In Through A Red Place (Perugia Press, 2021), Rebecca Pelky maps a history of colonial dispossession on Turtle Island, tracing a family lineage and examining how settler-colonial violence causes alienation from land, language, and history. Archival photographs, family trees, and Google Maps images appear alongside these poems, positioning Pelky’s writing as an act of historical documentation that interrogates dominant settler-colonial narratives of Wisconsin’s past.
Structured around a series of poems written in Mohegan and English, this collection orients itself around the Mohegan year’s lunar cycle. From the book’s first pages, Pelky decentres settler history by embracing this yearly pattern, telling the story of each moon in Mohegan first. “You have been hidden…behind white paper. / You were buried under white people,” she writes of Grandmother Cochegan. Engaging in the white paper of colonial documentation to reframe this history as traumatic and violent, these poems do the work of uncovering buried, hidden stories, so that “I know you, a little.”
In an extended erasure poem that reframes the words of Andrew Jackson, Pelky conducts a similar uncovering of the genocidal aims of settlement across Turtle Island. “It gives me pleasure / the removal of the Indians,” the poem begins, reminding the reader of the violent power of the written and spoken word. Leaving the omitted language conspicuously on the page, blacked out, Pelky draws attention to what settlers said and didn’t say about their violent dispossession of Indigenous land.
While poetic engagement with settler-colonial history underscores the United States government’s intention to exterminate Indigenous people, the collection also follows the speaker’s rediscovery of family stories in similar historical documents: photographs, maps, residential school documents, and other records piece together an archive of resilience. Through this rediscovery, Pelky is able to write two “Last of the Mohicans found poem[s]” that contradict myths of the “vanishing Indian:” “Here I am. / I am glad. / … I am not alone. / I am not stone. / I am not the last,” this work insists.
Just as Through a Red Place reclaims a colonially appropriated history, it reclaims the Mohegan language, whose last fluent speaker, Fidelia Fielding, died in 1908. Through Fidelia’s diaries as well as The Modern Mohegan Dictionary and “Mohegan Phrase Book” prepared by her descendant Stephanie Fielding, Pelky writes in Mohegan, centering this collection in a world that “isn’t static, but flows / prismatic,” where “each of us moves in rainbows.”
Through a Red Place challenges its reader to expand their understandings of both history and poetry, weaving a story of family history through land. In “Pedigree,” a poem superimposed on an image of a family tree, the speaker rejects racist settler understandings of blood quantum that reduce familial relationships to “the bony processes of names and / dates.” “Mixed Blood,” with its ironic title, searches for meaning elsewhere: “I planted my feet / and started pulling instead—gathering, collecting / hauling everything into my body.” The speaker’s family history is as present, if not more so, in the land as in archival documents. As the speaker explores Wisconsin’s burial mounds and cemeteries, “I’m a kind of link between their distance.” Pelky uses poetic histories to draw together the speaker’s present with a family past, emphasizing the importance of cultural inheritance and making the past present for both speaker and reader.
Katherine DeCoste is an editorial intern for Sundress Publications and a graduate student at the University of Victoria. They completed their BA Honors in English and History from the University of Alberta in 2020. You can find their poetry in various outlets, including The Antigonish Review, Grain Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, and others.
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