Midden by Julia Bouwsma (Fordham University Press, 2018)
for every sorrow that been dug from you,
here is a pile of rubble twice as high.
Tracking human change can be a painful and insightful process. The poet’s journey in Midden is one that personally and wholeheartedly explores the landscape upon which we walk, and how to better understand the stories of the lives of those who have previously lived within the landscape.
Through this book of poems, Maine poet and librarian Julia Bouwsma explores Malaga Island, Maine, which was once home to a “mixed-race” (Wabanaki, white, and African American) community that was intentionally and forcibly removed by the members of the government of State of Maine in 1912. This book investigates the history of this generations-old group of people and their terrifying demise via ethnographic biography, personal and psychological memoir, and the plethora of archives and library collections throughout the state.
How they came in boats,
how our shacks caught like a shot of light
when match met kerosene. How we left
in their boats; how we huddled
close; how mama bent
to the baby, her crooked
arm clamping him
silent. How a child curled
mouth to smoky knees and bit
them to red.
(from “The Story of Fire”)
In her telling of the story, Bouwsma directly tells the story of the community’s removal and erasure, including the moments of peace and wellness before removal, the process of displacement, and even truly insidious actions to the people’s identity, including the exhuming and relocation of the community’s island’s cemetery’s graves to the disturbingly symbolic Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. These writings occur throughout the course of the book, allowing the reader to appropriately learn and lean into the truth of the Malaga community and their antagonists.
Midden is opened with a foreword by Afaa M. Weaver, who says that “Bouwsma shows us the horror, in poems that are full, yet marked with a deftness and appropriate concision.” I couldn’t agree more. Reading Midden is reading a collection at once stark and writhing. The souls of Malaga’s early residents are bursting with the little documented life that exists, given fresh energy through the complex and mystifying odes of the author’s verse.
[. . .] Memory, a scrap of cotton I fold and fold
until the fabric strips the scent from my palms. If I don’t
make it out, tell my daughters their mother’s skin
is an abandoned shed, grayed pine and dry rot, but inside--
inside holds the taste of salt cod, the sweet clotting of blueberries
drying on tin-roof sun. Tell them to jimmy the lock, to search
if they can. Their fingers will remember.
To say that the events recounted through Bouwsma’s research and findings aren’t tragic would be pivotally incorrect and further dehumanizing. In Midden, the poet strongly describes the formal and intentional actions of Maine society. These are early days of the whitest state in the United States. The actions of the people in power in Maine were angled to shape how humanity-at-large functions. The reality of this hegemonic approach to culture and life presents the reader with a particularly exhausting degree of horror, one that has long been covered up.
Bouwsma has done her searching and collecting of information well, and the book-as-synthesis demonstrates these extreme and oppressive sequences in a logical fashion. Her poems reveal a narrative with a beginning and an end, highlighting the abhorrent behavior from its surface to its core, while ensuring the moments of wellness that did indeed exist within that community before its destruction are presented to the reader as well.
The poems fill the story in a dynamic sense; the poet approaches qualities of the life of the folks in Malaga from complex, multidimensional perspectives. There are souls here, and they dance along the edge of the words in this book. The reader will encounter collage, embodiment, cyphering, and even erasure in the literary structure of Midden. More traditional visuals—stanzas—meet the flickering fluidity of prose, and even the occasional iteration of the projectively-versed voice, creating a sense of affect and a doorway toward fantastic, superhuman moments.
I walk to the clear cut—discarded
limbs, silvered softwood. I trace
this trail of quartz crystals, vertebrae--
morsels dropped from a torn pocket and blazed
to bone dust. The road curves toward
and away. The road spins
the stone walls. My feet stumble inside
ruts my feet have worn.
(from “I Walk My Road at Dusk”)
It is quite sad to see the challenges Bouwsma faces in exploring her own daily life and justifying actions in an attempt to understand placement, value, worth, and relevance through her project. I found the autobiographical poems of the author, which noticeably melt into the rest of the book via tone, language, and vocabulary, to be some of the most powerful and engaging pieces to the work as a whole and one of the largest contributors to its themes. To see the contemporary’s endurance exchange with the historical’s brutality moves Midden beyond the conceptual, beyond works devoid of spiritual depth.
[. . .] Our grief pops loud as pine, burns
so loose we’re gone before we know it. Or we smolder
sweet and dark in our own hot scent. Birch skin peels
from branch, limbs crackle red, recede to black--
some days I unravel so quickly I don’t need a match.
(from “Dear ghosts, because you tell me to, I begin again”)
The poet closes her book with a long essay on process that may be one of the most successful of its kind I have read. In it, Bouwsma writes: “For me, the process of researching Malaga has been akin to walking the same road day after day for years, only to stumble over some new remnant or sinkhole each time. To study Malaga is to wonder, continually, if the ground you are walking upon is really what you think it is.” These words transform the spectrum of our memory.
Torment. Redundancy. Forgetfulness. And respect. Charity. Profundity. The fullness of this human experience comes full circle as we learn about why the project exists, and how it managed to manifest in its lifespan. Seeing these histories, these changes, these memories respectfully acknowledged and framed, like many other moments where Bouwsma honors those dead who were significantly oppressed, is an awe-filled charge of illumination in the night.
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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