March 13, 2020KR Reviews

Forms of Reckoning: A Review of LeAnne Howe’s Savage Conversations

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2019. 144 pages. $15.95. 

I first read LeAnne Howe’s extraordinary new book, Savage Conversations on unceded Dakhóta land in Minnesota, five miles from Fort Snelling State Park. Then, a sign hung over the entrance welcoming visitors to “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” It was intended as a reminder that before the military installation, this bdote, this meeting place of two rivers, was a site of cultural significance for more than 10,000 years to indigenous people. It also was a reminder of how the fort was used as a military prison to the 265 Dakhóta warriors not killed in a mass execution in Mankato on December 26, 1862. This military prison also held 3,000 women, children, and elders before they were driven on a forced march out of the state.

So much American history is shrouded in wishful thinking, secrecies, convenient lies, and the insidious propagandas of white supremacy. In Savage Conversations, LeAnne Howe experiments with the form of verse drama to tell the history of the Dakhóta resistance to colonization and the mythos surrounding the Lincoln presidency of that same period. The setting is the asylum to which Mary Todd Lincoln was involuntarily committed ten years after the death of her husband. The characters are the First Lady, whose racism against Native Americans is well-documented, the “Savage Indian” she claims to see and be tortured by nightly, and a rope. The story is a reckoning of hauntings and unprosecuted crimes, an attempt at imagining some way to live with an unbearable history of human rights abuses and genocide.

Among the many rhetorical and craft techniques worthy of praise in Howe’s writing is her insightful and deft use of dramatic monologues. Mary Todd Lincoln speaks of her visions, grief, and rage with a complexity that invites a measure of compassion alongside a clear-eyed understanding of the very real racism that lends its form and shape to her hallucinations. In “Catafalque,” the First Lady confesses to  the man she calls Savage Indian,

Here, at last, I’ll tell it all: I did wish you dead, sir, eight
thousand thirty-nine times for all the days you ran
sideways from our home, whistling a Nightjar’s tune. Pay
them all now, sir, before dawn’s light.

Through this characterization, Howe challenges narratives of innocence surrounding white female fragility and instead considers the agency of a First Lady. Mary Todd Lincoln used her agency to stoke impulses towards violence and cruelty that led to the mass execution of the Dakhóta 38, as well as the subsequent war crimes against the surviving women and children. “My blood glows hot through crisscrossed wires / While Negros enjoy their freedom. // . . . Freedom will never be yours, not in this land.”

Similarly the monologues of the “Savage Indian” character reveal a spirit who is haunted as much as he is a haunting, who embodies a tragedy the First Lady, like most colonizers of that period and this one, would have swept to the farthest reaches of her conscious mind. In “Savage Indian Laments,” he says, “I surrender nothing, not even in death.” Then he adds,

In one hundred and fifty years, the citizens of Mankato will shiver,
Asking why their ancestors hanged thirty-eight Dakhóta
Indians over a
Handful of hens’ eggs.

Though he is introduced as Mary Todd Lincoln’s delusion, as the collection unfolds, this character increasingly seems to be a spirit yoked to her by virtue of the horrific mass execution President Lincoln ordered. Through his conversations with the First Lady about what he, his fellow warriors, and his people suffered, and through his accusations and confessions, his own restless spirit begins to find peace.

A particularly powerful element in this collection is the character of the noose, who hangs at the periphery of these conversations, commenting in brief but disturbing reminders of the terrible history unfolding around the purgatory where Mary Todd Lincoln and Savage Indian find themselves. In “The Rope Searches for His Legacy,” readers learn,

I am a collar,
A strangler,
I float in the wind like a flag on holidays.

I inspire national pride.

In one of the poems in “The Rope Seethes” sequence, the rope is silent on the blank page, but readers learn in a footnote to this silence that “A single noose from the Dakota hangings of December 26, 1862, has been preserved in the collection at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.”

The footnotes are formal innovations that enrich and provide powerful historical context to the body of the poems. Other formal innovations, that are equally effective and affecting, include descriptions of images one might find in a museum. One page is devoted to the caption without its image: “Artwork of Mary Todd Lincoln’s hands, / up close, making her own noose.” Another, “Artwork of two hangman’s nooses.” These moments of stylistic variation are key to Howe’s genius. The verse drama operates like a symphony, introducing new variations on a melody line of the genocidal history of this land and its peoples so that readers slowly begin to grasp and fully feel the long, terrible fugue.

How to end this collection while the occupation of native lands, treaty violations, and injustice against native peoples continues to unfold? In Spring 2019, the sign that read “Bdote at Fort Snelling” was removed after the Minnesota State Legislature cut the appropriations to the Minnesota Historical Society by nearly 20%. The move was widely understood to be a punishment for restoring indigenous names to public lands around the state. Representatives from various parties have spoken on the record against the practice, which they call “revisionist history.” Howe ends Savage Conversations with an image of Mary Todd Lincoln’s eyes wide open, sewn that way by Savage Indian, whom she begs to torment her in this precise way every night of the book. She asks for a distorted form of vision; perhaps Howe’s readers receive a symbolic testament to the limitations of what so many Americans are willing to see and know.