I’ve been reading a curious document of uncertain history, which leads to other strange books and critical works, which are forming some froth around a central whirlpool, in the writings of some minor 19th century writers, or perhaps not writers, George Copway and Julius Taylor Clark, who published the same poem, a short epic called The Ojibway Conquest, Copway publishing it in 1850 and Clark publishing it as The Ojibue Conquest: An Indian Episode in 1904, each acknowledging the other as they claimed authorship, although the story the poem told is at least partly a translation, and weird colonial deviation from, existing oral histories and privately-held stories, so that although Copway and/or Clark held the poem in copyright, the story may be considered already owned, or unownable, or inappropriately owned, or disowned. The poem isn’t very good, but it is elaborate, and that it is a contemporary of Whitman and Dickinson makes me admire them all the more, to see what a miasma of poetry otherwise drifted around the atmosphere at the time; what of today’s work will seem as unfortunate and poorly considered and executed as The Ojibway Conquest in a hundred years, and then a hundred and fifty years? I know of the poem because of research into the house where I grew up, in Topeka, Kansas. The house was built by the poet Clark, whose other vocation was running the local gas company, having left the Bureau of Indian Affairs (and founding the University of Wisconsin, which did not accept my college application when offered to them). There is a brief mention in a history of Topeka to Clark having written some poems, but nothing about the complications. Having read the poem, and read some of Copway’s works and recent scholarship about Copway, which is considerable. He is a tragic figure. I suspect neither Clark nor Copway wrote the poem, or they wrote it together. In Clark’s introduction to his 1904 volume he says that he gave the poem to “a young Indian missionary” to help him raise money, and, having never heard anything more of the matter in the intervening half-century, was now offering it to the world, under his name, along with some shorter lyrics in English and Latin, which he calls “other literary waifs.” The otherwise placid and predictable texture of the shorter poems is pierced here there with rage about betrayal and disappointment in friends. Is he talking about Copway? I hope they were lovers, and the curious publishing history is an expression of their relationship, or an old man’s memory of young love, in a prairie performance of the Paul Valery/Arthur Rimbaud script. Whatever the truth is, I am sure I will never know it, and that the stories they tell about the poem are masques.
Ed Skoog‘s third book of poems, Run the Red Lights, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in November 2016.
Photo: George Copway