by KARAH MITCHELL
LeAnne Howe, Savage Conversations (Coffee House Press, February 2019), pp. 104
LeAnne Howe’s Savage Conversations is devastating. In this experimental book that hovers between drama and poetry, dreams and the deepest reality, Howe presents a “conversation” that compels us to attend to voices long neglected and silenced. Readers familiar with George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo may find it difficult not to make comparisons, since both Howe and Saunders focus on the Lincoln family. But while Saunders’s novel is haunted by the ghost of the Lincolns’ son, Willie, and other souls lurking in Oak Hill Cemetery, Howe’s book is laden with the memory of different ghosts–namely the thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed under orders from Lincoln on December 26, 1862 in the largest mass execution in U. S. history. Voices in chorus pervade Lincoln in the Bardo; in contrast, Savage Conversations has only three characters: “Savage Indian,” “Mary Todd Lincoln,” and “The Rope.” There is a quietness that thrums through this slender book, a brutal honesty that pulls us in with its power and that invites us to dwell on “the thirty-eight lives abandoned,” and, by extension, all of the other Indigenous lives forgotten throughout U. S. history. I found myself shaken and haunted as I read, overwhelmed with a sense of loss that left me almost helplessly inarticulate. Howe’s book remains in your head, returns to your attention again and again and again. You cannot forget December 26, 1862 after reading this book.
Apart from a few scenes at a sister’s home, the entirety of the book takes place in Mary Todd Lincoln’s chambers at Bellevue Place Sanitarium. This book is thus set as a play, complete with a small cast of characters, descriptions of their actions, and three “scenes:” “They Speak of Dreams,” “A House Divided,” and “An Uneasy Union.” Smaller titled scenes reside within these organizing divisions. Throughout, “Savage Indian,” “Mary Todd Lincoln,” and, to a lesser extent, “The Rope,” speak, often in lines of verse. Indeed, one might argue that the majority of the book is comprised of poetry, since Howe frequently utilizes rhyme, rhythm, and line breaks to contribute meaning and affective power to Mary’s stay at Bellevue Place.
As Susan Power points out in her introduction to the book, Howe decided to research Mary’s deteriorating mental condition when America was celebrating Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Howe discovered something curious: in the years following Lincoln’s assassination, Mary began “complaining to her doctor of nightly visits from a violent ‘Indian,’ who she said scalped her, cut bones from her cheeks, and made slits in her eyelids, sewing them open.” As Howe considered this nameless “Indian,” an “intuitive leap told her he was Dakota, one of the thirty-eight Dakota men hanged in a mass killing the day after Christmas in 1862.” Mere days before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln ordered to death Dakota men who had fought against the Federal government’s violations of treaty negotiations and agreed-upon annuity payments. These violations sent the Dakota people into starvation and despair; left with no alternative, Dakota warriors killed white settlers who were living off ancestral lands. As Power notes, ultimately hundreds of Dakota people were killed during these tensions, “whether they were part of the desperate uprising or not.” After the thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged, they were buried in a mass grave, and then exhumed for medical dissection. Eleven years later, Mary began to experience her own kind of dissection, night after night, as a nameless “Indian” sliced and sewed into her skin, disfiguring her face in her dreams. By christening this character “Savage Indian,” Howe indicates how Mary viewed this nightly manifestation in racist terms, forcing us to confront this racism every time we encounter the name.
