Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Great Dying by Kathleen Jones

For those whose bones
lie only an inch under the grass
I have only words.
Below the skin of moss or turf
they lie where they were felled
in  hundreds
where the trees are greenest.

There are places yet to find
where the teeth of ancestors
still speak to us from the forest floor
among the foxgloves and pine needles
and sapling spruce.  Or woven among
the roots of a hundred year old hemlock
downed in the last El Nino wind.

And sometimes the storms
will show a father,
teaching his son the old places,
caves stacked with
cedar boxes and a shaman’s staff wedged
between stones in the roof.

The laughing picnickers,
whose yacht is moored offshore,
know nothing of a genocide;
the baby sucking at a rotting breast
grandparents too weak to gather food
a girl abandoned out of fear.

The mortuary stench that kept the ships
from shore has long since vanished
but the bones
like human cruelty
are  more firmly rooted. 

© Kathleen Jones

Posted on The Tuesday Poem with permission.

Editor, Helen McKinlay

Kathleen Jones, is a fellow Tuesday Poet, whose blog I have long enjoyed and admired, so I am delighted to post 'The Great Dying' and the fascinating and moving story behind this poem's very recent conception.  Kathy had started writing poems based on the mythology of the people of 
Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Colombia. 
Haida Gwaii (literally "Islands of the Haida people.") Once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Charlottes, it is an archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and the Haida people make up approximately half of its population. Kathy, being the meticulous researcher she is, set about planning a trip to Canada to visit these islands, earlier this year:

 "It's one of the scariest trips of my life. I'm heading for the wilderness, more than 1,000 miles north of Vancouver, off the coast of Alaska."

Kathy in Vancouver Island, near totems of the coastal Salish people.

Kathy tells us about her trip and how it affected her:
"I went to Haida Gwaii, a group of remote islands off the coast of British Columbia, to finish a collection of poems rooted in First Nation mythology, but then, found myself in the middle of a big debate about the terrible effects of colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Canadian government had commissioned a report called Truth and Reconciliation, designed to find out just what had happened and acknowledge a genocide, both physical and cultural.  A population of more than 20,000 people was reduced to 500 within a couple of decades.                                                        
A Raven Pole from the abandoned village of Skedans

"In some places so many people died, there was no-one left to bury the dead. I visited one of these villages, where the scattered bones lie just under the surface and found it a very moving experience. I was taken there by the grandchild of one of the survivors who told me the stories that are in the poem."  

Kathy went on to say how inspired she was by the people"their tenacity in the face of cultural annihilation, and their current determination to save their landscape from environmental destruction by loggers and oil companies."

A House Pit in the Abandoned Village
Kathy describes her visit to the abandoned village in her blog.
"The Haida refer to it as ‘The Great Dying.’ In 1862, an epidemic of small pox, brought by the Europeans, wiped out whole communities, particularly on the southern islands of the Gwaii. One of my goals in coming here was to try to get to some of these abandoned villages. The southern part of Haida Gwaii is now a nature reserve and, apart from a small airstrip and village at the top of Moresby Island, is not inhabited at all. I drove down the east coast of the northern island to the township of Skidegate and immediately started asking how I could get into the south. The B and B I was staying in said that they were taking a group by boat the following day and would I like to join them? Would I! The weather wasn’t good, but it would have taken a small army to keep me from going…"  Read  more

And the end result? "Going to Haida Gwaii altered my project," Kathy told me. "I began to write a travel journal which became a journey through the social history, geography, environmental concerns and mythology of the islands of Haida Gwaii;  the poetry is still there, but it's taken a back seat for the moment until I get the prose finished."

Bio and Publications in Brief:
Kathleen Jones
Kathleen Jones writes biography and fiction (available as both print and e books) as well as poetry. Her first full collection,  Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21, (Templar Poetry 2011) was joint winner of the Straid Collection Award. She has been described by Carol Ann Duffy as ‘a powerful female voice’.  Kathleen's other work includes  A Passionate Sisterhood [Virago], a group biography of the sisters, wives and daughters of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and an acclaimed biography of Katherine Mansfield 'The Storyteller'.  Her most recent biography, Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet, was published by The Book Mill in 2013. Kathleen has taught creative writing in a number of universities and is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. Her usual abode is Cumbria.
We can look forward to a new collection of poetry based on the mythology and history of the First Nation Haida people of British Columbia.

Helpful Links

Kathleen's photos are used with permission.Thank you Kathy for sharing your very moving poetry and the story of its origins, on this week's Tuesday Poem Blog.

This week's editor Helen McKinlay lives in the top of the South Island, New Zealand. She is a published poet and as a children's author created the bestselling 'Grandma' books, which include Grandma Joins the All Blacks.

In addition to today's feature be sure to check out the wonderful poems featured by the other Tuesday Poets, using our blog roll to the left of this posting.