Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Malecite Tale

there was once a woman who admired a dog
the dog was handsome
she liked his face

that night the dog turned into a man
he became her husband

never tell anyone I used to be a dog
never mention it at all
he said to his wife

for a long time they lived together
she never thought of him as a dog
she never spoke of it

but one day she saw some dogs in the village
they were all chasing a bitch
everywhere here and there

so she asked her husband if he would like to be one of them
and instantly he said yes and turned back into a dog
and away he ran with the others

source: The Magic World: American Indian Songs and Poems edited by William Brandon

I found The Magic World on the library book sale shelves at Berkeley Public Library’s North Branch. For many years the library has hosted these mini-sales for the Friends of the Library. People pay on the honor system, twenty-five cents a book. I think the Friends have finally decided not to support this arrangement. Or maybe it was the library administration. The shelves do take up space that could be used for something else. And I imagine the money they bring in is not great.

Still, it’s been a nice resource. Over the years I’ve found quite a few books of interest. Mostly yellowed classics. When I looked it over I didn’t remember The Magic World, though I went through several Native American poetry anthologies some years ago. The copy is in good shape, a lightly-read 40 year-old book. For twenty-five cents I figured it wasn’t a loss even had I read it before.

And I have. Enough time has passed, it seems, that I remember almost nothing specific, except for (curiously?) the typography. I find the cover ugly, a line drawing of a big-chinned American Indian man with his long hair parted in the middle and restrained by bands at the sides. A silhouette of a man on horseback seems to be riding out of the Indian’s left eye socket. Maybe I read an edition that had a different cover or a rebound copy. The pieces in the book are from a variety of sources, many not originally recorded as poetry – speeches, explanations, contracts. On the whole I wasn’t much impressed, but toward the back I came upon some pretty brilliant dream-like stories, the “Malecite Tale” being one. (A few pages later the Natchez tale, “The Cannibal’s Seven Sons,” confirmed for me that I’d read the anthology before. The poem is one I copied out by hand and have read over many times.)

The “Malecite Tale” above was first published in The Journal of American Folk Lore in 1917. According to Wikipedia, “The Wolastoqiyik, or Maliseet [Malecite], are an Algonquian-speaking Native American/First Nations/Aboriginal people of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They are the Indigenous people of the Saint John River valley and its tributaries, between New Brunswick, Quebec, and Maine.”

hat tip to VintageVida for the cover scan

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