Carter Revard 1992
Carter Revard’s “Birch Canoe,” published in 1992, speaks in the persona of the canoe, carved out of white birch wood by American Indians. In doing so, it examines the relationship between the way of thought of white Americans and that of the people who lived in North America before the Europeans arrived. Revard is part Osage Indian, and he was raised on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, but readers should not believe from this that he is more familiar with Native-American ways than traditional European culture: he was educated in the European tradition, including time spent studying at Oxford University in England and Yale University, and for almost forty years he has taught Medieval English literature. Although the author’s field of specialty is Western history, including the European and white American tradition, this poem indicates an appreciation gained from discovering the traditions that come from his Indian heritage. With recent expansions of information and communication products—global television systems, the internet, videos, etc.—and especially since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the influence of the Western way of thinking has become dominant around the globe. Native Americans, who had their indigenous ways of life limited practically to the point of extinction by Western culture, could certainly find liberation in learning or relearning Indian traditions, as the poem indicates. When the poem speaks of “my body’s whiteness” and the way that it is transformed by Indians into something that travels freely, readers can sense an autobiographical element, although it is not necessary to know much about Carter Revard to appreciate “Birch Canoe.”
Carter Revard was born in 1931 in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation. He attended a one-room schoolhouse in nearby Buck Creek Valley for the first eight years of his education and, after gradating from Bartlesville College High, he won a scholarship from a radio show, “Quiz Kids,” to attend the University of Tulsa. He attended Oxford University in England on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1952 and received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1959. After graduation, he taught briefly at Amherst College. In 1961 he began teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches to this day. He has also been a visiting professor at University of Tulsa and University of Oklahoma. His scholarly work has concentrated on linguistics, American Indian literature, and Medieval English literature, with special concentration on the social context surrounding particular pieces. Collections of Carter Revard’s poetry include Ponca War Dances (1980), Cowboys and Indians, Christmas Shopping (1992), and An Eagle Nation (1993). Family Matters, Tribal Affairs is a recent collection of essays with a strong focus on autobiographical details.
In 1952, the year that he received the Rhodes Scholarship, Revard was given his Osage name, Nom-Pa-Wa-The, which means “Fear-Inspiring.” His early poetry shows a strong influence of Western tradition, but as the years have passed, he has become more successful using the language and themes that he grew up with on the Osage reservation. While his Indian heritage has been an influence on his work, Revard makes it clear that readers should not take him as a representative of the Osage, that being Indian is just one part of his genealogy and it is also a limited percentage of the influences that have formed his worldview. He warns readers to not confuse his narrow experience of Osage tradition with the vast knowledge of tribal elders, who have studied the songs, legends and ceremonies that make up the tribe’s history.
Red men embraced my body’s whiteness,
cutting into me carved it free,
sewed it tight with sinews taken
from lightfoot deer who leaped this stream—
now in my ghost-skin they glide over clouds 5
at home in the fish’s fallen heaven.
Throughout this poem, there is a contrast between the first part of each line and the second part, which is separated from it by a space (the space is called a caesura and the half-line on either side of it is called a “hemistich”). In Line 1 there is contradiction in both idea and tone. The first hemistich has a sharp, punchy quality to it, with three of the four syllables stressed, hammering away with a staccato rhythm: “red,” “man,” and “-braced” all hit the reader with force, while the soft syllable “em-” softens the effect just slightly. The irony here is that the idea being put forth, an embrace, is warm and pleasant, the opposite of the violent percussive tone. While the first three words are all bound together with the “e” sound that is common to each, the three words that finish the line share the common “i” sound. This section of the line has a cool smoothness that sets it apart as much as does the wide, blank space in the middle. In addition to sensing
- More than Bows and Arrows, narrated by N. Scott Momaday, was released by Camera One Productions in 1992.
- Finley-Holiday Film Corp. released The Indian And His Homeland: American Images, 1590-1876 in 1990.
- Indians Among Us, directed and produced by Jonathan Donald, was released by Discover Communications in 1992.
the contrast of styles, most readers come to this poem aware of the tradition of conflict between native Americans and European Americans, which is implied here: until the next line, there is no reason to think that the body mentioned is anything other than a human body. By presenting a situation that defies expectations—history leads us to expect Indians and Europeans to be at odds, not embracing— the poem piques the reader’s curiosity and works to undo the assumptions that stereotypes have established.
