A Brief Appreciation of “Tobacco Wars” by Paul Seesequasis

While Tobacco Wars is labelled a novella, a literary work this dense with symbol and allusion truly belongs in the poetry section. In the one hundred thirteen pages of Tobacco Wars, Paul Seesequasis takes us on a truly Rabelaisian journey through history and myth, reforming the biographies of Pocahontas, Ben Jonson and, indeed, the history of relations between Old World and New.  Tobacco Wars strongly echoes and remakes, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Candide and even  The Tempest by means of the forces of Cree mythic storytelling.  In the end, the centuries of conflict and misunderstanding between aboriginal nations and colonizers are massaged and reshaped and, to my mind, a new start is offered.

When I contemplate Tobacco Wars, I think of the simile at the beginning of Chapter 42 of Book III of Gargantua and Pantagruel:

Un procès, a sa naissance première, me semble, comme à vous aultres, Messieurs, informe & imperfaict. Comme un Ours naissant n’a pieds, ne mains, peau, poil, ne teste: ce n’est qu’une pièce de chair, rude & informe. L’ourse, à force de leicher, la mect en perfection des membres. . . (I use Louis Moland’s edition from the first volume of Œuvres de Rabelais, p. 439, in the Classiques Garnier series, Paris, 1950.)

“A suit in law at its production, birth, and first beginning, seemeth to me, as unto your other worships, shapeless, without form or fashion, incomplete, ugly and imperfect, even as a bear at his first coming into the world hath neither hands, skin, hair, nor head, but is merely an inform, rude, and ill-favoured piece and lump of flesh, and would remain still so, if his dam, out of the abundance of her affection to her hopeful cub, did not with much licking put his members into that figure and shape which nature had provided for those of an arctic and ursinal kind . . .” (I quote here Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty’s 1693 translation because it is Burns Night, 2013 as I write this, because Robbie Burns’ favourite whisky, the lamented Ferintosh, was from the Black Isle, and because I have genealogical connection to and fond youthful memories of the Black Isle. Sir Thomas was a young contemporary of Pocahontas and Ben Jonson.)

“A lawsuit, when newly born, seems to me, as it does to you other gentlemen, shapeless and imperfect, even as a bear at birth has neither feet, paws, skin, fur, nor head, but is merely a lump of raw and formless flesh.  The she-bear, by dint of licking, perfects its limbs . . .” (J.M. Cohen’s translation in the Penguin Classics volume I used in my freshman year for an introductory Comparative Literature class in 1979/80.)

Like the Medieval/Renaissance conception of post-partum bear gestation, Bear Woman, in a vividly and moistly Rabelaisian way, licks the meeting of America and Europe into a creature that has limbs and head and hope for survival beyond the 21st Century, beyond the Eighth Fire of the Anishinaabe.

Tobacco, sacred herb of the New World and addictive carcinogen of the Old, is introduced to the story as seeds brought from South America to Jamestown, Virginia in the pocket of Englishman John Rolfe.  Rolfe has great plans for his “Orinoco” tobacco, plans of a mercantile empire based on his monopoly on the sweet tasting southern leaf.

But Bear Woman, and Seesequasis’ fiction, have other plans for the tobacco, the empire, and Rolfe himself.  Unlike the history we know Rolfe dies on a voyage home to England (he actually lived to a ripe, for the time, old age in Virginia).  His native wife, Pocahontas, has a wonderful time in London Society before returning home to run the business her husband didn’t have the chance to build (in face, she died at Gravesend, cutting short her voyage home to Virginia). Meanwhile, Bear Woman convinces Wolverine, an addictive fellow, to try out Rolfe’s Orinoco. The mythical little predator goes into business for himself with a chain of smoke-shops, finding an uncomfortable, and uncomfortably funny use for the skin of Jesuits.

Through much of the poem/novella Ben Jonson, murderer exculpated by a bit of Latin, playwright successor to Shakespeare, scrambles to find his way through the New World.  This New World is represented first by the unconquerable widow of Rolfe, Pocahontas, and later by the Candidesque upsets of pirates, wilderness and capture by “savages”. But Jonson overcomes all (including Pocahontas’ resistance) and brings off a great triumph: the staging of a great syncretic Masque for the Royal Court, which James I, by Royal Decree (I can’t help but think of another Royal Proclamation) has had removed to America.

At the end of the Masque, Bear addresses him/her self saying:

“Learn to move in time, an all measures meet . . . ”

And, indeed, Bear Woman throughout the story is unstuck in time, being at one moment in the forest near Jamestown, at another in a modern city, and always somehow in a mythic non-time. At the end, just before approving the wolf cub, she burrows down, down, below the city and the forest to a primeval and primal stream, and has a snooze.

In his time (in our history) Jonson was known for his masques, many produced with designer Inigo Jones, who also appears in Tobacco Wars.  The masque is a form of drama very foreign to a modern audience.  Modern producers of Shakespeare’s The Tempest are often troubled with what to do with the extended masque in that magical work.  I find Seesequasis’ decision to make the masque so central to Tobacco Wars to be a brilliant stroke:  masque and Cree storytelling are, at best, on the fringes of modern mainstream readers’ consciousness. The reader of Tobacco Wars, like Pocahontas in London or Jonson in the Virginia forest, is thrust into an unfamiliar, extremely challenging and yet potentially extremely rewarding environment.

But Seesequasis does not leave us completely at sea. Very few even mildly literate Canadians would, I hope, have no familiarity with Aboriginal Canadians mythological motifs such as the Trickster, who permeates Tobacco Wars — principally as the fellow who would be better named Trickster Seesequasis. And few non-aboriginal Canadians will be unfamiliar with the European tradition of anthropomorphized animals, from Aesop to The Chronicles of Narnia. What many readers may not remember is that Ben Jonson’s most famous and lauded play, Volpone, is to some degree a tale of animals acting like humans or, if the distinction need be made, humans acting like animals.

One very important point Seesequasis makes in the dense, comic poem that is Tobacco Wars is that the tobacco wars are not necessary. It is native Pocahontas (and Wolverine) who builds the tobacco empire, not the mercantile-minded colonial Englishman. It is Jonson, the formal, mannered composer of masques who tells the just-so animal stories. The trickster Seesequasis shows us that whatever side of the Atlantic our ancestral land lies, “if you tickle us, do we not laugh?”

The meeting of Pocahontas and European men — first John Rolfe and later Ben Jonson begins as a shapeless potential and, over the course of the experiences of time-travelling Bear Woman, of the unnamed woman who mates with the wolf, of the unnamed boy at the Residential School and of all the other mythical and historical characters, the matter is given shape and becomes the hope of a new, shared future, finally represented by the “girl born with the blood of two worlds in her.” This girl is specifically the (fictional) daughter of Pocahontas and Jonson, but there is also the ungendered, mythic human/wolf hybrid baby who closes the poem/novella with the snorting approval of Bear woman.

The hope of sharing is not just the melding of Old and New Worlds, it is the positive unity of natural and human worlds, and very clearly the interwoven coexistence of myth and reality.

Tobacco Wars is published by Quattro Books.

One comment on “A Brief Appreciation of “Tobacco Wars” by Paul Seesequasis

  1. […] Tobacco Wars by Paul Seesequasis Assiniboia by Tim Lilburn A disturbing poetic alternative vision of Canada. kiyâm by Naomi McIlwraith A fascinating bilingual collection of meditative poems. Louis: The Heretic Poems by Gregory Scofield […]

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