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Got Story? A Wilderness of Riches is a rich and layered work of narrative poetry

Reprinted from The Broadkill Review. If you would like any information on The Broadkill Review contact me and I’ll forward you information from the publisher, poet and critic Jamie Brown, Milton, Delaware.

While I sat in a chipped school desk, its layers of pressed composite peeling back like the shell of a soft crab, my fourth grade teacher asked me to read aloud the section of our history book that dealt with Pocahontas being baptized, and when I read the sentences, my elementary brain paused, both with thrill and delight, at the mention of Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who shared my surname. Mrs. Jarvis asked me if I was related and I didn’t know what to say; I nodded or grunted goat-like and kept on reading, thrilled with the recognition that my name existed outside of my body, my life, that there was a bit of myself floating up in history, typed on the moldy, musty pages of our text. Alas, it turns out I wasn’t related to Alex Whitaker, not directly, anyhow; my own roots belonged to a indentured servant on the eastern shore of Maryland, rather than to the parson who would eventually help found Henrico county, near Richmond. However, the thrill of that near-discovery stayed with me. Names, as it turns out, and their place in history, can strike mystery in one’s imagination, a feeling of existential discovery shared by many of the voices in Lenny Lianne’s A Wilderness of Riches (Scriptworks Press, Virginia Beach) which recounts the Jamestown settlement in first-person narrative poems.

There is much to discover in the book, and if one does not remember much about the Jamestown settlements from elementary school, Lianne lends a hand with carefully documented details – settlers’ occupations, local flora and fauna -- concerning the crossing. Her volume is broken into four sections: one from John Smith’s perspective, one from Pocahontas’ perspective, one from the perspective of potential brides shipped to the new world, and finally, a section shaped by the landscape, both natural and political.

To say that the poems are a story would be too simple, but it is a narrative we know and have forgotten. The best poems in A Wilderness of Riches concern Pocahontas, the heroine of the narrative. And she is a fitting heroine, for she speaks for the native Powhatan Indians of the Algonquin tribe, for the land, as well as for the English, and her story sharpens the book’s subtext of marriage, and a woman’s place in the New World.

In the title poem, when John Smith, a buffoon prone to exaggeration (my sentiment, not Lianne’s) describes the coast as “present[ing] itself like a new bride,” Lianne sets the arc to not only retell the stories of the settlement of Jamestown, but also to bring into focus the bluntness and harshness the English afforded their own women.

Hart Crane’s Pocahontas in The Bridge was both the savage woman who tamed English hearts as well as the sexy swelling hills of America. In Lianne’s book, the land isn’t a woman, but could be, for it is virgin land, an image Lianne does not overplay, much to her credit. The settlers and Smith, who are full of lust, are easily baited by laughing women in “Along the Chickahominey River.” Their hunger caused then to “snatch food before sitting down” with the natives in “Encounter 1607.” Their desire for land and riches is only equal to their desire for food and flesh, which Lianne explores in later sections.

While the first section recounts the settlers’ lean times, the bloated riches that Pocahontas encounters after she is stolen away and taken to England undercut the drama in Virginia and balance out the narrative. In “Captive” she wonders, “What chance, have I, another savage to survive?” as she speaks to Old Crone Crow enduring the long voyage to England. She is spoken of as a witch, a lowly woman, a novelty, and as she learns Christianity from my distant not-so-relative Parson Whitaker, he discounts her native religion as it were a tawdry detail in a play debuting across the Thames. He sees her as anything but human.

My favorite moment in her story is in “Vernacular of Night” when she lies next to dull Thomas Rolfe (whom she views in “Before Marriage” as a “strange little man… who can neither hunt…or fashion…trinkets.”) and voices native words for plants and animals as her husband snores and dreams of tobacco. Pocahontas spends much time contemplating her names -- her secret name and her new Christian name -- and it is this understanding of the shades of a name, and therefore of identity, that give the section its heart and brain. It is the same insight that allows her, in “Our Lodgings in London: Two Views,” to understand the irony of staying at the Belle Sauvage Inn, where she witnesses behavior of men who do not go far “without…dagger or drink,” and of women who seek rich men. The folly of English appetites is not shared by her husband, who marvels at the Inn’s locale like a harried businessman in a Comfort Inn close to the convention center. Her understanding of names, the changeling nature of identity, is echoed in “The Jamestown Weed,” and the “Plant Hunter” in section four, where the colonists find that nature’s beauty can be deadly, which makes the naming of things so much more difficult and more sublime than they expect. Of the colonists, only the plant hunter seems at home in the New World, and, like Pocahontas, finds solace in nature.

And Pocahontas remains a lonely figure, lost to both societies, and eventually left coughing in the bitter damp cold of an English winter wishing she were home in the wild gathering tubers in “As I close my eyes against the Cold.” Her loss is our loss, and her loneliness is echoed in the third section of Lianne’s volume, the Brides for the Colony: Voices of the Early Immigrant Women, where the new brides’ individual experience is explored in the loose corona “Brides for the Colony.

The final section of the volume sees slavery find its home in the New World, in the fine poem “Cottonmouth.” How the slaves will be treated is foreshadowed by the violence with which the settlers treat their indentured servants, who speak in this section through Elizabeth Abbot, a woman who didn’t want to do farm work. Who can blame her? Those who spoke out against the government are given a voice through Richard Barnes, who is beaten, tortured and outcast. It is Barnes who compares the wilderness, as well as the colony’s disposition towards freedom, to hell.

Lianne’s book is a fine addition to the history and lore of Jamestown. There is only one poem in the book that reaches out to us through modernity, “The Woman in Grave JR156,” in which archeologists identify the woman’s diet. I wonder what could have been wrought if Lianne allowed more modern voices, or images, to enlarge the narrative and bridge the story of English Imperialism to our country’s struggle for identity in the wake of Iraq and all things Bush. Imagine John Smith as an Elizabethan Dick Cheney blundering his way through the Virginia wilderness looking for an Indian kingdom as rich as any Iraqi oil field. Or the honeybees brought to the colony contrasted with the threat of colony collapse disorder in our time. In any case, A Wilderness of Riches is an earnest and engaging work of reader friendly narrative poetry.


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