“The island of a word”
TOKINISH, poetry by James Thomas Stevens, First Intensity (PO Box 140713, Staten Island, NY 10314-0713) in conjunction with shuffaloff books (653 Euclid Ave. Toronto, ON M6G2T6, Canada), $7.00, 1994 ISBN: 1-880631-06-7. 1994.
Whether this is James Thomas Stevens’ first book of poetry or not, TOKINISH is a cause for celebration. This book, and it is essentially a book of poetry rather than a collection of poems, reads like a first book only in that it is fresh, as if the poet, though already mature and accomplished, has rediscovered the wonder inherent in language. Stevens’ narrator says “I have learned to say each word with caution.” And he demands that we read with the same caution. TOKINISH is a careful exploration of translation and metaphor, how language can, with enough respect given to words’ dual capacity of resistance and fluidity, bear meaning across the bridge (as the poet says, bridge is gerund) that joins us.
Stevens draws heavily upon key historical texts: Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America and John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. But he draws equally as much from the referents attached to those texts, referents that attach these “islands” to a shared mainland of meaning: a school kid’s rhyme, “John Donne wasn’t lyin’, no man is an island” and the tragedy of imposed misunderstanding of White / Indian relationships that resulted from not taking seriously Williams’ Key that might have unlocked and thus exorcised the demons the Europeans brought to the New World. TOKINISH is also, is essentially, a love poem, erotic in its elemental love, or love for the elemental, of contact, contact in spite of resistance, misunderstanding, perhaps even of the impossibility of love ever being realized:
My hand as it reaches to your belly,
reaching to island or inland, the shallow dome
and the mossy path
What remains secret in the two-fold nakedness
of the explorer,
the naked find.
As Williams and Stevens remind us, the Narragnsett were naked:
Pauskesitchich. Naked men.
Nipposkiss. I am naked.
As we all know, the Europeans refused the challenge of their own skin, to expose themselves, to announce themselves unguarded and alone and, thus, willing to make of themselves a bridge, carrying not a cross but across the best of themselves in an honest exchange of value. We know the results: appropriation instead of assimilation, cultural imperialism, imposition of christianity, murder and mayhem. We still, though, need to ask with the poet:
Sepuo? Is there a river?
Toyusquanuo Is there a bridge?
TOKINISH is the poet’s answer, and for that we should be grateful. TOKINISH has placed itself alongside Wendy Rose’s Halfbreed Chronicles, Simon Ortiz’ From Sand Creek, and Adrian Louis’ Among the Dog Eaters as essential reading for understanding not only the state of Native American poetry but the state of the literature we all inhabit.