Savage Conversations sees Mary invite disfigurement at the hands of this spectral character as she attempts to figure him as a “Savage Indian.” The reader quickly realizes that Mary welcomes victimization in order to draw more attention to herself. By the book’s end, she declares to Savage Indian, “I told you, we are a pair. / Abused. Abuser. / Now, I beg you.” Gazing at her deformed face, she reflects, “I have been touched by God. / Turns to Savage Indian. / Again, please.” As Power notes in the introduction, Howe’s research for the book suggests that Mary’s need for attention likely played a large role in the illnesses of the four Lincoln children; noting how “the boys seemed to revive when they were in the care of people other than their mother, . . . . [Howe] suspected Mary Todd Lincoln might have suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy . . . . a rare disorder whereby a patient or caregiver seeks the sympathetic attention of others by exaggerating the symptoms of their children, or inventing symptoms, or making the children ill, sometimes fatally.” Visited by Savage Indian, Mary Todd Lincoln indeed “craves” his attention, and the scalping and cutting she imagines experiencing by his hands are injuries she “assent[s]” to: “They assent to their nightly ritual, the one she craves. / MARY TODD LINCOLN / Picks up the mirror and studies her face. / Her thin upper lip curls into a smile. / I faint from the ecstasy.” This is a new kind of captivity narrative, one in which the captive construes her captor as a captor in order to curry sympathy from onlookers. But privy to this intimate conversation, the reader feels anything but sympathy for this woman racked by madness. Instead, we sympathize with Savage Indian, who has been trapped, to a large degree, by Mary Todd Lincoln’s warped mind. In one particularly important scene titled “SAVAGE INDIAN LAMENTS / July 4, 1875,” Savage Indian reflects, “I know isolation. / Silence. / The slow descent downward / Lost somewhere in midair.” Stuck between death and life, he laments, “In Dakhóta land, they are pulling down the last of our dead, / Bodies of men and women hanged by a rope of lies. / When I was a human being, / I would sing the air thick with Dakhóta songs.” He acknowledges that he and Mary are both, in different ways, “captives,” at one point declaring, “Maybe we are all captives of one sort or the other.” Held captive even in his own land, summoned by a mad woman’s mind, Savage Indian floats in a between-space (bardo-like, even), unable to be heard by others, his voice silenced and unheeded, “Choked by a muscular rope.”
Given that Savage Indian mourns, at one point, that he is “[o]nly a story,” it is significant that this book draws our attention to the words that twist and unfurl before us, shaping what we see and what we don’t. Immediately after Savage Indian tells Mary Todd Lincoln, “Emancipate me. / Fire!,” The Rope relates a haunting, one-sentence declaration that occupies a full page: “And now a bloody red tongue unspools.” As the rope drops, unspooling, speaking, we are forced to reflect upon the ways in which so many Indigenous voices have been choked and silenced throughout U. S. history. For significantly, while “THE ROPE SEETHES” throughout the book, declaring short lines, the only time that “THE ROPE SPEAKS” occurs on July 4. As the rope makes thirty-eight nooses, it unfurls the process of such a deadly making in language; the components of words become the means by which the rope explains how it has fashioned itself. Howe has the rope speak in a list-like format that draws our attention to the ability that words have to enact violence:
Start with a piece of string or rope three feet in length.
Bring one end of the loop down parallel to the original rope and fold it into thirds.
It should form a wide sideways S. The lead (the left side) should be left longer so that you
have some string left at the end for tying to something.
With the bottom of the original C, wrap the end of the rope around the loop several
times, from the bottom near your hand, upward.
With the rope that has been wound around the C, poke the end of the rope through
the top of the loop left by the S.
Once the loop is fully tightened, the task is complete.
Fashioning the nooses by which to hang Dakota leaders on the U. S. nation’s Independence Day, the rope is a haunting reminder that the Declaration of Independence established a nation that would brutally overlook Indigenous sovereignty. As we picture the scaffold dropping from beneath the feet of thirty-eight Dakota, so too does the nation’s foundational document appear hollow.
Howe attempts to fill this hollowness, however, through the figure of Savage Indian. “Eighteen sixty-two, almost like a birthday. / Tiny needles sew shut the muslin cloth around our faces,” he declares. Though his identity has seemingly been lost, Howe channels him, his desires and hopes. We even hear his dreams of “Home,” of “Woman Who Strokes My Face,” and his agonized wondering, “When will I wake?” Here the roles of Mary Todd Lincoln and Savage Indian are reversed insofar as he is the one dreaming; he remembers being caressed by the woman he loved before she, too, was lost to history. The final scene of the book, “An Uneasy Union,” opens with Savage Indian singing in his original tongue, reclaiming “WHAT HAS BEEN.”
