Thursday, June 10, 2010

Alice Azure, with an introduction by Robert Hall

Alice Azure has another new poetry collection forthcoming, and she is kind enough to allow me to post the introduction to it before the book appears.  The introduction is by Robert Hall, author of An Archaeology of the Soul, and is a good frame for Alice's work, which focuses on her connections to and experience of the Cahokia Mounds area, only a few miles from Cherry Pie Press.

Explaining his interest in Alice Azure's work, Hall connects poetry to prose to song:  "I am not interested in poetry so much by itself as in how knowing something about the rhetoric of poetry can help me write better prose and understand traditional American Indian songs, as in Chapter 12 of Archaeology of the Soul."

Thanks to both Alice Azure and Robert Hall for permission to print this Introduction. 


There are places that exist in myth that have left no ruins to direct a pilgrim’s feet. There are places that exist as ruins that have left no myths to tell their story. Cahokia is one of these — ancient Cahokia, prehistoric Cahokia on the Illinois bottomlands of the Mississippi River — a planned community of urban proportions. Over a hundred earthen mounds dot Cahokia’s landscape, most of them marking where a temple or elite residence once stood.

Considering its size and onetime importance, it defies belief that Cahokia has left no memory of itself among native peoples of the Midwest, yet, that is the case. Most of what is known of Cahokia comes from what archaeologists can find with shovels and trowels. Stains in the earth trace the paths of massive palisade walls that once enclosed the Grand Plaza fronting on the Great Cahokia Mound and the mound itself, Monks Mound so called from an incident in its later history. Other stains trace the outlines of dwellings and temples reduced by time to mere discolorations in the soil. Some stains define monumental post circles that were material expressions of a cosmology that we can only guess at. These things are visible to the archaeologist, but there is more visible only to the poet’s eye.

Alice Azure lives behind the bluff line that defines Cahokia’s eastern horizon. Seven, eight, nine hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, Cahokia priests surely greeted the sun as it rose above that horizon. In Quotidian Dimensions the poet Alice backs away from priestly exultations in favor of the canine choruses that just as surely began Cahokia’s days. “Was this how old Cahokia awakened?” she asks, then describes the everyday life that must have filled those days.

In Cahokia at Dusk the poet Alice reverses the Cahokian view, looking west from the bluff toward the sun’s setting. As daylight fades, dancers appear that only she can see. Drummers time beats that only she can hear. The Grand Plaza comes alive and Alice shares with us her vision of that scene.

Cahokia Mound 72 deftly weaves together scenes of the human sacrifices whose bones fill that mound with scenes of the senseless slaughters that provide today’s headlines. Like Cahokia Mound 72, Horseradish Blues makes a comparison that spans a millennium. It contrasts ancient Cahokia as the City of the Sun with the latter-day importance of the area for cultivating horseradish, a comparison of the sacred with the profane symbolizing the descent of Cahokia from its prehistoric grandeur. Cahokia’s crop was corn, sacred to Cahokians as it still is for so many native Americans. Horseradish is a condiment that bites the tongue but cannot stir the soul.

Helping to shape Alice Azure’s image of Cahokia was a muse, if that be the right word, in the form of a spirit being she calls Red Cedar. The centuries shrink as Red Cedar speaks. Less ethereal in influencing Azure’s interest in Cahokia has been her own training in urban and regional planning. Happy the coincidence that a Native American poet with such experience should find herself living within the bounds of the greater Cahokia community. Even so, in this collection of poems Cahokia is but one of many stages on which characters from Azure’s background make a curtain call — a Maine vegetable garden, a Meskwakie powwow, church schools, a football field, more. Most of her poems are very personal, and this infusion of the personal binds the collection into a whole.

Libertyville, Illinois

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