Michael Snyder

Maurice Kenny was a poet of great sensitivity, imagination, and intellectual curiosity. This is fully evidenced by his last collection, titled Monahsetah, Resistance and Other Markings on Turtle’s Back (Mongrel Empire Press, 2017). This new volume blends new and previously published work to forward powerful historical and psychological themes. Born in 1929, Maurice Kenny was of mixed Mohawk, Seneca, Irish, and English ancestry. He had blue eyes, which, according to the poem “Stone Throwing,” caused some skeptics to think and even rudely remark, “you can’t be no Indian.” A poet and former student of Kenny’s, editor Chad Sweeney states that Kenny’s mixed-blood ethnicity was a wellspring of “creative energy during his sixty-year writing career.” Although Kenny is a Mohawk poet, Sweeney reckons that the poet’s “dynamic state of betweenness or both-ness” shaped his character “more than any one of his root identities in particular.” Monahsetah interweaves poems, prose poems, essays, memoirs, reflections, even family recipes, to produce poignant juxtapositions.

With pathos and insight, in Book One Maurice Kenny introduces the reader to an obscure historical figure, Monahsetah (or Mo-nah-se-tah), a Southern Cheyenne woman who at age eighteen became Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s concubine following the Battle of Washita River. During the battle of 1868, which was really a massacre, her father, Chief Black Kettle, who felt betrayed by the U. S. government, was gunned down by Custer’s henchmen. The massacre occurred in what is now the far western part of Oklahoma, where a National Historic Site remembers the tragedy. Monahsetah, who was taken prisoner during the 7th Cavalry’s ruthless dawn attack, offered herself in “marriage” to Long Hair, as the Cheyennes called Custer, in order to save the life of her unborn child. Kenny posits that this action, though generally seen as a betrayal to of her tribespeople, saved the lives of many Cheyennes. The tribe traditionally believes that Monahsetah gave birth to a second child sired by Long Hair. Some historians, however, believe nasty Custer was rendered sterile by a case of gonorrhea he had acquired while at West Point, and the true father was his brother, Thomas Custer. George’s wife, Elizabeth Custer, labored to cleanse the historical record of Custer’s temporary second wife. Kenny duly researched Monahsetah, and for many years he listened for her voice across the centuries to create a compelling poetic meditation on this complex personage and her relationship with George Custer.

Kenny efficiently exposes the political ambition, recklessness, and cold-heartedness of George Custer, who not only brutally murdered Cheyennes, but also showed indifference to his own brothers in arms, such as Major Joel Elliott and his soldiers, who were arguably abandoned by Custer, who chose not to reconnoiter with them. “Elliott’s safety seemed of small importance to this conquering hero,” Kenny concludes. The killing of Elliott’s troops by Cheyenne warriors led to much bad feeling amongst the Seventh Cavalry. Kenny notes that some historians even theorize that Custer, who was shot early on during his Last Stand at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, or Little Big Horn, rather than having been finished by a Cheyenne warrior, was fragged by one of his own men! Custer died for his sins too.

In Book One Kenny also limns the brutal Sand Creek massacre of a village of Cheyennes and Arapahos, which occurred four years prior to the massacre at Washita River, in what is now Kiowa County in southeastern Colorado. The Sand Creek massacre “led to a holocaust.” Bloodthirsty Colonel Chivington and his soldiers of the Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry “lit a fire that burned across the western plains for nearly two decades,” Kenny writes. This caused not only “decimation of the Plains Indians” but also “heavy suffering for the white population as well.” Kenny writes vividly of this disturbing and grotesque tragedy, which is today remembered by a National Historic Site.