Since line 1 spoke of a human-sounding body and an embrace, it comes as a shock to find the phrase “cutting into me.” It is at this point in the poem that the reader first receives evidence that the speaker of the poem is the birch tree referred to in the title. The benign, emotionless tone used in these three words conveys nature’s attitude of acceptance: the tree is matter-of-fact about being cut open and bears no animosity about it. The second hemistich, in fact, finds a positive aspect in the freedom that the uprooted tree finds. Throughout this poem, the joy of freedom prevails. Motion is emphasized. Stylistically, the second half of this line mirrors the first, in the repetition of the “c” sound in “cutting” and “carved,” the similarity of “into” and “it,” and the rhyme of “me” with “free.”
“It,” in this line, still refers to “my body” from the first line, evoking the gruesome image of an emptied body being sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster at the same time that it describes the ordinary business of putting a canoe together. The allusion is appropriate because in this poem the birch tree is receiving new life. The fact that the canoe is being put together with “sinews”— taken from the insides of once-living animals— makes the idea of raising a new life out of the old dead even more prominent to the reader. Of all of the activities required in making a canoe, this poem singles out sewing—possibly because sewing evokes the notion of careful craftsmanship, rather than the simple violence of cutting and carving, and possibly because, as mentioned, sewing seems to allude to skin. This line, too, uses alliteration, the repetition of sounds at the beginning of words, to unite the two sides of the line, in contrast to the middle space that separates them. In this case, not only is the “s” repeated in “sewed” and “sinews” and the “t” in “tight” and “taken,” but the “ew” sound from “sewed” is also repeated.
The focus of the poem changes in this line, away from the birch canoe and its process of becoming and onto the deer and its activity. Of course, both are related to the canoe—the deer’s sinews hold the canoe together so that it can float in the stream—but this line takes a break from the canoe, in order to establish for the reader what the outdoor setting is like on its own, untouched by the influence of red or white people. In the simple action of a deer leaping a stream, much is given: the deer’s strength is implied, even though the ingenuity of humans eventually overcomes the deer to take its muscles, and we also learn that the stream the canoe is to ride cannot be all that wide if an animal is able to jump over it. At the end of line 4, the dash provides the poem with its longest pause, which is even longer than the spaces within the lines because it is an end-stop that combines punctuation with the natural halt of the line’s end. In this case, the pause signifies a change of the time frame, from the past, when the birch tree was cut down and fashioned into a canoe and when the deer ran freely through the forest, to the canoe’s present state.
The “ghost-skin” here is a dual reference, indicating both the whiteness of the birch that was referred to in the first line (since ghosts are often pictured as white) and also the fact that the hollowed-out tree has lost its life to become the canoe of the present tense. While “ghost” is a reminder of death, “skin” is a reference, like “body” in the first line, to the relationship that the poem makes between birch trees and white people. This new allusion to whites is balanced on the other side of the gap that splits the line with “they,” a new reference to the red men. The end of line 5 indulges in a little visual imagery that sounds mysterious because of the way it is worded, but actually presents a common sight. The surface of the stream would naturally mirror the images of the clouds above it, so that the canoe floating on the surface would look like it is gliding over the clouds. The poem presents this action in metaphor, relating the clouds to their reflection on the water without saying that it “looks like” the canoe is above the clouds. The reader is slightly disoriented, forced to deal with a dreamlike reality in which the impossible can happen.
It is in the last four words of this poem that the culture clash that is implied in all that came before is made open and obvious. “Fallen heaven” is an obvious reference to the biblical story of humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The biblical fall from grace is central to much of Western theology, a basis for Judeo-Christian world-views, and is therefore crucial to how members of white culture think of themselves. The seriousness of being thrown out of heaven is gently mocked here, because it is the fish, a lower order of animal, whose heaven has fallen. If white culture is based on the idea of “original sin,” making everyone guilty at birth, then even the natural world would be a sad place for white culture. By contrast, the Indians referred to in this poem are “at home” in the natural setting where white men assume guilt. Unlike other literary works that see white culture as nothing but an intrusion into the wilderness, “Birch Canoe” presents whites as being as much a part of the natural setting as anything else around. The poem does not claim that white people are intruders, only that the sense of guilt inherent in European culture makes white people feel uncomfortable. Once again, alliteration is used to connect the line’s two halves, with the “h” in “home” and “heaven” and the “f” in “fish” and “fallen.”
