Tag Archives: terrence malick

The New World

Although the Terrence Malick film originally titled Pocahontas takes a settler’s perspective on the conquest of Virginia, it has at least a subtext about resistance and negotiation. Qorianka Kilcher delivers a powerhouse performance in her big screen debut. Still, the lives of the First Nations that the Jamestown colony turned upside down come across mainly in pantomime, in this visually stunning epic about the rape of a native princess.

Historiography tells a rather different story.

When Captain Smith’s life was spared in a peacebuilding ritual involving the chief’s young daughter, the Captain took the role playing rather literally, and believed himself to be the object of her affections. His natural reaction? To run away – as he always did under such circumstances, in his long career of mercenary work and piracy on the borders of the Turkish empire and along the Mediterranean, before it occurred to him to sign up for a colonial adventure. This was only the third time in his life he’d been rescued by a princess, and the satirists of his day would never let him forget it, writing ditties about his amorous adventures in the popular press.

This poem, based on the 80th Psalm, tells the story of her people’s glory days and their hopes of repelling the first settlers, before the outcome of the war was decided.

Spirit, lift the welk to your ear,
mother of rivers our ancestors crossed,
distant enchantress of starlight, bend near.
Before Wehunsenacawh
stir your sandbar-twisting sinews from rest,
and help your peoples repel this new threat.
Sister of the west wind, return our land,
and smile again on the Algonquin tribes.
Fathomless child of all rivers, what have you brought us?
We receive from you our own tears,
and the tears you bring threaten to drown us.
Our trust is betrayed by our guests from the sky,
and behind their hands they mock our compacts.
Sister of the knife’s edge wind, retake our homes,
and grace our displaced peoples with your smile.
You who led by the hand our ancestors,
you routed whole nations that we might grow.
You spread the topsoil above the marshes
and protected all our streams and gardens,
and our alliance spanned great watersheds.
Ancient mountain passes bowed to our laws,
and densely we built among the great pines.
You gathered our strength all the way to the sea,
and up every river and stream to their roots.
Why have yo sundered Powhatan’s royal line
so that these passers-by pluck his daughter’s skirts?
The wild deer have stripped our homes of bark,
the wild rabbits and squirrels eat our stores.
Sister of the harrowing cold, come back,
turn your gaze from the scooting clouds and look,
if you even recognize your people,
the chieftans you once gave your blessing –
their holy places are burned down and wrecked,
and naked, their children perish at your touch.
Stretch your swift wings out to our refugees,
shelter the people you once called your own.
And we will not falter, drawing your breath.
Return to us all that we held in your name.
Sister of the raven’s wind, take us home.
Break open your secret smile between us.

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Sail Those Same Oceans

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.

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