Review of Carter Revard's
Family Matters, Tribal Affairs

by Mary Strahan Scriver

Family Matters, Tribal Affairs, as well as the poetry books Cowboys and Indians, Christmas Shopping and Ponca War Dancers are by Carter Revard, a retired professor of Middle English, who continues the tradition of Native American scholars like John Joseph Mathews, whom Carter knew in Oklahoma, and like D'Arcy McNickle, who grew up on the Flathead. Revard not only earned a Ph.D. at Yale, he also received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, taught at Amherst and has had a long career at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where the riverboats used to leave for Fort Benton, MT. Despite being an international sophisticate who still accompanies his wife, a scholar of Greek , to Rome or to Paris, Carter has never lost his ties with family: Irish, Scotch-Irish, French, Osage, Ponca, Comanche, Otoe and Lakota. He had relatives at the second Wounded Knee - went there briefly himself to see what it was about - and he is a Gourd Dancer, a ceremonial tribal role. In retirement he is endlessly patient with the subscribers to the Native Lit email bulletin board, which is how I know him.

Family Matters, Tribal Affairs is a book of essays published by the University of Arizona Press. Half are centered on his growing-up community along Buck Creek, including exciting tales about dubious money-making schemes like robbing banks or making moonshine and an hilarious reversal account of claiming Europe for the Osage Nation, though he opines it may be impossible to civilize the Europeans. I mean, consider their history!

The second half of the book is serious scholarly essays, though it is nearly impossible for Revard to resist an occasional pun or double meaning. One essay considers Columbus as a kind of Luciferean fallen angel and brings as evidence Milton, Shakespeare, and Osage and Navajo creation stories. Another explains how Old English "kennings" or alliterative riddle poems were written, as patterned as Haiku, but with a puzzle at the heart. After explicating an ancient kenning about a swan, Carter demonstrates a modern version about a Sony television set.

"A woman acquired me,carried me home,
set me high on an altarfor adoration,
drove Dracula teethinto tight joyholes,
touched me untilshe turned me on--"

Revard's world is a sensuous one, full of pop science about dinosaurs and plate tectonics, and yet always anchored at home with "grandchildren looking into the rain that lives again on earth and seeing themselves." His poems are for friends and for the "blue-eyed cats" who interrupt his work by demanding to be fed. In one breath he remembers driving the old family car into the creek on the farm in order to wash it, and then links that somehow to space travel and the dance of atoms that can make the rind on a watermelon become part of his cousins as well as feasting ants. Amazed transcendence and connection saturate every poem.

This is not something he picked up in conversation with Robert Frost, though he could have, since he was friends with the man, but rather - he would explain, I am sure - from being Indian. They do not say how people are set apart from the world and given dominion, but rather teach that everything is part of everything else and therefore one must be responsible for the harmony of the whole. And so he combines chiggers with scientific "string theory" about the cosmos, and he tells about Black Holes in space mixed in with how his Aunt Jewell sang to him and his Ponca cousins - as they drifted to child-sleep sprawled on pallets on the south porch under the full moon - sang an old Ponca song called "What are you afraid of? No one can go around death." This song was composed by Aunt Jewell's blind great-aunt after the Poncas had been forced to walk from Nebraska to Oklahoma, then grew so despairing that they drank and quarreled. It is a "strong-heart song" that women sing to men. Carter Revard told us this on email, speaking from his office via laptop.

My favorite Revard poem is "Christmas Shopping" wherein the poet contrasts the frantic crowd in the local version of K-Mart, with the sight from the parking lot outside.

"...everybody's furiously buying for their loved
ones doesn't have what we wanted and so we
came back out . . . but where the blue sky and plain
daylight had been
was semi-twilight that
as well as getting
darker was filling up with light, not dazzling
but brilliant, the cars did have their
lights on too bright to look into and red taillights
were, you could practically
taste them but they fitted,
they hung upon the cheeks of twilight
like rubies from an Ethiop's ear,
to pluck the Swan
of Avon's phrase; you know what
I mean, LUMINOUS, nothing was ordinary, as if
we'd floated up into the sunset air all
filled with gold and dark shining, like
being in a cathedral with the moon and not a
Venture parking lot,
the light was different so
the earth was too...."

This poetry is easy to read and easy to read out loud. I would love to have it on tape. The small paperback books come from Point Riders Press, P.O Box 2731, Norman, OK 73070. I always throw in a a few extra dollars because the publisher will surprise you with small poetry books by little known Native Americans.

(Copies of all three books have been sent to the Browning Public Library and the Heart Butte School Library on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. I didn't wait for them to be remaindered: I don't expect any to be left over after the people who love Carter buy their copies.)

Family Matters, Tribal Affairs by Carter Revard. The University of Arizona Press, copyright 1998. ISBN 0-8165-1843-2 pb.

Ponca War Dancers by Carter Revard. Point Riders Press, copyright 1980.$6.95. pb. ISBN 0-937280-07-0

Cowboys and Indians, Christmas Shopping by Carter Revard. Point Riders Press, copyright 1960 through 1990. $8 pb ISBN 0-937280-31-3

Return to the Carter Revard website