Split the Crow by Sarah Sousa
By J. Adam Collins
One of the saddest things about history is that we can never get it right, even though the very word denotes truth. There has been a lot of good conversation lately about discrimination, exploitation, assimilation, and appropriation, but another sad aspect of history is that it is full of good conversation on all of these things with few actions taken to correct what we have gotten wrong. Despite this, every discussion can help admonish an inaccurate history. It is a slow process, but a growing wave of cultural justice and understanding must begin somewhere.
Sarah Sousa’s collection of poetry Split the Crow (Parlor Press, January 26, 2015) is one such epicenter of historical integrity in the form of imaginative testimonies. Set in the 1600’s during the height of Native American colonization, this innovative lyrical compendium uses Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, settler diaries, and Native American burial mounds and artifacts to weave stories and give voice to a culture on the verge of annihilation.
From the beginning, Sousa provides what is so rarely given—“we want what is real/ we want what is real/ don’t deny us.” And she does not. Picking up what our high school history books have dropped, she paints our juvenile country in the throes of “inventing the means/ for his survival/ and his survival” at any cost.
There are pieces of reality here in grave relics, quotes, diary entries, and marginalia that Sousa magnifies until they breathe heavy with regret and fear for the future. They are woefully familiar to us now, but scattered throughout are reminders that our guide is with us in the present to show what can be gained from painful pasts. Sousa takes us from colonial settlement to history museum display and back again to say we are not the same now as we were then, even as she points to the dead and says “Beloved don’t hate me/ this rope that binds us won’t break.” And why should we want it to?
These artifacts and words people held and wrote become mini creation stories that, like all creation stories in their account of humanity’s origin, have no specific race or identity . They are universal so that we might “come to [them] faceless, possibly dead” and find ourselves there. “I have no name,” one voice says, rejected and absent of community. It is outcasts like these that drive the new beginnings for which Sousa’s readers may be searching.
One passage on the first Native American translation of the Bible points out that in the clashing of cultures there will always be something given and something taken. “Cleave is both/ cut and cling to,” a white settler wishes a Native American to understand. This is the nature of cooperation if applied equally, but in reality is sadly one-sided in the arc of human history.
Armed with this knowledge, our guide hopes to prevent the dying out of a people and their culture. Putting it into the context of present day, Sousa likens this to the death of bees and patenting of seed at the hands of Monsanto. “The next generation/ of seed achieves sterility” just for cross-pollinating, co-existing. If the marginalized remain gagged, unwilling or unable to speak their truths, they are reduced to the relics held in museums. “Behold American ingenuity. How we toil. / How we spin and spin and spin” without learning a thing.
But Sousa does not only give voice to the suppressed. To the majority, the oppressor, and the complicit she warns against excessive reparations “sometimes resembling anemic condolence, / sometimes largesse.” The point of her testimonies is not to neutralize color and culture, but rather to plant a seed of coexistence and cooperation. It’s a contemplation of how these voices of the past sound so similar to ones we hear today. “I have come to rattle/ the pebble in your soul,” she says. We may not be able to “defend [ourselves]/ from the happenings of this world,” but we can apply ourselves toward a better, peaceful future in it.
There is hope in these relics and voices that this country may one day not construct its borders by “othering.” That it instead uses its own creation stories to form a unified land, not split by cultural divides. “Our cuts still glimmer” as a testament; we need only ask how they were given and actually listen to the answer.
In addition to his work with TTR, J. Adam Collins is also a book editor for Night Owls Press and a freelance book editor and designer in Portland, Oregon. He is a West Virginia native and holds an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University. His poetry has been featured in Bodega Magazine, Cactus Heart Review, Gobshite Quarterly, Black&White Literary Magazine, Unshod Quills, Floating Bridge Press Review #5, and PDX Magazine. Find out more about Adam atwww.jadamcollins.com.