In Terrence Malick’s Pocahontas movie, The New World, the name Pocahontas is never uttered. Loss of identity and conflict with one’s own name is a theme explored in many scenes and lines in the voice over narration. TOFOG has a song about this, and the life of a sailor far from home.
“There comes a time
When you understand
Falling in love
Is part of the plan
And you can stay awake tonight
Thinking up a dozen names
I can only sleep in your arms
So when I stay awake
I’ll sail those same oceans again.”
Even before I saw The New World, I knew I wanted to know everything about the story, and the story comes to us almost entirely through the writing of Captain John Smith. His history of the Jamestown colony immortalized Pocahontas and gave our country one of its great origin stories. I found a historiography of the Virginia colonies that talked about his writings, how in early editions of his Jamestown history he didn’t disclose the extent of the help Pocahontas provided the colonists, or that she had saved his life, in order to protect her and to protect her honor after she married. The full story only came out after her untimely death.
Smith wrote of his earlier adventures too, as a mercenary in Europe and later a sea captain in the Mediterranean. Amazingly, his life had been saved twice before by princesses enchanted with him in his hour of need. The first was a Turkish princess, who wished to marry her prisoner. He murdered her brother and escaped, but in his defense her brother had been ‘initiating’ him into Turkish male society by torture. The second time I don’t remember as well, he was rescued either from shipwreck or pirates, or as a shipwrecked pirate, off the southern coast of France. Again he left the princess in question despite her affections. This makes me wonder how much Terrence Malick knew about his past when he revised the circumstances of his departure from Jamestown. The Disney movie is correct in having him shipped home with a serious injury, which was from an accidental gunpowder explosion in his lap. Perhaps even if that had not happened, he would have left Pocahontas as well.
Smith (in alexandrines)
The forest bore the light of noon in deep relief,
penetrated by the sultry heat where a leaf
matrix, like a shuttered window, admitted bright
bars of grainy brilliance like sheaves of wheat ground white.
We had found a modest room among the dark trees,
a place where nakedness has twilight’s leave, the breeze
as gentle as a chimney’s sigh to hear the wind,
and in our room we lived like man and wife, who sinned
only in the parting, an unnatural divorce
that only threats of genocidal war could force.
To be undone by you, undressed against my will
without a soldier’s strength to slow your hand or still
my beating breast, as self-betrayed as you
and as afraid to hesitate to look or do
the rest, a soldier as unarmed and gently felled
as any trembling imperfect leaf you held,
convinces me again that I live by your leave,
and face a destiny that I can only grieve.
Pocahontas (in Irish rhyme)
I would stand in the sun to be seen with my hands
just releasing the love that abandons the damned –
I remember the quiet assurance and peace,
the abandon we felt, as though blood feuds would cease.
I imagined I knew empty words from true vows,
that I knew what the passage of seasons allows,
a rebirth, transformation, becoming, a change
that makes space for the new, strange and wonderful flame.
Come again from the distance, be true to your prayer,
take me into the forest to live as we played,
be a father to me and a guardian stone
by the house tree our Mother would give us, a home
far away from the fort and the river, where corn
is a bulb in a meadow, and hazelnuts gold.
Come where birds have devoured the seed beds of stars,
unencumbered by subjects, beyond the white falls.