It's no secret that Thanksgiving has a violent past. But the bloody history is often obscured by our celebration of the exceptionally peaceful 1621 feast. We forget that this meeting--between the chief Massasoit and the bedraggled William Bradford--was more of an uneasy truce than a gravy and gabfest (would you have felt comfortable during those shooting "competitions"? Not me.) That this meeting was so exceptional is surely all the more reason to celebrate it now, of course, as something to aspire to, but our uniquely American way of re-telling the stories of the past to re-enforce our ideas of the present can have dire consequences. One of poetry's jobs is to unravel these convenient narratives.
Writers from Mark Twain to Howard Zinn have noted that colonists often celebrated thanksgivings after clashes with the native population. Worth cheering were encounters in which more of "them" died than "us," or after one of the colonists' own returned safely from captivity. In Mary Rowlandson's hugely popular captivity narrative from 1676, she describes her colony's struggles with the natives and how, when such a struggle was won, the town leaders held days of public thanksgiving, praising the Lord for his help in vanquishing the enemy.
Rowlandson's story serves as inspiration for the 2003 poem "Captivity" from the Chippewa-American poet Louise Erdrich. In a style very much like the one employed in her novels--breathless but precise--Erdrich speaks in the voice of Rowlandson as her feelings change over the course of her imprisonment:
I told myself that I would starve
Before I took food from his hands
But I did not starve.
He killed a deer with a young one in her
And gave me to eat of the fawn.
It was so tender,
The bones like the stems of flowers,
That I followed where he took me . . .
The poem leaves Rowlandson at home, rescued, but now curiously hyphenated (not unlike Erdrich herself), at once returned to the fold and forever outside of the colony's understanding. That was surely a much more complicated thanksgiving, a private mess with a public face. On the family scale, I'm sure a lot of us can relate.
Reading this poem I'm reminded of another famous captivity story, the Trojan War, and a play inspired by that founding myth by the poet Jack Spicer. In Spicer's Troilus, Zeus says, "The Trojan War has been going on for the last 3000 years, and it hasn't stopped yet."
What does this mean? As always, Spicer is tantalizingly oblique, but I take this quote to mean every conflict--Spartans vs. Romans, Colonists vs. Indians--springs from somebody's "precious" being stolen. Helen or Mary Rowlandson or . . .
Spicer had that idea in the 1960s, and now Ed Sanders, a great American, takes it up in 2010. The title of his selected poems: Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War.
1250 BC. 1620. 1960. 2009.
It sounds so simple, but no one has been able to do it. Yet.
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