Tuesday, July 10, 2007

malcolm's katie: or, women are possessions and don't you forget it

I still don't like long poems. I think I get frustrated because deviations from the narrative line are so much harder to make sense of than in a novel. Maybe I'm just dopey. I've been reading the poetry of Isabella Valancy Crawford, however, and I like it quite a lot. She's very adept at capturing images for her readers and really taking time to construct a specific feeling of the colonial/confederation wilderness. Crawford has a real passion for landscape and even in her narrative long poem is fascinated by depicting the changing seasons.

Again, this entry may be on the short side as it is only one long poem and a few companion pieces.

Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story (and other poems)
by Isabella Valancy Crawford

The South Wind laid his moccasins aside,
Broke his gay calumet of flow'rs and cast
His useless wampum, beaded with cool dews,
Far from him, northward; his long, ruddy spear
Flung sunward, whence it came, and his soft locks
Of warm, fine haze grew silver as the birch.
His wigwam of green leaves began to shake.

In Isabella Valancy Crawford's famous long poem, Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story, the reader is introduced at the opening of the poem to Max and Katie, two young lovers secretly betrothed to each other. But Max is a poor labourer -- an axeman whose job is to fell the trees of the Canadian forest. Max is out logging many months at a time. Katie, conversely, is the daughter of a rich man (the Malcolm of the poem's title), and Max is convinced that Malcolm will never agree to the match. Katie promises Max that while he is away at the logging camp, she will convince her father to approve her marriage to Malcolm.

But Max has one last prediction before he leaves. He tells his beloved Katie that she is young, and that he is worried about her ability to commit to him. He predicts that a suitor will come while he is absent, and that this new suitor will test the extent to which Katie can really remain true to Max. This suitor does appear, and his name is Alfred. He knows Katie doesn't love him -- she tells him as much -- but he expresses to her that that doesn't really matter, because he is in love with her father's money and that love will find a way to conquer her doubts. Alfred engages in many manipulative techniques to attempt to secure the marriage -- saving Katie's life, telling Max that he is already betrothed to Katie, and even attempting to murder Max -- but in the end he is not successful and Max and Katie are united. Determining that Alfred is evil, Max kills him. Malcolm comes to support Katie's choice of a husband, and the first grandson is named Alfred in order to show that his evil can be conquered by love. That's the story of Malcolm's Katie in a nutshell, and now I want to talk about some of the interesting appropriations and commentaries that Crawford makes in the piece.

To start with, take a look at the passage I quoted at the opening of this blog entry. Note how Crawford appropriates aboriginal images as the "natural;" all the elements of the wilderness are coded native. The Winds are First Nations' Spirits, with the full gamut of wampum, wigwams, and moccasins. The mountains represent chiefs of the wilderness. Interestingly, though, the winter seems to be coded white. From the same section as the above quotation, we see:
"Esa! esa! shame upon you, Pale Face!
"Shame upon you, Moon of Evil Witches!
"Have you killed the happy, laughing Summer?
"Have you slain the mother of the flowers
"With your icy spells of might and magic?
"Wrapp'd her, mocking, in a rainbow blanket?
"Drown'd her in the frost mist of your anger?"
She later makes the analogy more obvious by referring to "Indian Summer" and contrasting that to "the cold Moon of Terror," whose whiteness is equated with Europeaness, elaborating on an attack on the Natives (Summer) by cruelty (Winter). What is interesting is that Crawford chooses to see this as a circular, cyclical relationship. She describes the summer as "always shot, and evermore returning," suggesting that there is no finality in death here -- does she mean that there will be an eventual reemergence of the native peoples, and that as summer returns so to do they? Later, this metaphor gets muddled. Winter weather is attributed to a North Wind Spirit, who is again appropriated from aboriginal custom, but he rails against the "White Squaw" of winter... Is she white as in European, or is she a Squaw (aboriginal) made of winter weather? But while the white man's place in this shifts, the elements as a whole remail native-tinged - for Crawford, to be aboriginal is to be of the land.

This interpretation highlighting the emergence of native peoples is supported by a passage wherein Max highlights some of the failures of Canada. He refers to:
A throne propp'd up with bleaching bones;
A country sav'd with smoking seas of blood;
A flag torn from the foe with wounds and death;
Or Commerce, with her housewife foot upon
Colossal bridge of slaughter'd savages.
Crawford here is making reference to the fact that Canada is built on the backs of dead aboriginal people. She highlights this in the poem in such an overt way that the message can't possibly be missed, and I feel like it must relate to the way she personifies the summer as native and the winter (or at least the killer of summer) as white.

Crawford also builds images in this poem of the rich experiencing progress only at the hands of the poor. For every blow of the axe in the wilderness, she writes, "Cities and palaces shall grow!" This is particularly poignant as it comes in the same section where Max is nearly killed by a falling tree -- Crawford seems intent on reminding us of the price of progress. Max is angry that gain for Katie's father has come relatively easily -- he needed only to come to the New World willing to work, and land was granted to him. Max works hard, but points out to Katie that it's hard to work for land you do not own. While hard work is valued in the colonies, the lack of free land places unexpected obstacles in Max's way.

I think, though, my major problem with this poem is that it supposes women as objects. Katie is Malcolm's until she is Max's -- for a while it seems as though she may be Alfred's -- but she is not her own person in any way. Though her will is ultimately met, it is only on (a) the good will of her father and (b) the cunning and strength of her fiance. This is a tale of the times, certainly, but Katie never seems opposed to this way of being in the world. Crawford is strong and bold enough to comment on the plight of the aboriginal population, but passes no judgement on the situation of women in the colony. I find this curious indeed.

I don't really think there's much point in commenting on the other poems here by Crawford -- the theme of nature-as-native is rehashed in the other poems, and for the most part they are otherwise rather quiet pastorals. Of these poems, Malcolm's Katie is clearly her most important work.

1 comment:

warbler said...

I'm reading The Collected Poems (1905) at the moment, your post is really helpful as I'm reading the first few pieces (not at Malcolm's Katie yet) and finding the connections between the ocean (water) and travel between the old and new worlds. It's interesting that water is coded white in MK, I wonder about the relationship between water as white, and water as the method of travel and colonial conquest.