by Roger Zotti
Mary Elizabeth Lang’s “true poetic voice,” as Michael Linnard writes in his Foreward, “is on every page of Under Red Cedars (Little Red Tree).” “During my first reading of a small selection,” Michael continued, “I was immediately drawn into the magical story-telling quality of the poems, which vividly illustrated an authentic view of the secret lives in Mary’s family that stretches back through 12 generations.”
Mary Elizabeth, who lives in Cheshire, wrote her strikingly imaginative book, her first, for many reasons. “One was because I was exploring my own ancestry and reflecting on what it was about my particular family that was unique,” she said. Her family, she knew, thought and did things differently from other families. Her relatives were “somewhat of mixed ancestry – Native American and predominantly English. I wondered maybe that was the reason for their uniqueness.” Mary Elizabeth added, “…the book is also about my ideas about nature and language and my relationship with them.”
Looking into various documents, Mary Elizabeth discovered “there was absolutely nothing written by the women of my family. My mother [told me] she learned about some of these early ancestors from the sixteen and seventeen hundreds from her grandmother, aunts and other female relatives…” Later, Mary Elizabeth investigated the stories herself -some of which were local, others family – and found they were true.
For example, Mary Elizabeth cited the haunting “The Apologia of Hannah Ocuish, Hanged at New London, CT, July 1786.” Hannah, twelve years old, was hung. “For whatever reason,” Mary Elizabeth said, “she did not speak for herself. I got it in my head to speak for her … From the evidence I discovered, I wrote a poem that explains her behavior.”
Mary Elizabeth has been influenced by Native-American writers “who have come to the fore recently, especially women like Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo.” Another influence is Robert Browning, who Mary Elizabeth didn’t realize “was an influence until I started writing first person narrative poems. And there’s Emily Dickinson. I think her focusing on a tiny object or situation and making something of it is absolutely great.”
Then came the “big” question for Mary Elizabeth: “Many people don’t like poetry because they have trouble reading it. So, how does one read poetry?” When she reads poetry, Mary Elizabeth explained, “I assume the poet has something to say to me; that I am not going to get all of it; and that it is the poet’s expression of ideas, experiences, or a moment in time. The poet is talking in metaphorical terms about something that may or may not connect with me … I think what most people who read poetry do is look into the poem for what they can personally connect with. They take away something different from what their neighbors take away. I’m not talking about injecting stuff in a poem that really isn’t in the poem. What I mean is what the reader … takes from it is going to be unique for each individual.”