Oregon Ferry Review of Books   Joe Survant

Joe Survant. The Land We Dreamed. Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky. 2014. 978-0-8131-4458-0, Softcover, 5 1/2" x 8 1/2", 133 pp.  $19.95

Joe Survant   The Land We DreamedReading this book, it is as if we have dreamed this land of Kentucke, how else could such a paradise have come into existence?  This book is Survant's vision of how it might have happened, the product of his "net of imagination cast into history." It is a tale of a land and its people, a tale of beauty and savagery.

Survant draws on numerous historical documents from which he lifts or creates characters and imagines their lives and experiences Thomas Walker, Mary Ingles, ancestor William Survant, Daniel Boone of course, and the chiefs of the Shawnee and Seneca tribes, along with many other buckskin and calico-clad characters from history and imagination.

In the book's first poem prehistoric travelers from the inhospitable north speak

           Let us stop here,
           they said. Let us
           live here, near
           the animals. This
           is the land
           we dreamed.
           This is the land
           Manito made for us.

                   ("The First Hunters")

In the early 1600s the French sent Jesuit missionaries among the Savages.  Noel, companion to Fr. Jerome, speaks of the hospitality of the Illinois

           The third course

           was a large dog,
           freshly killed and roasted.
           We said we could not

           eat the meat of dogs
           so he brought fatty
           pieces of wild cattle.

           Again we were first 
           to eat. I felt
           like a pig before slaughter.

           After the feast he
           led us through the town
           of over three hundred cabins

           and called the people out
           to see us.  Everywhere
           they pressed gifts upon us . . . 
                     ("Among the Illinois")

But by the 1700s there was enmity between the Indians and the white settlers

           When we kill
           and burn them out
           they are like
           a hornet's nest.
           There is no end
           to the stinging
           misery they bring.
           Though it is
           not yet so,
           I know a river
           of whites is a coming
           flood that will
           sweep us all away
           Shawnee, Mingo, and Ojibway.

In spite of danger and hardship, the allure of new land brought thousands of settlers streaming down the Ohio River or through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucke

           On the tenth day
           having made my way
           down the Ouabachi, I

           reached its mouth and entered
           a beautiful river the Hiroquois
           call Oyo.
                    ("La Belle Riviere")

           Then with good Ben Hill
           I sought the western mountains
           through the Gap, past
           the Blue River of the Piqua,
           past the Temasqui that the
           Keetoowah loved, past even
           the further survey of ourselves.
                   ("Beyond the Mountains")

Survant's dramatic monologues reveal through his characters' words their indomitable spirit and their appreciation of the land and love of nature.  Especially intriguing to me are the first person narratives of encountering the beauty and hardship that nature offers, "turrabel cainbrakes," "Bear," "Alone" (solitude), accounts of winter and giant sycamores, "Owl," "Big Bone Lick," "On Dick's River" and "First Frost." These are poems that set you squarely in the unexplored and unrelenting wilderness of 1700's Kentucke, definitely not your typical "nature" poems.

           The rain speaks in
           words of a million syllables.
           Be still, it says,
           there's no one here.

This story of the set
tling (dreaming) of Kentucke is a story paralleling the coming of "civilization" to the world, a bittersweet story that is a small facet of the history of the world as that narrative is laid down in layers as the layers of carbon are laid down in the book's last poem, "Coal."

           The vociferous struggle
           of all the ravenous
           creatures, the intricate
           motives of the great
           plants were forgotten
           under the unbearable
           weight of three hundred
           million years.
           Reduced to their
           lowest selves, they
           became buried seams
           of voiceless coal.
           They waited in
           smothered darkness
           for coughing diesels
           to move the earth,
           releasing once more
           their urgent hungers . . .

This book addresses the urgent hungers within each of us.

Author's bio:

Joe Survant is the recipient of the State Street Press Poetry Prize, the Arkansas Poetry Prize, and other accolades. He is the author of We Will Be Changed; Anne and Alpheus, 1842-1882; Rafting Rise; and The presence of Snow in the Tropics. He served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate for the period 2003-2004.

Charlie Hughes