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Book review: "Winter with Crows"

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In winter, northern peoples gathered around a fire to exchange stories and experiences. Mohawk poet, Peter Blue Cloud, shares his voice on paper, in a new collection of poems, Winter with Crows. Betsy Kepes has this review.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

            Never judge a book by its cover, but let me tell you about this one. Three crows stand on bright snow, a bare branch outlined above their heads. One crow looks out at the world, another seems to be smiling in mid-caw and the third looks down at its black reflection. It’s a striking painting by Seneca artist G. Peter Jemison.

            And the perfect image for Peter Blue Cloud’s new poetry collection, Winter  With Crows. The poems in this small book are by turns activist, witty and introspective.

            Blue Cloud grew up at Kahnawake,  south of Montreal and his poems are full of North Country imagery, both modern and ancient. Most of the poems are short, a quick read with the eye followed by a long moment of recognition.  Here’s Winter Music:

 

A bending willow

Rubbing bodies

With a white birch

 

Their arms touching

To clatter sound

The crows turn

To question.

 

             The Bowl is a poem that made me laugh out loud on the last stanza. In 20 lines, Blue Cloud mixes Native American mythology and other spiritual traditions in a  crow story that has a completely unexpected punch line.  I shouldn’t have been surprised. In his introduction to the poems, Maurice Kenny calls crow “the Mohawk trickster”.

            Not all the poems are light-hearted.  In Dogwood Blossoms beautiful flowers are contrasted with a recent clear cut. Humans seem unable to see beauty but instead, as Blue Cloud writes “plunge forward, blindly, brushing aside blossoms.”

In Sweetgrass, the winter scent of the dry plant brings back summer gathering memories.

 

“And pulling gently, one by one,

the long whispers of grass

and hearing frog song and

watching  a cattail bending

to the weight of a light question

 a red-winged blackbird asks

 

            The last third of the book is a long series of poems titled “White Corn Sister, a play for voices.” In thirty pages Blue Cloud writes a powerful, lyrical history of the Haudenosaunee. One voice tells of Crow bringing corn to the People. Two voices tell a love story. Still others have grim poems of darkness, of “the dark twin of creation” who kills and can scatter a nation. Clan Mother speaks the last poem. She councils, “Offer advice only if you have tasted the turmoil in question”.

            Peter Blue Cloud offers his advice in deceptively simple poems that linger on the tongue and in the heart.

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