Return to Nature
The white body of the birch tree is presented in this poem as being somehow distanced from nature, as if the stiff tree, rooted to one patch of ground, is on its own, no matter how busy or crowded its surroundings might be. There is more to nature as represented in this poem than the objects that occur in a natural setting (even though plenty of these are squeezed into six short lines, including the birch tree itself, deer, clouds, and fish). The significance of these natural objects is impressive, and the poem makes the most of the things of nature by putting them into motion with action verbs. Readers are not simply allowed to view nature existing, but are invited to enter a busy, living world, swirling with activity.
The red men mentioned in “Birch Canoe” are not clearly defined as being either a part of nature, as they are in many other poems, or just as men with a clear understanding of nature. Their actions in the first two lines—embracing, cutting, carving and sewing—are presented as being in harmony with nature, not as actions that occur outside of nature, as human actions often are in pieces that divide humans and nature. Whether the red men’s actions are natural or not is irrelevant in the poem’s second half, which takes the speaker, the birch-tree-turned-canoe, into the domain of nature, among deer and fish. The fact that the canoe glides without disturbing its surroundings suggests that it is accepted as a natural element itself, as are its passengers. The birch, of course, represents white people, as indicated by personifying the tree in the phrase “my body’s whiteness.” This is appropriate because it is white culture, European culture, that most often places itself in opposition with nature. In this poem it is the red men, with the help of the deer, who help bridge the gap between nature and white culture.
Readers find it discomforting to find a positive idea such as “freedom” associated with the violent acts of cutting and carving—as if mutilation leads to liberation and freedom requires destruction. In terms of this poem’s central metaphor, it is clear that the birch tree cannot be free of the ground it is rooted to until someone cuts it free. The bonds that hold human beings together socially may be seen as holding us with similarly strong attachment, affixing people to one place or one situation until some turn of events occurs to sever the connection.
Topics for Further Study
- “Birch Canoe” only mentions that the canoe is carved and sewn: research what other skills are needed to make canoes by hand. Use diagrams to report on traditional canoe designs and ornamentation.
- This poem alludes to the lives of Native Americans, but it is written in a traditional European form that is mostly forgotten today. Research more about the history of Anglo-Saxon verse and find specific similarities between Anglo-Saxon culture and American Indian culture.
- What objects in the contemporary world are made of “ghost-skin”? Find an object that is made of a once-living material—fur or leather or wood or bone, for instance—and write a poem that speaks for the object, saying how it was changed.
Still, it would be wrong to oversimplify and interpret the poem as saying that freedom can only be attained with a hatchet. The implications of “Birch Canoe” are far more complex than that. For instance, there is the prominence of the word “embraced” in the first segment of the first line, which indicates that the red men did not approach the birch tree with only destruction in mind. With this embrace shining over the whole poem, the cutting, carving and sewing are not presented as acts of hostility or wanton destruction, but as necessary acts of love. The relationship that freedom has with breaking bonds is readily accepted when those bonds are chains, but the relationship does not look as appealing when the bonds are presented as being natural, like the birch tree that is carved hollow or the deer separated from its muscles. What this poem reminds its readers of is that freedom is gained only at a price.
It is almost impossible to fully appreciate this poem without understanding how it reflects the life of Carter Revard. The author grew up surrounded by his Indian heritage in Oklahoma, but the strongest influence on him was white culture, in part because he was only part Indian. “I think I have Indianness in me, but I am only a small part Osage,” he told Alan R. Velie in a letter. “When I jumped into my genes they were mostly white, but the red ones spelled OSAGE.” Although the poem can be read and understood without any biographical background, it helps readers to know that the interaction it shows between red men and the speaker’s whiteness is an exchange from the speaker’s firsthand experience.
While the speaker of this poem, a birch tree, is open to the experience of Indian ways, even at personal cost, we are not supposed to feel that this speaker is finding a completely new identity, but instead experiences a shift from its earlier identity. The white birch does not consider itself to be a different thing than what it was. It does not identify itself as a canoe hull, but instead it refers to the canoe as its “ghost skin,” retaining its link to the tree it was before. The human implication here is that the speaker identifies with neither red nor white culture, which may explain the final allusion to being “at home” in a “fallen heaven”: if there is any identity in this poem, it is that of a human consciousness identifying with nature. This idea can be seen as either definitive, if one assumes that “nature” encompasses all things in this world, including humans, or as impossible, if one thinks of human consciousness as being the opposite of nature.
