Dr. Karenne Wood, Monacan poet and scholar, walked on not long ago, taking with her a large piece of my heart.
When I arrived in Virginia 16 years ago, Karenne welcomed me to her homeland, offering her hospitality with open hands. Over the years we knew one another, Karenne Wood became a necessary and cherished part of my life. She visited my Native American Literature classes at Washington and Lee University (and gave readings) multiple times, was always available to confer with about Indigenous poetry and politics, invited me to read with her (and accepted invitations to read with me at conferences or community gatherings), celebrated our writing accomplishments, and commiserated over our frustrations with academia. We exchanged poem drafts and teaching strategies, dog stories, kid stories, and encouragment for the long haul. Karenne befriended my wife, Margo Solod, and always asked after her when we checked in over email or messaging. Karenne's own health - a 20 year battle against various kinds of cancer - was something she was more reluctant to discuss, but which she took very seriously. She knew how quickly everything could change; how luscious each and every day was, and therefore, how to celebrate life.
When renowned poet (and now Poet Laureate of the United States) Joy Harjo came to read at my university in February of 2019, of course I asked Karenne to come welcome Joy to Monacan land. Karenne replied that she had been working on a land acknowledgment protocol with U of Virginia, and that "I am happy that people want to hear our language and acknowledge our presence. If you want me to do the prayer before Joy’s talk, I am willing. It’s brief. As for a gift, I thought of a honeysuckle basket with a lid, made by our tribal elder Bertie Branham." I didn't realize until the day of the event that Karenne would be coming from Charlottesville after another radiation treatment, or that speaking was difficult for her. That night, she shone. Her love for Joy Harjo, and a natural gracious, generous energy carried Karenne through the reading, and dinner afterwards. That was Karenne - always a giver.
In short, Karenne was a beautiful human being whose joyful presence in my life eased some of the loneliness I experience as the only Indigenous professor at my university, and taught me much about living in the moment. I will miss her deeply. At her Celebration of Life service, over 200 people came to hear stories about her life from her two daughters, tribal members, and friends. I guarantee you, Karenne was beloved by every single one of them, and many many more who could not attend.
I know I am not alone in my grief, or in feeling blessed by knowing Karenne Wood. In that spirit, I offer this poem, which came to me early this morning.
Song for Your Journey
- for Karenne Wood
Heart battered as an old tree,
skin stretched to hold each year –
inscribed with the initials
of those who have loved you,
scarred characters too deep to erase:
imperfect letters, perfect.
This tree’s bark knows the iron blows
of despair, but still guards
what’s inside: all the circular years
spreading like ripples
from a pebble thrown into the center
of a lake with no name.
At dawn, mist swathes the lake in long soft breaths.
A Great Blue heron
spears the water, shimmering bass brave
the mysterious air in pursuit
of solace, and somewhere at the core
of this poem your soul
quests like a damselfly, skitters across
a wide blue absence.
Friend, let the slim glitter of wings
carry you into sunrise where time
spins its spiraled arms, calls you
dear heart, darling, daughter –
and all of your branches burst into leaf,
one shining green prayer
at a time.
Deborah A. Miranda
Karenne's obituary from the Academy of America Poets, where some of her poetry is posted:
Some of my favorite pictures with Karenne, at readings or gatherings...Karenne Wood1960–2019Karenne Wood was born on May 31, 1960. She received an MFA from George Mason University and a PhD in linguistic anthropology from the University of Virginia.She was the author of the poetry collections Weaving the Boundary (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Markings on Earth (University of Arizona Press, 2001), winner of the Diane Decorah Award for Poetry from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.Of her work, the poet Heid E. Erdrich writes, “These poems move us through indigenous history to reveal our presence today—in an act of resistance and revelation and faith.” An enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, Wood directed the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Center for the Humanities. She formerly served as a repatriation director for the Association on American Indian Affairs, the chair of the Virginia Council on Indians, and a member of the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission.In 2002 Wood was named the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year, and in 2015 she was named one of Virginia’s Women in History by the Library of Virginia. She also received the 2009 Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Programs. Wood died on July 21, 2019.
After Joy Harjo's reading and talk at Washington & Lee University, this past February.
With Mojave poet Natalie Diaz at Washington & Lee University.
At the Library of Congress, L to R: Deborah Miranda, Karenne, Eric Gansworth, Louise Erdrich, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Stephen Graham Jones.