide circle
marsh marigolds in bloom
hawks hunting mice
boys climbing hills
to sit under the sun to dream
of eagle wings and antelope;
words cannot be spoken first
And I rode the Greyhound down to Brooklyn
where I sit now eating woody strawberries
grown on the backs of Mexican farmers
imported from the fields of their hands,
juices without color or sweetness
my wild blood berries of spring meadows
sucked by June bees and protected by hawks
have stained my face and honeyed
my tongue….healed the sorrow in my flesh
vines crawl across the grassy floor
of the north, scatter to the world
seeking the light of the sun and innocent
tap of the rain to feed the roots
and bud small white flowers that in June
will burst fruit and announce spring
when wolf will drop winter fur
and wrens will break the egg
my blood, blood berries that brought laughter
and the ache in the stooped back that vied
with dandelions for the plucking,
and the wines nourished our youth and heralded
iris, corn and summer melon
we fought bluebirds for the seeds
armed against garter snakes, field mice;
won the battle with the burning sun
which blinded our eyes and froze our hands
to the vines and the earth where knees knelt
and we laughed in the morning dew like worms
and grubs; we scented age and wisdom
my mother wrapped the wounds of the world
with a sassafras poultice and we ate
wild berries with their juices running
down the roots of our mouths and our joy
I sit here in Brooklyn eating Mexican
berries which I did not pick, nor do
I know the hands which did, nor their stories…
January snow falls, listen…
They Tell Me I Am Lost
for Lance Henson
my feet are elms, roots in the earth
my heart is the hawk
my thought the arrow that rides
the wind across the valley
my spirit eats with eagles on the mountain crag
and clashes with the thunder
my grass is the breath of my flesh
and the deer is the bone of my child
my toes dance on the drum
in the light of the eyes of the old turtle
my chant is the wind
my chant is the muskrat
my chant is the seed
my chant is the tadpole
my chant is the grandfather
and his many grandchildren
sired in the frost of March
and the summer noon of brown August
my chant is the field that turns with the sun
and feeds the mice
and the bear red berries and honey
my chant is the river
that quenches the thirst of the sun
my chant is the woman who bore me
and my blood and my flesh of tomorrow
my chant is the herb that heals
and the moon that moves the tide
and the wind that cleans the earth
of old bones singing in the morning dust
my chant is the rabbit, skunk, heron
my chant is the red willow, the clay
and the great pine that bulges the woods
and the axe that fells the birch
and the hand that breaks the corn from the stalk
and waters that squash and catches stars
my chant is a blessing to the trout, beaver
and a blessing to the young pheasant
that warms my winter
my chant is the wolf in the dark
my chant is the crow flying against the sun
my chant is the sun
sleeping on the back of the grass
my chant is the sun
while there is sun I cannot be lost
my chant is the quaking of the earth
angry and bold
although I hide in the thick forest
or the deep pool of the slow river
though I hide in a shack, a prison
though I hide in a word, a law
though I hide in a glass of beer
or high on steel girders over the city
or in the slums of that city
though I hide in a mallard feather
or the petals of the milkwort
or a story told by my father
though there are eyes that do not see me
and ears that do not hear my drum
or hands that do not feel my wind
and tongues which do not taste my blood
I am the shadow on the field
the rain on the rock
the snow on the limb
the footprint on the water
the vetch on the grave
I am the sweat on the boy
the smile on the woman
the paint on the man
I am the singer of songs
and the hunter of fox
I am the glare on the sun
the frost on the fruit
the notch on the cedar
I am the foot on the golden snake
I am the foot on the silver snake
I am the tongue of the wind
and the nourishment of grubs
I am the claw and the hoof and the shell
I am the stalk and the bloom and the pollen
I am the boulder on the rim of the hill
I am the sun and the moon
the light and the dark
I am the shadow on the field
I am the string, the bow and the arrow
Evicted into the frozen teeth of winter
by the landlords of the plains;
cast into the bloody waters of the Washita
where your father’s corpse flowed in the stream . . .
his manhood stuffed into his mouth,
his scalp made guidon for Custer’s soldiers.
Torn from the band of helpless captive women,
a suckling child, mewing and puking in your arms;
driven by Long Hair to feel out the ashes of the village,
scout out the vital hearts of your people.
Did Sheridan’s eyes admire the loveliness
of your young Cheyenne cheeks?
Did Custer claim you like a trophy until
his civil wife pulled his sweaty thighs
from the Cheyenne Mystery of your life?!
You held your childish hands to your womb
and felt the kickings of a bird, the fledgling seed
planted like so much corn by Yellow-locked Long Hair!
Where did you find the love to mount his cot, knifeless,
or did he find your flesh upon his earthen floor?!
Custer strutted your grave to glory, foolish girl.
Now in the winds of the Washita Valley cottonwoods cry
for the slain Cheyenne. No winds moan in the leaves
for the head-strong girl, daughter of Little Rock,
who followed the pony soldiers.
How do I answer?
Do I call, hey you half breed, white man
with blue eyes, you half red man standing
within your breech clout?
You ask why
did I not take my knife and rush it
into his belly allowing his enemy blood
to river into my people's Oklahoma earth.
He called me to his bed.
His tent would be my sacrificial altar.
His body become my demise once my face
had been softly stroked by his hand . . . cold,
clammy; his body. I was his war treasure,
a hunk of gold, a pot of flesh. There was no escape.
In fact his man took my knife and slit an open
run of blood on my arm . . . just to warn
that I had better smile and be content.
In 1970, Dee Brown’s massive compendium, Bury My Heart at Wounded
Knee, broke records on the New York Times book list. No doubt an
important history, but another account focused on military tactics, war,
blood and death, the deaths of many great nations and the slaughter of a
people struggling to survive under the onslaught of the industrial
revolution and European-American conquest. Despite Brown’s deep and
abiding sympathy for Native people, he made little effort to represent
Native resilience, nor other strengths beyond that of the Warrior. Placing
the book down upon completion one would think that the Native peoples
of this land had been totally wiped out, vanquished and vanished.
Brown failed to present the entire spectrum, to explore and celebrate the
total circumference of life and culture. He rarely hints at the great Six
Nation League, the Iroquois Confederacy, nor the essential spirituality of
these Native Nations across the lands, the incredible arts created by
Native artisans and craftsman, the Native will to survive and the cost of
Listen . . .
wind howls like a wolf on the hill
wind sings in the cold air
leaves fall in the frost
apples ripen in the frost
wolves seek lairs in the frost
we come to greet and thank
“Wild Strawberry’ is from Dancing Back Strong The Nation, copyright 1981 by White Pine Press.
“They Tell Me I Am Lost” is from The Smell of Slaughter, copyright 1982, The Blue Cloud Quarterly Press.
“First Rules” is from North: Poems of Home, copyright 1977, The Blue Cloud Quarterly Press.
“Moccasin,” “1970,” “Monahsetah” and “Monahsetah Answers”are from Maurice Kenny’s new book, Monahsetah: Resistance and Other Markings on Turtle’s Back, edited by Chad Sweeney, Mongrel Empire Press. Used with permission.
Kenny at the Kafka Museum. Courtesy of Derek C. Maus.