“Birch Canoe” is structured in a traditional, arcane poetic style called Anglo-Saxon verse, which was the prevailing poetic style during the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, from the fifth century to the twelfth century. It is seldom used today. There are three characteristics associated with Anglo-Saxon verse. The first, and most noticeable to even a casual reader, is that each line of the poem has a medial caesura, which means that there is a blank space in the middle of each line that divides it in two. The second characteristic is that each line has four stressed syllables. Readers who are not aware that this poem fits an established form will tend to read the first line as having five stressed syllables— “RED MEN em-BRACED / my BOD-ys WHITEness”—but the poem can be made to fit the form easily enough if “whiteness” is read with no stress at all. The third characteristic of Anglo-Saxon verse is alliteration, the use of the same initial sound, between one word in the first half of each line and one in the conclusion. This can be seen in the pairs “men/my,” “cutting/carved,” “sewed/sinews,” “lightfooted/leaped,” “ghost-skinned/glide,” and “fish’s/fallen.” For readers who are aware that this poem uses a centuries-old form, it has the added presence of European tradition to counterbalance the Indian tradition of canoe making that it describes.
On his Internet site, Carter Revard cautions readers to avoid making too much of his Osage background, reminding us that as a poet he mixes his cultural heritage with personal experiences, opinions, and family stories. His warning is meant to keep readers from assuming that the viewpoints of his poems represent a worldview that is somehow typical Osage. Even with this in mind, there is no question that Revard’s upbringing in the Native American tradition had some influence on “Birch Canoe.” The last image of the poem, for instance, that of the fish’s “fallen heaven,” reflects an early myth about the Osage people’s origin. According to the legend, the great life force of the universe, Wah’ Kon, The Mystic Force, sent the Osage’s ancestors down from the stars to live on earth. Archeological information suggests that since ancient times these people lived as far east as the Piedmont region of Virginia, and that they traveled from there along the Ohio River. By 1673, when European settlements were established along the eastern seaboard, the tribe had settled in the area known today as western Missouri, along a branch of the Missouri River near where it splits from the Mississippi River. Today, that branch is called the Osage River. The tribe was then called the Children of the Middle Waters.
European influence into this area of the country began in 1673, when Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, on a mission for the French government, explored the Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Illinois rivers. At the mouth of the Missouri, the Illinois Indians they had acquainted themselves with pointed to the southwest and said that was the land of the Wa-Sha-She. To the French, this was pronounced “Ouzhagi,” and when English speakers pronounced the French word it came out “Osage.” Soon an influx of French fur traders and trappers came to the area, and the Osage became close allies with them, trading furs for such manufactured goods as rifles and cookware. They sided with the French against other Indians, and they sold Indians captured from other tribes into slavery. They helped the French against the British in the French and Indian War, from 1754 to 1763. When it ended and the French had lost, the area west of the Mississippi River fell under Spain’s control: though there was hostility between the Osage and Spain and some battles were fought, the fighting was minimal. In 1800 the area was returned to France, and in 1803 France sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The property deals between the non-Indians had only slight influence on the tribe’s activities, as they adjusted to work with each new trading partner.
The way the American Indians were treated by the United States government is one of the country’s darkest legacies. The treatment the Osage received by the westwardly expanding country is fairly typical. First, Eastern tribes that were displaced during the country’s growth, including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw, were pushed into Missouri, where they joined forces with the Osage’s traditional enemies, the Potawatomi, the Sac, and the Fox. Then a series of new treaties were presented by the government in 1808, 1818, and 1825, pushing the Osage further and further west and onto smaller and smaller parcels of land. Crowded onto a tiny reservation in what is now Kansas and barraged by government programs designed to make them give up their “barbaric” traditions and become “civilized,” the Osage resisted and held on to their own identity. When America grew more, and the reservation in Kansas was found to be in the way, the land was sold to settlers, and in 1871 the Osage were moved to a new reservation in Indian Territory, in Oklahoma. This is where Carter Revard grew up, and it is the home of the Osage tribe today.