Part II, “On Turtle’s Back”, explores stereotypes, personal and ethnic identity, family history, and Kenny’s identification with the Mohawk woman Molly Brant or Tekonwatonti, sister of the great Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant. In an obituary of Kenny, John Motika of the New York Times said that Kenny’s 1992 epic poem Tekonwatonti: Molly Brant “evoked the complex relations between Mohawks and the English settlers who had displaced the French,” giving voice to William Johnson, “the king’s powerful superintendent for Indian affairs, who took the sophisticated Mohawk woman Molly Brant as his mistress and confidante.” In Kenny’s account, Molly, who had eight children with Johnson, “is the self-styled ‘child of these rivers/girl of this wood,’ who wielded immense influence in Iroquois culture, where clans consisted of families related through the maternal line and where senior women chose chiefs for the village councils.” In Book Two of Monahsetah, whose title subject can be compared to Molly Brant in some ways, Kenny shares his intrigued response to the biographical criticism that Creek and Cherokee scholar Craig S. Womack did on Kenny’s epic poem as a part of his PhD dissertation work, in which he draws several parallels between the subjects of the poem and Kenny’s parents. Somewhat oddly, although Kenny mentions Craig Womack three times and how his analysis affected him, he does not elaborate Womack’s subsequent career as a professor, critic, novelist, and jazz guitarist.

To delve further into Kenny’s career, if the reader is willing to tag along, I will explore two personal connections that often intertwine: his sustained friendship with the gay author James Purdy, whose work is underappreciated to say the least; and Norman, Oklahoma, home of the University of Oklahoma (OU) and its Department of English boasting strengths in Native American literatures among other specialties.

As a PhD student at OU, I took two courses with Craig Womack, who was on my dissertation committee, and one with Quapaw professor, poet, and storywriter Geary Hobson, who is thanked by Kenny in the acknowledgements, and conversed with them and other professors of Native American literature, such as veteran critic Alan R. Velie, and Osage critic Robert Allen Warrior. I studied alongside, and thanks to Craig Womack, traveled in a van to a conference in Mystic Lake, Minnesota, with Choctaw scholar Steve Sexton, who currently teaches at OU; Anishinaabe scholar Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, now a professor and activist; and Veronica Pipestem, Osage, Otoe, and Pottawatomie, who is now the collections manager for the Muscogee Nation Museum, Cultural Center, and Archives; and Oklahoma state poet laureate, Jeanetta Calhoun-Mish, who was a friend of Kenny’s and the founder of Mongrel Empire Press.

In the recently-demolished Gittinger Hall on the South Oval, I wrote my dissertation on representations and allegories of the Indigenous in the work of Purdy, and in my research had phone conversations with Purdy’s friend, Maurice Kenny. It was a great time to be at OU grad school in the English department, and by all indications Kenny felt the same way about his own tenure there. He narrates teaching at University of Oklahoma in a sad-funny poem, “Excursion.” Conversely and also subjectively, a missing piece of Monahsetah, given my research on the Wah-Zha-Zhe people and my recent biography of the Osage author John Joseph Mathews, is the lack of an Osage perspective. As Kenny mentions, two Osage chiefs, Hard Rope and Little Beaver, led twelve Osage scouts, all hired by Custer. The scouts committed violent acts of revenge against their traditional enemies, the Cheyennes, and adorned their rifles and lances with Cheyenne scalps. Kenny’s account, however, does not engage the backstory of this conflict to explain the Osage perspective other than to say they were enemies.

Kenny’s friend James Purdy, a gay man born in 1914 and raised in Findlay, a small city in Ohio, identified with and wrote about exiles and outsiders, such as African Americans and Native Americans. Purdy claimed and was interested in a small portion of Native American ancestry he said was derived from a maternal great-grandmother who was allegedly one-eighth Anishinaabe (Ojibwe). Purdy did not have ties to Native American communities, only to individuals, and in his social and professional life he befriended and allied himself with Kenny, who was also a gay man. Purdy told Kenny about the claim made by his mother and grandmothers of their Ojibwe ancestry. Although Kenny is usually skeptical of such claims, he told me on May 4, 2009, “I had no doubt that James probably had blood.” Kenny’s groundbreaking essay “Tinselled Bucks,” originally published in 1975, started a conversation on the subject of the two-spirit and Indigenous same-sex desire.

