Maurice Kenny: In Memoriam

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

 

First Rule

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
 

Wild Strawberry

for Helene

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

the 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

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

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

in marriage

my chant is the sun

where 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
 

Monahsehtah

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.
 

Monahsetah’s Answer

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.
 

1970

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
that survival.
 

Moccasin

Listen . . .

moccasin moccasin

circle circle

dance dance

 

drums drum

pound pound

rattles rattle

sing sing

wind howls like a wolf on the hill

thunders thunder

shake shake

wind sings in the cold air

 

moccasin moccasin

move move

wind howls

wind sings

leaves fall in the frost

apples ripen in the frost

wolves seek lairs in the frost

snow falls

hills rise

sun sets

sun sun

sets

moccasin moccasin

circle circle

dance dance

we come to greet and thank

the winds

the birds

the snow

the drum

the drummer

the dance

the dancer

move move

sun move

moccasin

 

 

RIMBAUD

 

“The room is full of darkness; indistinctly you hear
  The sad soft whispering of two children.
  Their heads lean down, still heavy with dreams”
                    (from THE ORPHANS’ GIFTS)
If I think correctly Charleville
was never large enough for you
to rumble in sin. If books
are reliable and Picasso’s
caricature accurate
then it would be definite…
no world ballooned for you,
nor carnival could hold the bomb
always ready to explode on
the world. Even your mommy
and darling Isabelle, let alone
friends or possible lovers,
forgotten from those teen years,
could rope your ankle let alone
the pen’s verses you threw off
so carelessly…not to winds
but muddy puddles along your path.
Sitting here taking time to scout
Picasso’s joke it is so easy to see
how perfect he caught your smutty
grimace, the tornado which tore
through your carrot-colored hair,
the bow tie, the buttoned shirt, jacket,
with scratches near, crowding the edge
of the oval your bust puts there.
Well, 1960 may cause
a smirk or two from viewers
having read White’s brief bio…
that of an unkempt, dirty, lazy lad
dancing in rags across the lands
to Paris and the arms of Verlaine.
The eye caught casting horror on
the horrible world…where the tight
mouth says nothing but oh nasty
words behind that sour pout.
He needed a husky spanking
and Verlaine would not prove
the man/lover to accomplish
that needed reward on his arse.
(Actually he may have liked it.)
The young snot did spit out
some good lines, crapped poems
of worth, and ended tragically
where he started…a grim grave
in Charleville, now blackening
from time, protected by an iron
fence that we would not cross,
not even Jim Morrison,
to kiss the cold stone
inscribed November 10th.
“I’m going under the earth, and you
will walk about in the sunlight.”
Angry, incomplete, lost in his words,
grim, resigned to “cabbage-green
skies,” “the green night.” “Acrid
love has swollen me
with intoxicating vapor…
Oh let me go into the sea.”
Desire unfulfilled into the dark
where no moon shone on rumpled hair.
And yes, Arthur, the sun does awaken
through wet leaves to light sky and time.

 

“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.