Fate was much kinder to the Osage in their new location than it was to most of the tribes who had been displaced. In 1894, oil was discovered under their reservation, and soon the Osage were among the richest people in the world. By 1904 there were 155 oil-producing wells and 18 natural gas wells on the reservation. The revenues gained by leasing land to oil companies became the property of the whole tribe and were divided among everyone who was a tribe member by July 1, 1907: after that date the number of shares, called headrights, could not increase or decrease, only their value. Thus, a family of five in 1925, the year the headrights reached
Compare & Contrast
- 1992: After a videotape of white Los Angeles police officers beating black motorist Rodney King was broadcast frequently on television, a jury with no black members found the four policemen innocent of any wrongdoing. As a result, a wave of rioting, looting, and arson erupted in several urban areas of America, most notably South Central Los Angeles, where 52 people died.
Today: Although flare-ups of violence over racial issues are rare, more Americans are aware, from the King case, of the different views of justice held by members of different races.
- 1992: Bill Clinton, the former Governor of Arkansas, won the presidency from George W. Bush. The year before, Bush had enjoyed record-setting popularity with the American people because of his decisive action taken during the military action against Iraq.
Today: Despite a seven-year investigation into his finances and widespread reportage of sexual affairs he conducted in the White House, President Clinton has managed to retain public support.
their peak at $13,200 each, would have an income of $66,000 just for being tribe members, at a time when a good annual salary was $2,000 to $3,000. In the 1920s the extravagant spending sprees of Osage members were covered in newspapers across the globe, with photos of Indians who had found themselves suddenly rich wearing mink coats and silk tuxedos with top hats and standing in front of expensive luxury automobiles that they bought, even though they did not know how to drive. The value of the Osage oil shares dropped during the Depression of the 1930s, but the Osage were still better off than most tribes: the Depression was particularly hard on reservations. Osage descendents still live comfortably on oil revenues, but as the years pass, the ownership of the official headrights has fallen into the hands of fewer and fewer tribe members, making for resentment from the full-blooded Osage who do not receive any benefits.
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman focuses on the symbolism pertaining to the canoe.
Carter Revard’s “Birch Canoe” revisits the tradition of the canoe as a vehicle of both life and death. Just as boats are vehicles of transport in life, they have long been vehicles to, or of, the land of the dead. According to Mircea Eliade in The Encyclopedia of Religion, this especially pertains to the canoe, homologue of a hearse and bearing a vague likeness to a coffin:
Among certain North American Indians burial customs involving boats and a journey to the land of the dead have been documented. For instance, the typical grave of the Twana and other Coast Salish Indians consists of a canoe suspended on poles or on an elevated platform .... According to a Twana tale, the inhabitants of the realm of the dead come in a canoe to claim the newly deceased. Late at night it is said that one can hear their paddles in the water as they come to carry away their new companion.
Virtually all boats and ships were once made of wood and became, at least in Germany, so associated with death that early medieval German usage of the words naufus or naucus (“ship”) alongside trunkus (“trunk”) formerly denoted a coffin. Moreover, the tree is often likened to the human body, with its branches and leaves (arms, head, and hair), trunk (body, spine), and roots (feet): “The
What Do I Read Next?
- Carter Revard’s life, and his reflections on life, are on display in his recent collection of essays, Family Matters, Tribal Affairs, published by the University of Arizona Press in 1998.
- Like most of the entries in its “Portable” series, Viking Press’ 1973 anthology The Portable North American Indian Reader, edited by esteemed author Frederick W. Turner III, gives a scholarly and insightful tour through historic and modern readings. A large part of the book is myths and tales that comprise the Indian traditions.
- The University of Oklahoma Press has stronger ties to the Native American culture than other publishers, and this shows in the selections included in the 1991 anthology American Indian Literature. Despite its unassuming title, this collection includes a fascinating variety of authors, from anonymous writers of legends up to Carter Revard himself.
- Since many of the great ideas of Native American history are lost because they were oral, and not written, cultures, it is fascinating to read a collection of the spoken words of Indians, such as those compiled by Virginia Irving Armstrong in the 1971 collection I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians, published by Swallow Press in Chicago. The introduction, by famed Indian scholar Frederick W. Turner III, is itself a brief but powerful summation of the situation faced by the indigenous people of North America.
- John Bierhorst’s The Mythology of North America, published in 1985 by William Morrow and Co., does a very entertaining job with a potentially dry subject, anthropology. This book is extremely well supported with documentation and written at a level that most students can appreciate.
- Other than Carter Revard, the most prominent writer among the Osage is clearly John Joseph Mathews, a noted intellectual whose career spanned the middle of the twentieth century. In his 1961 book The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters, he applied his talent to explaining his own tribe, resulting in a comprehensive 800 pages about Osage history and customs. The third printing of this book was in 1981, by University of Oklahoma Press. Also of interest by Matthews is Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road, although, first published in 1932, it is of course limited in information.