“Homosexuality was found in all American Indian tribes, although perhaps it was kept to a small number in particular tribes,” Kenny claimed. “A number of males who practiced homosexuality were fierce warriors and were not effeminate, transvestite homoerotics” (18). This was most radical at the time. Kenny’s critical discourse opened doors for fiction writers such as Purdy, whose Midwestern historical novel In the Hollow of His Hand (1986) engages Indigenous themes and characters, and for Craig Womack’s novel Drowning in Fire. Purdy has invented Native or mixed-blood characters in several of his works including his masterpiece, Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967).

Kenny, in the role of co-editor for the Contact/II journal and press, published Purdy’s poetry including his transgressive The Brooklyn Branding Parlors (1986).  Also in 1986 Purdy published his most “Native” novel, In the Hollow of His Hand, which is at times reminiscent of N. Scott Momaday but more so of Mark Twain or Sherwood Anderson. Kenny, whom gay author and activist Will Roscoe called “the recognized elder of gay native writers,” held Purdy in high esteem and placed him in exalted literary company.  In “Introduction: A Memoir” in On Second Thought, Kenny writes that when his friend, novelist Paddy Chayefsky, was travelling to Russia on a cultural exchange, he asked for Kenny’s help in assembling a collection of superlative contemporary American writers. Along with O’Connor, Capote, and Faulkner, “certainly James Purdy’s [1959] masterpiece, Malcolm was suggested” (39). When Kenny was living in Brooklyn Heights, the neighborhood where Purdy resided in a Henry Street walkup apartment for nearly fifty years, he was introduced to Purdy by their mutual friend, the African American and closeted gay author Willard Motley, who wrote the realist novel Knock on Any Door (1947).

Purdy and Motley were mutual friends of Carl Van Vechten, the critic, novelist, Harlem Renaissance patron, and photographer who captured both authors and hundreds of talented African Americans on film. In the acknowledgements of Monahsetah, Kenny thanks “the late Willard Motley,” who died back in 1965, “who encouraged me to write, write, and write some more and gave me a bed in the pink house on the hill overlooking Mexico City.” After their first meeting, Maurice and James “bumped into each other at a secondhand bookstore and became friends,” wrote Kenny (On 37-38). Kenny too modestly states in the preface to Rain, his collection of short fiction, that he never mistook himself for a master storyteller, but is primarily a “singer of poetic song,” yet he stressed that he took seriously all genres in which he wrote. In the opening paragraph, Kenny deftly interweaves himself, a sense of place, Purdy, and Norman, Oklahoma, where my own words are now being written, upon what was once Indian Territory.

Writing is my life, and life is a most serious matter indeed. Not writing is like ceasing to breathe, as important as my morning stroll down my Saranac Lake hill or the Oklahoma University campus walk through flowering ovals, the listening to bird song, water rapids, flutes and guitars, the human voice. All writing is of equal importance, although one form may prove to be of higher quality than another.  My regret is that I could never present these stories to James Purdy, Faulkner, Maugham, Chekov, for either their pleasure or their critique. (9)

Kenny calls narrative both a challenge and a “morning exercise,” one in which he purges his poetry of the prosaic. He then commented that conversely, “James Purdy once confided that his morning exercise is to write poetry to rid his prose of lyric overture” (9-10). They fit together quite well.

On May 17, 2009, about two months after James Purdy died, Kenny told me, “I always found James a very honest man and insightful into human nature.” The exact thing must be said of Maurice Kenny himself, and add a rare spirit of generosity and a love of teaching and mentoring. Kenny was an intuitive artist with big ears who tuned in across the centuries to receive the voices of Monahsetah, Molly Brant, and many others. Monahsetah, Resistance and Other Markings on Turtle’s Back is very successful, a rewarding reading experience, and the capstone to a brilliant body of work.

 


Michael Snyder is a professor of English at Oklahoma City Community College.