Mark Turcotte read his poetry at College of DuPage last month as part of the Writers Read series and also participated in a panel discussion on the theme “Identity Matters.” A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Turcotte writes about his struggle to find his own identity caught between cultures. His “The Back When Poems” reflect life on the reservation and the meaning of Indian-ness, based on a comment by another who later referred to the time as “back when you used to be Ind
A second group of poems called “Road Noise” explore his feelings regarding the Indian father he missed as a child and whom he never really knew until he attended the man’s funeral. He tries to imagine “the story of your skin [that]echoes along the steel-ice rails that run like black-blood veins over the heart of America” and tries to understand “Men like you, who as boys, grieved for the thunder of the herds, dreamed of the thunder of the ponies and their hooves, that howling.”
The third group of poems also attempts to reconcile identity with his experience as an Indian, as a child, a man, a husband, and a father. “No Pie” poignantly recalls the prejudice the young mixed-blood Turcotte experienced. The collection ends with “Exploding Chippewas”, in which the ghosts of his ancestors appear in various forms before they explode, “burn to a flash.” They find him in different places in his life: his mother’s living room, a shabby motel room, a West Texas honky-tonk. He knows the voice of the first ghost “is the sound of sunlight dissolving, wings unfolding…” One ghost appears as “vapor spinning out of the ceiling fan”, others as steam, mist, light. Another ghost appears as heat, taking “the shape of the northern horizon.” One by one the ghosts reveal the helplessness of a man against time, blood, sadness.
Mark Turcotte’s voice is haunting and memorable, though, and in the end, his words give him power.