Last Fall I discovered I wanted to write a poem about Minnehaha. In Song of Hiawatha, Minnehaha was most likely a girl more than woman, married to the hero of the story. The story showed her to be somewhat weak, possibly due to a combination of how her sex was viewed at that time as well as her probable age. I wanted to re-write Minnehaha as a three-dimensional character. There seemed to be three mini-scenes within the scene of her death. I wanted to paint Minnehaha as a strong woman, a symbol of an empowered gender that demands respect, albeit in a time when she has a moment of weakness as she lays dying.
The poem was to be a dramatic poem. I chose to use long lines to represent emotion instead of the more dramatic short lines. I also wanted a visual representation of my image of the modern Minnehaha.
So when Poets and Artists came out with a submission call with the theme “Heroes and Villains” for a poet/artist collaboration issue, I thought, this is perfect. Hiawatha is the hero of the story, but in this scene he is out saving the world instead of being at home tending to his sick wife. He could be seen as a villain in this respect. Famine and Fever personified are traditionally thought of a villaneous characters, but in my poem, perhaps they aren’t. As a strong and empowered woman, Minnehaha is so much more a hero than a hero’s wife.
I have Angela Hardy to thank for painting a wonderful depiction of a modern-day Minnehaha, a painting which not only took its place in my overall vision, but I think actually enhanced it as well.
Breadth of Minnehaha
— first published in Poets and Artists, Heroes and Villains issue, 2013
My dear old Nokomis, Famine has visited this land of ours all
These icy, cold and snow-filled wintry days. But today
She visits only my home in her eerie silence; she comes to stay,
Bringing Fever, her twin; both uninvited, they stand at the entranceway to watch me fall
Into Death. The unwelcomed guests tower above me at my bed, standing tall,
Unmovable, and why should I try to see that they leave?
They remain guests, welcome or no, and I intend to host the ghosts that be.
While my Hiawatha roams the earth in search of a cure to grasp and weave
For better, for good — I remain uncared for, for it is you, you, and not me
Who shudders at what we both can see.
Yes I cry as I lie here, but you are not so wise to tell me to turn
Them away. Without courage and act, one is weak,
Undeserving of a warm home; the villains of Fate and Fortune testing our right to speak
As we yearn to learn the ways of a life turned bleak…
And yes, I speak.
. I speak, I speak
. even as my head begins to burn.
. Oh wise Nokomis,
tell me truly what possessed my mind to marry man as he.
Those foolish years of birdsongs and seers steered me to this poorly taken path.
I do not wish to speak ill of my husband; I do not wish to shed dim light on your grandchild.
But here I lie with fevered head, and where is he but where his calling seems to be;
He leads his people, people such as we, away from winter’s wrath,
Staying with the nature of the fight with his father the west wind, keeping to the wild
And forgetting what lies close to home, keeping warm in his cold bed.
If I were healthy and merry once more I’d see the mountains again.
If I had the chance I would change my fate to find my own place and see the free earth rise.
I would turn back time, and be a newborn fawn. Had he looked to the stars instead
of the forest, he might have seen his path and freed me of his lies.
But already I am a spent bride, a fresh flower that dries
in a world meant for men, fools that they are.
. Fair young Nokomis,
for that is what you are — as I stare down the strong stench
Of the afterlife, everyone thus is younger in years than these brittle bones –
Tell me not what I see and hear, my mind has grasped the evil wrench
Of the universe’s sense of time. I throw stones
At those named Thomas, such as you. I did, I truly saw my father, who passed long before,
About his fast house; he called and beckoned. If it was smoke, it wore
My father’s face – but it was not — he’s gone and comes no more.
The water laughs before it falls; it is not scared, does not hold
Its breath. The water laughs and calls to me as it comes up for air.
But no: I am the water, I am the power of the laughter. Beware
My pine trees, do not place yourself in the dying planet’s fold.
But what is this? Here I am, alone in bed, yet here I hover, above
My body, a dove
In the ethereal plane. The dark, it comes to me. I see him, the icy shadow, the sharp red eye
Of Pau’guk, his glaring instrument of malevolence calls out for me to die.
Oh Hiawatha, Hiawatha, you come too late; this hunger burns, this fever is aching;
I am dead among the living, alive among the dead, strong, alone to give, to be taken.