Mary Austin is an intriguing figure of the Modernist literary movement. While the introduction to The Road to the Spring: Collected Poems of Mary Austin aligned her with early Modernist and Regionalist poets like Stephen Crane, I connected her with Pablo Picasso, who drew inspiration from African art to advance his own style, exoticising the Other. Mary Austin drew inspiration and artistic perspective from Southwest American Indian tribes that she lived near and interacted with.
Many of her poems are translations or re-expressions of American Indian songs. She fancied herself as an anthropologist of sorts, but her use of cultural stories and rituals for her own poetry publication puts her in a ethical gray area. Were they hers to appropriate and share as Modernist poetry? Even if she had the permission of the people who shared the songs with her, did those people have the authority to sign over the publishing rights to their tribe’s rituals and songs? And is her English version true to the meaning of the original? Should it (could it) be?
Her statements about American Indian poetry smacks of exotification of the Other. I wonder if she isn’t like many Sante Fe artists, co-opting the imagery, traditions, and ideology of the nearby Rio Grande Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache groups to build their own artistic identities and money-making on. From this perspective, there’s something a little unsettling about reading her poetry.
However, she does offer an invaluable concept for understanding rituals of fertility in these groups: the Chisera. The Chisera is a tribal medicine woman, marginalized by the tribe, having failed to fill the traditional role of wife and mother. But rather than use the power of fertility for her personal family, she turns that fertile power to the tribe at large, leading them on “the road to spring.”
I found this especially cogent to my thinking about both Leslie Marmon Silko and her novel Ceremony. Ceremony, in a nutshell, is one man’s journey to heal himself and the infertile land around him. To do this, Silko weaves “poems” with prose, but those poems are essentially rituals, songs, and stories of the Pueblo people. The idea is that by sharing cultural capital outside of the tribal boundaries, the tribe will gain greater understanding and respect from white Americans. Novels like Ceremony are honest portrayals, and unfortunately they are often the only glimpse outsiders have of Southwest American Indian groups. Her intent was to heal the divide between American Indian and white people. Obviously she wasn’t fully successful, but as one of the first celebrated American Indian authors, she certainly opened up the conversation and paved the path for other writers.
But were those stories hers to share? A large portion of the Laguna Pueblo population, the people Silko claims as her own (though they point out she’s part-Pueblo, part-Mexican, and part-white), see her as a persona non grata. Mary Austin’s term, Chisera, fits well here. Like the Chisera, Silko is marginalized by her people, and yet her energies go towards bringing fertility back to the People, in this case, through the writing of a book. She is a healer, but not an ordained one.
So that’s cool. But beyond this one concept, Mary Austin was also a feminist, and that plays out in stories of her interactions with critics and literary theorists of her day. She seriously didn’t take any crap from anyone. Much respect.
I found her collection to be especially suited for people with an interest in American Indian stories and mythology. If that’s not of interest, then it is likely her poetry won’t be either.