From STONE CANOE, By Susan Deer Cloud

This review can be found in Issue 5 of Stone Canoe

For any reader who hungers for mythic poetry, Bone-Songs and Sanctuaries will help assuage that hunger. In a time and place when too much poetry reads like exercises done in one more poetry workshop, Michael Jennings’ poems possess the courage of the oracular voice—of the fiercely loving and visionary man or woman, of land in its brutality and beauty, and of life’s vast sweep.

Bone-Songs and Sanctuaries unfolds in five sections: The Book of Losses; Dream Walk; A Dance of Stone; Lamentations; and Dust and a Good Wind. The book begins with the primal. The first poem, “Before Speech,” has a chant-like music, and from the first, the stanza leaps off the page: BEFORE SPEECH/was the wolf pack, the moon’s children,/her insignia borne in the whites of their faces.” As in Jennings’ other poems, there is no attempt to give a sermon. His gift is to reflect the immensity of life, both exterior and interior.

The section Dream Walk reads like a walkabout of two people in love, in this case the poet and his wife wandering the songlines of their life together. Jennings, born in New Orleans, son of the welterweight boxer Chuck Davey, seems to wind the double helix of himself throughout these poems, sensuous and yet hip to life’s pitilessness–always there is death as the knockout punch to any love and sanctuary we may find. Dream Walk is a long, epic poem that blazes as it conjures up two human beings embarking on what eventually becomes a marriage of many years:

It’s all new. You’re new – taut and muscular
as a spring colt claiming his first field.
I’m new – grinning ear to ear, hearing windmills.
Death is new here, too, and moves like water underfoot.

Dream Walk makes us shiver with its music, echoing life’s fragility and our vulnerability.

A Dance of Stone invokes the time when the poet was a boy and lived in Iran, taken there by his stepfather’s job “in oil.” “Old Mountains” sums up what U.S. need and greed for oil has done to Earth. The poem ripples back and forth between the “holy mountains,” the “goats,” the people native to that land, the white oilmen and wives “savaging the servants,/quarreling with our sad sack fathers.” And all the time the children are feeling the mountains entering them “as easily as sky,/as easily as night,” the land showing them “fire and shadow, dancers under the worn moon.”

The poems in Lamentations, near the book’s end, have much to do with women, especially the poet’s mother, maternal grandmother, and wife. The first poem, “Alexandra,” is a tour de force of a meditation on the writer’s mother. It unflinchingly serves up Alexandra’s life after her parents divorced, and offers a compassionate look at how that wounded girl managed to become the woman she did after “the new poverty tied/ you to yourself like a bad smell.” The poet imagines the day his mother defied that poverty forever, after noticing someone had left deodorant on her desk at work:

That was the day, perhaps, you swore off sweat.
Powdered, perfumed, your beauty cool as ice,
you wore a long red coat, stiletto heels.
When, like soft wind, you tucked me in at night
and whisked away into a world of eyes
and mouths and random men, I felt your steel.

The poet also writes of Mary, his grandmother, his “first mother” in the New Orleans of his first years: “You gave me awe/and madness, a taste for all things stained/and fallen.” This early sensuousness foreshadows the writer’s adult love for his wife. This poetry takes its time, evoking all that one person’s loving of others entails, including “the horror, the horror” of a life ill and decaying. Jennings mates astonishing beauty and vividly intense life with human vulnerability, growing old, death. Yet, trickster-like, he slides in sly touches of humor throughout Lamentations:

I sat on the edge of my bed and I wailed and I wept
and I wanted to be empty as wind
and avoid all this old man dying shit
all this piecemeal dissolution humiliation

This piecing together of rhymes and rhythms to bring forth tragedy and comedy all at once relies on a combination of epic language and “down in the dirt” vernacular. Jennings’ poetry is warrior poetry, and how could one not think of his biological father, Chuck Davey, when reading these poems? Davey fought with his hands, and in different fashion, Jennings fights with his hands, too, only his deliver knockouts of a more sublime form via a computer keyboard.

Bone-Songs and Sanctuaries: New and Selected Poems has a range like a great mountain range: to experience these poems fully, one must make a pilgrimage to the mountaintop, watching and listening closely, riding an Arabian horse of a pure and epic dreaming.


Susan Deer Cloud, an alumna of public ivy Binghamton University, is a Catskill Métis Indian of Mohawk, Blackfoot and some Seneca lineage. Currently Susan is an MFA student in Creative Writing at Goddard College, her tribal home away from home. She has received various awards and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, a Chenango County Council for the Arts Literature Grant, First Prize in Allen Ginsberg Poetry Competition (twice), Prairie Schooner’s Readers’ Choice Award, and Native American Wordcraft Circle Editor’s Award for her multicultural anthology Confluence. Deer Cloud’s work has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. Her poetry collection The Last Ceremony (2007) and her Native anthology I Was Indian (2009) are also FootHills publications. In 2008 Deer Cloud served as guest editor for Spring Issue of Yellow Medicine Review, a Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art & Thought; she is currently an adviser to YMR. She lives peacefully with Wu Wei, her Persian cat, and Poetry, her one constant lover, in a second floor yurt in a rainy city in Iroquois Country.