Tuesday Poem: Janice Gould - Earthquake Weather

When I was in New Zealand, caught up in some of the numerous quakes on South Island, I wrote a poem called Earthquake Weather, exploring whether it was true that there was such a thing and whether animals could sense the imminent earthquake.  More recently, putting some poems together for a pamphlet submission, I thought it would make a good title with its hint of the rocky and uncertain times we find ourselves in.  But, when I googled it - as I always do - up jumped a collection of poetry by an American poet called Janice Gould. I was thoroughly intrigued by what I read about her and sent off for the collection straight away.

Janice was brought up in San Diego and Berkeley, California, and is of indigenous Koyangk'auwi Maidu heritage. Her grandfather had a homestead on Little Indian Creek and her mother was the youngest of fourteen children, orphaned at the age of five and brought up by three honorary 'aunts' in Berkeley.  Earthquake Weather  is a gripping exploration of what it means to be of mixed blood in modern America.  Returning to her mother's homeland on vacation Janice writes:  'That country was a source of deep pleasure for me, but also a source of sadness and loss.  Though my connection to that land was intense, full of love and curiosity, there was a limit to how much I could know from a familial or "tribal" source.  So many of my relatives had died.'   Many of the poems address this loss, experienced by so many people of First Nation descent, whose culture and rights have been abrogated by the colonial aggressors who displaced them. But complicated by the fact that many of them are also descended from those same colonial people. They share a common heritage with both sides of the story.

Questions about the Soul

I have questions about the soul
who resides like a dark cousin
in the shadow of my heart.

I remember her black curly hair,
the almond shape of her eyes,
and her small mouth
turned down at the edges.

Her voice could not reach her mother.
When she rattled the cage of her crib,
her mother sang louder.

Here in this photo, pudgy and laughing,
she is dressed in a crocheted sweater.
She was a brown, sturdy baby.
But her little boots are dirty.

Where did she live, this soul,
with whom did she take her supper?
Did she sleep in a solitary room?
Did she know her father?

Perhaps her mother had beaten her -
I heard that she ran away.
They say she grew up mean, and took
many unruly lovers.

I have questions about the soul -
how she survived her sorrow,
whether she could love, or if
she hated her sons and daughters.

I have questions about the soul
who resides like history
in my heart's dark chamber.

Copyright Janice Gould
From Earthquake Weather 
University of Arizona Press
Reproduced with permission

Reading Janice Gould brought back so many memories of my trip to Haida Gwaii and the stories I was told there by the Haida Nation, particularly the horrific facts of cultural and actual genocide, perpetrated on First Nation people, particularly the suppression of indigenous languages. Gould's poem 'Outside Language' begins:

When my mother's soul
slipped through the brief
disappearing O of her mouth,
I saw her speak the language
they say only newborns
or the dead can speak . . .

At the end of the poem the poet feels something pour 'into me'

And I felt the words that came
from the other side of memory and knowledge.

There are some wonderful poems in this collection, with titles such as 'Blood Sisters', 'This energy in which we exist', and 'Your Least Good Lover'.  There are sections of prose poetry, meditations, that create a narrative of isolation and a search for one solid identity.  There's a vibrancy and a breadth to the collection that pivots around the title poem. 'Earthquake Weather', which is the story of a journey -  'We were looking for another country,/something not North America'.  The poem remembers a fractured relationship with another woman and ends:

When September comes with its hot,
electric winds,
I will think of you and know
somewhere in the world
the earth is breaking open.

Janice Gould has a very powerful voice, writing about cultural loss, family trauma and the courage it took to come out as a lesbian in less enlightened decades of the twentieth century.  The sadness of greeting a lover at the airport without being able to exchange a kiss or an embrace.

'I didn't know the dimensions
of abuse and violence;
I was still unnerved
by the word "lesbian",' . . .

I was delighted to find Joy Harjo's name in the acknowledgements (another favourite poet!) and I am very pleased by the happy accident that gave me Janice Gould's work. I wonder how many other brilliant American poets we miss out on in the UK.  Only a small selection seems to make it across the Atlantic.

Janice has a fantastic blog called Koyoonkauwi, which you can find by clicking on the link. Her tribal affiliation is Koyoonk’auwi.  An Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, she teaches courses in Native American Studies.  Her latest book of poetry, The Force of Gratitude, was published in Spring, 2017 and was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Poetry Contest.  Several of Janice’s poems from Doubters and Dreamers (a finalist for the Colorado Book and the Milton Kesler Poetry Awards in 2012), were recently selected to be anthologized for the Mexican publication, Poemas desde el fuego.  Janice served as Poet Laureate for the Pike’s Peak region from 2014-2016 


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