Book Review

With a wry humor that softens reality’s hard edges, the poems in Jenny L. Davis’s Trickster Academy highlight how Indigenous people have become experts in the sorrows with which white oppression has left them. The collection explores the meaning of being Native in academia, and to do so it presents elements most readers fail to acknowledge in their daily lives: mascots, land acknowledgment statements, and the histories of Native American remains in anthropological studies. The collection’s power lies in its ability to explore the discomforting elements of white academia and criticize the academy by creating an institution of its own—the Trickster Academy, a specialized academy for the training of Tricksters.

The collection’s voices are unique, ranging from a dynamic, Two-Spirit/queer woman to the Tricksters themselves. Paramount to the collection’s themes is that of individual and collective survival. Poems like “Submergence” rely on the first-person point of view and a minimalist form to capture the generational traumas inherent to the Native experience. The speaker in this nine-line poem displays brutal honesty in the first stanza: “Most days I struggle / to catch ragged breath / above the surface.” In the second, the speaker’s ancestral memory centers not only the poem, but also the speaker’s sense of self. The speaker reflects, “A crawdad’s call / reminds me I was born.” Interestingly enough, the stanza ends with a single word—“underwater.” The single-word conclusion of this stanza reinforces the poem’s title. The poem’s third and final stanza is a careful reminder. It opens gently: “I need only relax.” The speaker then turns to action as a means of survival: “slip below, and breathe.” The poem concludes with a single image, that of the speaker “with hidden gills.” In this line, the speaker realizes that transformation and progress are key to an individual’s survival. It is also a subtle commentary encouraging individuals to use the skills and talents that emerge during the most difficult times.

“Real Indian ABC” is a uniquely constructed poem. The statement “According to someone we all know, ‘real Indians’ don’t: . . .” The poem then segues into a meticulous, alphabetical list. After beginning with statements like “Adapt or / Break tradition,” the lines turn into larger, even indented statements:

Identify as gay,
                        two-spirit. Don’t
Jam to death metal,
            hip-hop, or
            classical music.

Not only does the poem rely on indentation to create emphasis on what “real Indians” don’t do, it utilizes clinical enjambment to loosen line ends and reinforce the actions that separate the speaker and others like them from the stereotypes of the “someone we all know.” As the poem moves toward its conclusion, the structure tightens and relies less on the indentations but still utilizes the enjambment technique. The speaker uses a blunt tone created by the repetition of the word “don’t” in statements like “Teach outsiders our languages. Don’t get / University degrees, don’t / Validate our Freedmen.” The poem then deviates and ends with a single statement just as powerful as its opening one: “They are full of shit.”

“Recipe for Red Sauce” returns to the theme of survival conveyed in “Submergence.” The poem relies on brief lines, each consisting of no more than three to seven words. The poem opens with a domestic image:

Preparing red sauce
from fresh tomatoes requires
dropping them into
boiling water to blanche them.

In the immediate lines following this, the speaker develops a more cynical, philosophical tone that returns to the idea of being submerged. The speaker uses images of “bobbing forms” and the apologue about the boiling frog. The speaker remembers that they have been told to “be wary of the kind / of tress that mimics” the way “frogs are cooked” in a pot as the water temperature increases “slowly so they / won’t notice / and hop out.” The speaker uses the frogs’ experience as a metaphor for their own experience in society and academia. The speaker incorporates the minimal effort academia makes to increase awareness about diversity and inclusion:

And the story
at the diversity workshop
about how we shouldn’t be
like female lobsters who
(so the story goes) pull each other
down preventing any one
of them from escaping the pot.

The speaker then wonders why the conversation “is never about abandoning / recipes that require us to / to be boiled alive.” The speaker’s thoughts call for society to abandon the policies and beliefs that require oppression as a means of gain, for significant reform and societal transformation.

As the collection concludes, the poem “This Bundle” utilizes reduced line lengths and minimalist language and imagery to illuminate the issue of using Native American remains in historical studies. The speaker again utilizes the first-person point of view and opens the poem bluntly, stating “I have tried.” The brief statement resonates deeply with the speaker’s own experiences as conveyed throughout the collection. The speaker continues the poem by turning to action: “to put this bundle down.” The speaker observes, “but there was no one else / around to take it.” The poem notes that the speaker “was already / forgotten once,” and describes the bundle as “heavy.” The speaker alludes to the bundle’s ancestral significance, one that resonates with their own:

in the old days
there would have been
more people to
carry it.

As the poem shifts towards its conclusion, the speaker harbors a sense of defeatism: “no reason for / this work at all.” The speaker’s words harbor a deeper, more frightening message—not only have they lost their ancestors and significant portions of their history, but also the work they do and the efforts they make to preserve and honor their ancestors bears little meaning to an oppressive society. The poem’s final three lines embrace a survivalism present throughout the collection: “I guess there is / still more / work to do.” The lines’ brevity creates a defiant tone—one that is almost haunting.

Playful, irreverent, and structurally and linguistically diverse, the poems in Trickster Academy open necessary and difficult conversations that are imperative to America’s reckoning with its violent past. Its poems share the collective Native American experience via an individual one, and they challenge the rest of society to acknowledge some of the darkest scars carving America’s face.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.