From the Indian School, 1930-31
Why this small itch
of envy in the dark,
this urge to step out in air,
fibers of flax my only safety,
night my only coat?
I have never raced toward dawn
in a lover’s arms. Each night I wear
a winding sheet of purity,
a daytime dress of duty and belief.
No leaping a bareback horse,
hands thrust into the mane,
no moon for a rudder,
no steering by the breeze.
In three poem sequences that read like novellas, Sonia Gernes brings together the lyric intensity of her poetry and the narrative grip of the well-told tale. Each poem/tale is set in a real time and place, and each is documented with original photogra
phs from scrapbooks and archives.
In “The Indian School,” a young white teacher, glad of any job in the Great Depression, signs on at a Government boarding school adjacent to the famous peace-pipe quarry in Pipestone, MN. Naive, idealistic, in love with a young farmer who can’t afford to marry her, she accepts without question the school’s assimilation policy, until the tales that guide her students’ lives begin to filter through. Then ghosts appear at windows, young lovers slide down bedsheet ladders in the night, and the young teacher must confront the fact that her own future is built on another people’s past.
In “The Mutes of Sleepy Eye,” an entire small town questions the meaning of deafness. At the center of the swirl is Elise, a deaf seventeen-year-old who refuses to name the father of the child she is carrying. While the parish priest rages, and a young nun envies her, Elise remains an enigma, even to herself. Only Clara, a widow in her fifties and also mute, has the serenity to anchor this tale and ponder the ambivalent beauty of silence.
The Lunatic Asylum of Fremantle, Western Australia, was built by convict labor. Through its doors in 1864 comes Tess, an Irish girl bent on following her convict-lover into a terrain that, like Dante’s hell, seems past all hope. Then, in 1886, comes Margaret, a settler’s wife accused of trying to kill her baby. Finally, in 1993, Sonia, an American poet, enters what are now museum walls seeking the coolness and refreshment of “A Breeze Called the Fremantle Doctor.”
These are poems for both lovers of poetry and readers who think they don’t like it. The voices that speak these poems grab our attention in the opening lines and sweep us into the momentum of the tale they unwind before us. En route, Gernes treats us to language that sparkles and croons, chimes, grates, and sometimes comes close to explosion.
“In the beginning, poetry chronicled the major events of people’s lives-hunts, marriages, deaths, and emigrations. Sonia Gernes has returned poetry to its first purpose, with grace and wit. No one can read what she has offered us without being moved and
grateful.” —Miller Williams, Poet & Critic
“Sonia Gernes has written an ambitious book: three tales of the traveler-the trip outward always the mirror of the voyage inward, the discovery of the strange country that is finally ourselves. And like all good girls, she saved the best for last.” —Alice Friman, Author of Inverted Fire