- The benefit of Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark’s 1981 collection Voices of the Wind: Native American Legends is that it contains nearly a hundred pages of myths of tribes from the central region and the Great Plains states: one major shortcoming is that none of these is from Revard’s tribe, the Osage. Still, reading many legends helps put one in a frame of mind to appreciate “Birch Canoe” more.
- By far, the most prominent international figure to come out of the Osage tribe is Maria Tall-chief, one of the century’s great ballerinas and a principle dancer in the New York Ballet under her husband, George Balanchine. The story of her rise from the reservation to international attention is covered in her autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, written with Larry Kaplan and published in 1997 by Henry Holt.
Lakota on the upper Missouri River say that the first man and woman were two trees and that a snake chewed their roots off in order to allow the couple to walk away,” according to Eliade. As a human body, the tree might make an appropriate receptacle for the soul, but the canoe, as the moving corpse of a tree, is especially suited for a soon-to-be-liberated human soul. In perception, the tree corpse is so changed by formation into a canoe (its horizontality, placement on water, and new shape)
“... [T]he canoe not only means life, but a means to near-divinity, since the canoe made by humans then transforms them into birds of flight, even gods, in the way they are able to ‘glide over clouds / at home ... in heaven.’”
and so overpowered by metonymic association with the human dead it transports, that its identity as a tree corpse—the body of a once living being—is absent. Just as standing trees are perceived as not quite alive (at least not as alive as humans), the horizontal log does not really seem as if it was ever alive. Trees and logs deprived of the fuller meaning of life and death relegate them to the realm of nature’s inanimate elements, represented primarily by rocks and minerals.
This, however, is not the case in “Birch Canoe.” The birch tree in Revard’s poem speaks English, not only speaks, but narrates its observations in a poem. This renders the living tree as “fully alive” as a person is thought to be fully alive. Even when the birch tree is felled to construct a canoe, the boat is not an inert object but becomes a ghost, a floating member of the living-dead. In this way, Revard renders tree and canoe as animated with a kind of haunting presence that most Western peoples do not usually attribute to either trees or canoes.
It is this matter of life and death I want to examine in “Birch Canoe.” To do this, I demarcate four kinds of characters—deer, fish, humans, and trees—to show each of their relationships to the life and death embodied in canoes. “Lightfoot deer,” as this poem indicates, are killed by humans for food and for materials out of which objects are made. In the case of the canoe, the deer’s sinews—its tendons—are used to sew parts of the canoe together. To deer then, the rather innocent-seeming canoe might represent deer’s subservience to humanity, its identity as the prey of human predators. Native Americans, on the other hand, possibly did and do not think of deer as fully dead since the animals continue to “lend” their once-living power and strength to the canoe. Somewhat in the way that a deer might easily and gracefully leap across a stream, canoes refigure streams from obstacles into vehicles, from streams impeding mobility into “canals” enhancing it. Through such conceptions, people might convince themselves they have not killed the deer, or come to believe that deer have allowed themselves to be “killed,” to “live on” as part of a canoe and be of service to humans. Revard’s birch narrator does not really take a stand on this matter of life and death but does seem to relate to deer who once “leaped the stream” but cannot do so any longer.
The canoe itself may be perceived as a weapon. With canoes, people can more extensively kill fish than if they were standing on a bank. Because of canoes, fish, as the birch says, might see the stream as a “fallen heaven,” because they are yanked upward by fishermen into death. If fish articulated their religious conceptions, heaven would likely be below, and the land of death, above just opposite of the human conceptions of water as the place of death and drowning and air as the place of life and breathing.
