Maurice Kenny

Photographers Unknown, Hands Which Did Not Recognize Me

The book lay unread in my lap
snow gathered at the window
from Brooklyn it was a long ride
the Greyhound followed the plow
from Syracuse to Watertown
to country cheese and maples
tired rivers and closed paper mills
home to gossipy aunts   .   .   .
their dandelions and pregnant cats   .   .   .
home to cedars and fields of boulders
cold graves under willows and pine
home from Brooklyn to the reservation
that was not home
to songs I could not sing
to dances I could not dance
from Brooklyn bars and ghetto rats
to steaming horses stomping frozen earth
barns and privies lost in blizzards
home to a Nation, Mohawk
to faces I did not know
and hands which did not recognize me
to names and doors
my father shut

Maurice Kenny, Going Home, Between Two Rivers, 1988

The youngest of three children to a father of Mohawk and Irish heritage and a mother of English and Seneca heritage, Maurice Frank Kenny was born in Watertown, New York, in August of 1929. He spent his younger years in Watertown and on a family farm in nearby Cape Vincent. After his parents’ separation, Kenny remained with his father in Watertown until running away, at age sixteen, to Bayonne, New Jersey, to live with his mother. Truant at school, he was returned to his father’s custody in Watertown where he completed his high school education. 

Upon graduation, Maurice Kenny spent the summer traveling with a theater troupe in New York State. He spent a year in New York City attempting to establish a career as an actor; but after a year, he returned home. Kenny studied under Professors of English Warner Beyer and Roy Marz, a Fulbright Scholar, at Indiana’s Butler University, where he graduated in 1956 with a degree in English. He took additional classes under author and Professor of English Douglas Angus at St. Lawrence University in New York. 

Kenny moved to Manhattan, New York, in 1957 and became a manger for Marboro Books, which put him in contact with literary, cinematic and theatrical figures. He also took courses at New York University, where he met and studied under the fourth Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress,  Louise Bogan, who influenced his early development as a writer. 

Maurice Kenny began writing poetry as a teenager. He was particularly influenced by the writings of Walt Whitman, whose natural language and rhythm were qualities he found later in Native American oral literature. Encouraged by his former professor Douglas Angus, Kenny wrote the poems of his first chapbook, the 1956 “The Hopeless Kill”. His first full-length collection, “Dead Letters Sent and Other Poems”, was published in 1958, his first year at New York University. After a hiatus of travel in the early 1960s, Kenny settled for two decades in Brooklyn Heights, New York, to concentrate on his poetry. 

Kenny’s career coincided with a period of activism for Native Americans. In 1969 Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island and, two years later, the American Indian movement was formed. A series of confrontations with federal authorities followed, which culminated in a violent confrontation in early 1973 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Native Americans were starting to embrace their traditional cultures and reject assimilation into the general society. A renaissance in Native American literature began as a result of native writers and poets seeking to authenticate their cultural identities. Poets, such as Kenny, began to draw on their heritage to produce a synthesis of traditional and modern forms in their work. 

Maurice Kenny’s exploration of his heritage resulted in his long 1973 poem “I Am the Sun”, which was written in response to the actions at Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre and the culmination of the pan-tribal Ghost Dance religion. His 1977 “North: Poems of Home”, the first full-length collection published after a span of thirteen years, and the 1979 “Dancing Back Strong the Nation” epitomized the growing consciousness of his native heritage. 

Kenny asserted his gay identity in the 1976 “Gay Sunshine” which included the poem “Winkle” and “Tinselled Bucks: An Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality”, a essay that claimed the two-spirit, or berdache, tradition as a shining example for contemporary Native Americans. Kenny was among the first nationally recognized American Indians to come out publicly as gay. 

Maurice Kenny’s “Blackrobe Isaac Jogues”, published in 1982, told the story of a Jesuit missionary martyred in 1646 by the Mohawks; it received the National Public Radio Award for Broadcasting and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His “Takonwatonti / Molly Brant” is narrated by a prominent Mohawk woman who married an Englishman. Kenny in these works and later ones portrayed individuals who inhabit two worlds at the same time and crossed the boundaries between cultures and identities, such as missionaries among Indians, Indians in a white society, and gay men in a heterosexual world. 

In 1986, Kenny moved back to upstate New York and settled in Saranac Lake. He continued to travel and teach, and held the position of poet-in-residence at North Country Community College and the Potsdam campus of the University of New York. In 1995, Kenny received an honorary doctorate from the St. Lawrence University. He published over thirty collections of poetry, essays and fiction; his work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. A recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, Maurice Kenny passed away, at the age of eighty-six, on April 16th of 2016. 

Note: The anthropologist James Mooney, born 1861, wrote a thousand-page account of the tragic events at Wounded Knee which was published in 1896. A summary of this account and others written about the massacre, including an article on the Ghost Dance, can be found at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/places/united-states-and-canada/miscellaneous-us-geography/wounded-knee

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