“Wakantanka taku nitawa
(Great Spirit–what–you make)
Tankaya qa ota;
Malipiya kin eyahnake ca,
Maka kin he duowanca,
(Earth–the–that is singing)
Mniowanca sbeya wanke cin,
(Water all over [ocean] make wet / moisten)
(These all around.)
Xitawacin wasaka, wakan,
(For/on account of–you have created)
Woyute qa wokoyake kin,
Woyatke ko iyacinyan,
(Drinks too/also–somewhat like)
Anpetu kin otoiyohi
(Causing to, reaching to, arriving at.)”
That is how I sang it on that day.
Howe presents the song sung by the Dakota before their execution, showing how it cannot be fully translated into English. With this song, we are left with remnants of the voices that sang that day, just as we are left with the remnant of a figure who can only be brought back to us through imagination. Those of us who do not understand Dakota must drift between translation and the original lines, acknowledging our limited understanding.
Perhaps the most striking and disturbing theme of the book pertains to the powerful role of the body in birth, dying, and desire. As Mary Todd Lincoln represses the role she played in her children’s declining health, Savage Indian constantly reminds her, especially as the book crescendos. Throughout the narrative, Mary’s body becomes grotesque as she obsesses over her late husband’s sexual fidelity to her and as she wanders about the Sanitarium in her “stinking nightshift.” She prides herself on her name—“I am in possession only of my name,” she declares at one point—but to Savage Indian she is better known by another name: “Gar Woman. That is your true name. Gar feed at night, / Sometimes eat their own eggs. Llater, he reminds her, “You’ve swallowed all but one of your eggs.” By the end of the book, we cannot but feel that “Gar Woman” suits her while, at the same time, we wish to know the true name of “Savage Indian.” Mary thus emerges as a troubling, primordial figure–a prehistoric fish in stinking clothes responsible for contributing to her son’s deaths, too blind to see the truth of her and her husband’s actions.
Where there is birth in this book, there is also dying, it seems, which reiterates how the birth of the American nation grew from the death of so many Indigenous peoples. In one scene, we read of something like a terrible birth:
Flashes of light,
A hissing in the ears, like a locomotive
Rounding a tight curve,
Eyes bursting livid as the roots of tongues
Glottal stop the larynges.
They will never sing again.
Earth’s gravity labors on,
I am not a judge.
Here, dying and birth become conflated, as we read of “labors” and the “Kick, / Kick, / Kick, / Kick” of these Dakota men as they drop towards the earth. Incredibly, and troublingly, the image of the Dakota dropping anticipates the mention of September 11 on the very next page, as this is the day that Mary leaves the asylum for her sister’s home, declaring, “Today, in the bosom of my sister, I proclaim / September 11, 1875, a new beginning.” The Rope then muses, “Ironic, they will say, she’s condemned the nation on September 11.” It’s hard not to see the falling towers as we think of the hanging Dakota. What is a new birth for Mary thus correlates troublingly with the death of these Dakota men. We cannot help but associate her with a kind of terrorism here.
As the book builds to a final confrontation between Mary Todd Lincoln and Savage Indian, the reader is left utterly haunted by its words. Howe’s book powerfully contributes to our understanding and re-thinking of a moment in time that we are still grappling with today. In the wake of recent movements to remove Confederate monuments as we work to present the truths of history, Howe’s book directs our attention to a violent event that has not been adequately acknowledged. Through experimental form, Howe refracts a moment of history that readers simply cannot forget, that they will inevitably carry with them long after reading the last page. She has started a conversation that, “savage” but needed, must continue on.