By Renee Batti
Eight decades ago, a dying woman breathed new life into a vanishing world - that of the native Mutsun tribe of Indians who lived in the central coastal region of California.
The last known fluent speaker of the Mutsun language, Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes spent the last months of her life, in 1929 and 1930, telling the stories of her ancestors, who helped build the mission at San Juan Bautista, and of the Mutsun culture. Those stories were written down by a prominent ethnologist of the times.
Now, local poet Charlotte Muse is giving Dona Ascencion's words another life with her collection, "A Story Also Grows," a series of poems that riff on hand-picked gems of storytelling gleaned from Smithsonian ethnologist John Peabody Harrington's transcript of his conversations with the dying woman.
Ms. Muse, who lives with husband and fellow poet Patrick Daly in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park, will read from the collection on Thursday, March 19, at Kepler's bookstore.
A former creative writing and poetry writing instructor at San Francisco State University, Ms. Muse said she was fascinated by the Solorsano stories after a friend shared with her a copy of the Harrington transcript found at the Stanford library. After reading some of them, she says, she started writing a poem based on an excerpt that particularly struck her. "Then I just got into it," she says.
"I loved the stories - they had so much life to them," she adds.
The passages chosen for the collection present a variety of themes: from Dona Ascencion's grandfather who, as a 12-year-old boy, spent days lowered into a pit digging a well for the mission, to a medicine man who "used to turn into a cat, a coyote, a fox, and a great horned owl."
The poetry is haunting and rich in imagery; the poet imagines the world and people that fueled Dona Ascencion's musings. In doing so, Ms. Muse says, she "tried to make (what she described) authentic. I tried not to trespass."
Although many of the poems reflect the beauty and spirit of a lost way of life, Ms. Muse doesn't shy away from the uglier stories, including the telling of a practice of horrific cruelty to women who refused to give themselves to men, and recollections of battles between great horned owls and the men who tormented them.
"I consider it patronizing to romanticize Indians, just as it's patronizing to romanticize our own culture," she says.
Nor does she romanticize the Spanish missionaries who came to California and subjugated the native people; she notes at the end of the poem, "Digging at Night," that in 1812 alone, 1,179 Indians died of cholera and smallpox at Mission San Juan Bautista. The poem centers on the Solorsano quote, "The Indians were working digging a ditch ... day and night. And what do you think, Death was there too, working along with them, with her head tied up ..."
INFORMATION: Charlotte Muse will read from her collection, "A Story Also Grows," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Kepler's bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. She will share the stage with Idris Anderson, who will read from her collection, "Mrs. Ramsay's Knee." For information, call 324-4321, or visit keplers.com.