Academic journal article MELUS

Maurice Kenny's Tekonwatonti, Molly Brant: Poetic Memory and History

Academic journal article MELUS

Maurice Kenny's Tekonwatonti, Molly Brant: Poetic Memory and History

Article excerpt

Maurice Kenny, a contemporary Mohawk poet, published his series of poems, Tekonwatonti, Molly Brant, Poems of War, 1735-1795 in 1992. His first works began appearing in print in the 1970s. He was awarded the prestigious American Book Award in 1984 for The Mama Poems and is now active both as a poet and an editor for the journal Contact II. He is also a dedicated performer, traveling the country by Greyhound bus to give readings at literary events, bookshops, and universities.

The driving theme and intent of Tekonwatonti, Molly Brant is to reconstruct the times, life, and land of the influential yet largely forgotten Mohawk woman, Molly Brant. Kenny wrote Tekonwatonti as a poet-historian, recounting in the context of some five hundred years' history Brant's involvement in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution and her marriage to British agent Sir William Johnson. In Tekonwatonti and in other work, Kenny is inspired by his Mohawk cultural background and by Native American people and land. Earlier poems, such as "I Am The Sun" and Blackrobe, exhibit this influence. "I Am The Sun" was written in response to the Wounded Knee confrontation of 1973, and is patterned after a Lakota ghost dance song (Kenny, "Our Own" 152).(1) The subject of the narrative series of poems Blackrobe is the controversial death and martyrdom of the Jesuit missionary to the Mohawks, Father Isaac Jogues.(2) With its rivers, mountains, valleys, flora, and fauna, Mohawk land is the unflagging constant behind Tekonwatonti. The call for the remembrance of silenced but unvanquished, Mohawk cultural structures rises from this land to Kenny. He is a champion of forgotten voices, and Molly Brant is one of these voices. She is an exceptional character, indicative of her people and land and imprisoned within the impossible demands of her times.

The traditional importance of Iroquois women in political decision making clearly influenced Kenny's choice to depict the life of Molly Brant. The elder clan mothers in matrilineal Iroquois society had the power to choose the sachems, or peace chiefs, for each of their clans. These clan mothers could remove a sachem who misbehaved from office. They could free or adopt captives, give their advice on matters of diplomacy, and veto a declaration of war. Among her peers, Molly Brant wielded the greatest influence and performed the most outstanding service during the Revolutionary War (Graymont, "The Six Nations" 100).

Besides Tekonwatonti, the only substantial piece of writing dedicated to Molly Brant is a novel written by Margaret Widdemer, published in 1951, which, as Kenny suggests, appears to be based "perhaps, on hearsay or legend with few facts" (Tekonwatonti 12). Kenny's very judgment of Widdemer's book could just as well be leveled at his own. That Kenny partly bases his history on myths, various recollections, and poetic revivification cannot be denied, yet he does provide a factual basis for his work. He includes an introduction, a glossary, and a historical chronology. These succinct references, although by no means exhaustive, give helpful hints, such as brief biographical sketches of historical actors and dates of important wars and colonial discoveries. Kenny also briefly discusses his historical sources in his introduction to Tekonwatonti. Despite this, throughout Tekonwatonti there remains a problematic pact between historic evidence and poetic license.

Tekonwatonti raises important questions about how we view history. How far are we willing to consider a series of historical narrative poems openly based as much upon a poetic and oral tradition which reinvents, as upon a documented, recorded history? We know that all writers invent, be they academics, novelists, or statisticians. Every historical text, be it traditional or revisionist, deals with, and in some part cannot help but be necessarily based upon, misinformation and lies, even when trying to unmask and clarify. …

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