Unlike what might be the conceptions of deer and fish, people usually conceive of the canoe as life, not only to living persons using it to travel and get food, but for the dead souls who, as I wrote previously, are thought to be transported by means of canoe to the eternal “life” of the dead. If the canoe is ever thought by people to represent death, it is only by way of empathy with the animals killed because of the canoe, the tree felled to make it, or because the canoe holds the human dead. Otherwise the canoe not only means life, but a means to near-divinity, since the canoe made by humans then transforms them into birds of flight, even gods, in the way they are able to “glide over clouds / at home ... in heaven.” The canoe enables mastery of nature: of animals, plants, and streams; allows men to magically sit on water and move upon it while remaining still. Native Americans were especially attached to birch canoes, because they were so strong and flexible that they survived most natural disasters, lasting an average of ten years. Birch canoes shot rapids, travelled the ocean, and, with the French, crossed three thousand miles of Canadian waterways to establish trade routes to the far north-west. Canoes were fashioned from the barks of other trees, but they eventually would become waterlogged. Not so with the slick, waterproof bark of the birch tree. Perhaps it was the red man’s attachment to the birch, with its striking whiteness, that partially allowed Indians to “embrace” white men. Initially, at least.
The birch-tree narrator’s feelings about the canoe seem torn or ambivalent. On one hand, the tree appears appreciative of the Indians’ embrace, that use of the birch allows Native Americans to gain some mastery over nature. On the other hand, the narrating tree seems solemn, grave that its white birchbark, its “skin,” has been transformed into a ghost-canoe and an incubus that in turn brings death to other denizens of nature.
Having discussed deer, fish, humans, and trees in relation to canoes, only one thing seems left out: the stream. Just as a stream divides banks of land on either side—mimicked in the look of Revard’s poem with the continuity of Anglo-Saxon line breaks forming a meandering “stream” between hemistiches (stream banks) down the middle of the poem—the stream also divides above from below, heights from depths, heaven from hell, or, in the case of fish, hell from heaven. This is the dividing line, or stream, that canoes ride—streams that make the difference between land and heavens as canoes make a difference between the life and death of deer, fish, humans, and trees.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright. In the following essay, Kelly argues that “Birch Canoe” can be read as a shaped poem, with the caesura up the middle representing a river.
We have tamed the world with tools and machines, so that the course of nature hardly matters any more beyond what’s said on the morning’s weather report. Imagine, though, what a river meant to pre-industrial civilizations. It provided food, and it fed the crops. It was the express mode of transportation. Dams siphoned power from the rivers’ flow long before humanity drew its energy from burning fossil fuels. Having a river nearby is quite a handy thing, and that is why the great cities are on rivers, usually at the point where the river meets the sea, where goods from other lands can be fed up into the interior, through the river’s mouth. The
“Human activity dominates within this poem, and that is why it is important to see the poem itself dominated by an image that is even more powerful and enduring than men with hatchets or paddles....”
huge rivers of the world, with really astounding reach—the Nile, the Amazon, the Mississippi— have exerted more influence on who lives where than puny humans, with their wars and changing laws, could ever hope to control. The story of civilization is a history of people trying to accommodate rivers.
Rivers are the lines that nature has drawn across the topography of the land. We see them on maps, jagged and blue, dividing countries, states, provinces, and cities. They mark the border between the land we walk on and the “fallen heaven” of fish. Like any lines, though, they could mean one thing, or they could mean its opposite. A river could be seen as the line where two sides are separated, but it could just as likely be considered the place where those with differences come together.
There is a jagged line running up the middle of Carter Revard’s poem “Birch Canoe.” In its uneven bending, it resembles the twists of a river. It could also look like a fault line or a cracked glass, but then, this is not a poem about an earthquake or an opera singer hitting double-high C. It’s about a canoe, a river-faring vessel.
Shaped poems—poems that are laid out on paper to resemble some visual image—have always been fascinating, and sometimes they can be meaningful, although they always raise suspicions that a poem too concerned with visual design is just playing a clever but meaningless trick. Almost every semester I ask a new batch of college students to respond to John Hollander’s “Swan and Shadow,” which looks on the page exactly like what the title calls it, a swan and its shadow. The most discouraging, and frequent, reaction that they come up with is unsupported approval: many say they “like” it, even though they cannot tell you what the poem says. They like the fact that letters have been arranged on a page into a recognizable picture. There’s not really a whole lot of talent to accomplishing such a thing, especially not with recent widespread availability of computer programs that manipulate visual images.
“Swan and Shadow” is a good poem because it has something to say about beauty and light and darkness and death, a message that would be worth hearing even if it poem were printed in one long column with one word per line. The same holds true for all other successful shaped poems. Of course, the way the words appear on the page is important to any poetry, or else poems would be printed in blocks of text, margin-to-margin, the way all other written material is. The poet has to do something with the words on the page to make the visual effect serve and support the point being made. It’s not cheating if the pattern that emerges once the words have been chosen and the line breaks fixed actually looks like something: the only unfair thing is when the shape of the poem is treated as the most important thing, when the meanings of the words are only considered briefly, if at all. Meaning can’t be sacrificed to fit the words into a shape, but the shape of a poem can be used to add a richer level to the poem’s meaning.
Is this uneven gap up the middle of “Birch Canoe” really a river? I think it is. The uneven lines on either side of the blank space remind me of the uneven banks of a river, the way that the banks follow no firm order and only vaguely recognize each other. I do not know the poet, and so I can’t ask what he had in mind when he started writing “Birch Canoe,” but my guess is that he did not set out to build a river. It probably was not in his mind at the beginning, although, since I believe greatly in the process of revision as “re-seeing,” and not just as “fixing-up,” I would speculate that he found the river there, the way a reader might come across it. The style of the poem clearly is patterned on a long established poetic form called Anglo-Saxon verse, which requires a caesura, or gap, in the middle of each line; in theory, every poem written in Anglo-Saxon verse over the centuries would look like it is trying to imply a river. My guess is that Revard, whose academic work is focused on medieval English literature, would have known and liked the form, and in using it, he may or may not have seen this river thing. If the form he wrote in offered up something else that is useful to readers and germane to the message, then the author is obliged to embrace it, just as the red men embrace the speaker’s whiteness in the poem’s first line.
Regardless of how it got there, the significance of finding a river running up the middle of this poem is that it marks all that is said with the spirit of “something greater.” There has always been a tendency in Western thought to romanticize cultures that are closer to nature and to look at human social life as corruption. The term “noble savage” was introduced back in 1688, in Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko, and was popularized a hundred years later in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: it’s the term applied to those who live closer to the land, with fewer social rules, who are seen as being purer in spirit. Unfortunately, this idea is often applied by people who just refuse to acknowledge the complexity of other societies. In America, this spiritual correctness is projected onto Native Americans, who are often considered noble people because their lives seem simpler. An entire industry has formed around selling paintings and greeting cards with idealized images of Indians, using the faces of anonymous people to represent courage and spirituality and pathos in the same way that a pie manufacturer might use a picture of an old woman to represent the idea of “just-baked freshness.” Because Indians are romanticized this way and assumptions are made about Indian spiritual beliefs and freedom from social constraints, it would be easy for readers to think “Birch Canoe” is about Indian heritage rescuing white culture from itself and setting it free to rejoin the natural world, using traditional Indian customs. When I look at this poem and see a river, though, I don’t think of the relative virtues of different cultures. I am reminded that there is something bigger here than either white or red culture.
The text of the poem gives us the natural world being acted upon and manipulated for the use of humans (in the poem they are red Indian humans, but that may only be because white culture’s abuses of nature are so obvious that they are not worth examining). The tree is carved, the guts of the deer are taken and used for twine, and the fish have their heaven superceded by the manufactured canoe. Human activity dominates within this poem, and that is why it is important to see the poem itself dominated by an image that is even more powerful and enduring than men with hatchets or paddles: seeing a freely twisting river here is like putting today’s concerns, or this week’s or this month’s, into perspective by looking at photos of Earth from space, to remind us that, for all of our running about, we are just a small part of the larger system.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
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Reviere, Bill, The Open Canoe, drawings by L. Randell Boyd, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985.
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Gaddis divides the myths in this book into two sections: “The Historical Mysteries” and “The Mystical Mysteries.” The ancient stories included here cover the rich tradition of most North American peoples.
Owen, C. Roger, James J. F. Deetz, and Anthony D. Fisher, eds., The North American Indians: A Sourcebook, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967.
Although slightly outdated, this anthology of essays about Native American cultures and practices provides curious readers with explorations of various nations, grouped by geographical location.
Rollings, Willard H., The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.
This serious scientific exploration of the Indians of the central United States is difficult for students not majoring in sociology, but it has some fascinating information for the casual, patient reader.
Weatherford, Jack, Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1991.
Rather than approaching relationship of Europeans and Native Americans as a conflict, Weatherford, a noted anthropologist, takes the broader perspective and looks at how both cultures together have created the society that we know today.
Wright, Ronald, Stolen Continent: The Americas Through Indian Eyes Since 1492, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
This book divides the indigenous population up into five major groups—Aztec, Maya, Inca, Cherokee and Iroquois—and examines the reaction of each to the major challenges presented to them in the five hundred years since Columbus.
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