Thursday, April 25, 2019

I GIVE YOU TO RIVER, a poem for National Poetry Month

Like my ancestors before me, I love rivers. The peace of running water always calms me, watching it ripple past slowly, hearing the murmur of the water over rocks and branches and the swish of it against the banks, spying the many lives that live along the river--fish, turtles, snakes, muskrats, beavers,   hawks, and eagles. For millennia, my people have always chosen to settle near rivers.

When I was growing up, I was taught to go to water when troubled or ill. Running water is strong medicine, good medicine. We pray next to it, and then use it to wash away whatever is troubling our hearts, minds, or bodies. Sometimes a creek or brook will work for me, but if I'm truly heartsick, I seek out a river.

This poem is another in a series of poems that I have posted to celebrate National Poetry Month. It is an exploration of this practice of going to water when troubled. In the worst kind of pain and grief, sometimes only a river can provide any release. For a healing ceremony, one needs to build a fire, say the right prayers, make an offering, but sometimes in the worst straits, it can be simply you and the river.


Turning to the water for release
from my troubles, from you,
I write your name in my palm with my finger,
then brush off the invisible letters
into the river currents passing at my feet.
I ask River to carry them out of my heart and mind,
carry them away from my life, remove all that darkness
that is you infesting my mind against my will,
replaying memories that were nothing
but playacting on your part,
though my heart tries to find excuses,
for all the deliberate pain.
I have to face it finally—there are none.
Hard to believe, but even harder to find
I still long for you.
This stubborn heart won’t give up.
So I barricade it, keep it safe from its stupid fidelity,
while I wait for River to carry out magic,
carry your name and games far from me,
set me free finally with the power of moving water,
my own inborn element,
which carves memories of trauma from the earth itself
and leaves wondrous scars.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

SPELL FOR BANNING A BOOK, a poem for National Poetry Month

We are living in dark times. We are living in times when lies are elevated above the truth and fantasies and “alternative facts” are elevated above fact and reality by our leaders and those in power over us. We are living in times when children kept in cages after being torn away from their parents are said to be in “summer camps.” We are living in times when the free press is called “the enemy of the people.” In fact, we are living in times that become more and more reminiscent of the rise of Nazi Germany than we would like to believe or experience.

We are living in times when the president of the United States tweets out his desire to censor newspapers, television news programs, entire sections of the press, and published books. So far, he has not succeeded in this, even though he daily tweets out his condemnation of “fake news” and his desire to change the libel laws to undercut the First Amendment, but the situation looks grimmer every month and week and day. It reminds me forcibly of the book burnings of the Nazi regime.

One of the earliest and most important steps a dictatorship must take is to seize control of the narrative. Thus, we see the multitude of lies and the constant accusations of fake news. The next step is censorship, which grants so much control over what the populace can know, and after censorship comes the destruction of books and magazines which contain the truth and not the regime’s propaganda. Along with this, we always find persecution of journalists and writers and poets who are not willing to spout the regime's line. Unfortunately, history gives us all too many examples of this through the ages. In the photograph at the top of this blog, Nazis are burning books in Germany.

This poem is about this process of banning books, which continues to be a threat down through history. Not too long ago, we had books by Latino and Native and Black authors banned in public school districts in the Southwest, which led to a band of activists gathering those forbidden books  and smuggling them across multiple states into those school districts to educate those children. This was called the Librotraficante movement and led to the courts reinstating those books in the school district. Vigilance is the price of freedom.


First, find a censor.
This will be hard—
not that censors are rare,
but they are adept mimics.
Do not be fooled. No matter
how benevolent its disguise,
a frightened censor is dangerous.
Approach with caution.
To safely capture it
for your spell, you must circle
the censor chanting soothing
nonsense syllables.
It is meaning that terrifies

Surround the stupefied censor
with charms made from advertising
photographs of a mythical golden age—
smiling mothers
in high heels and aprons, silent fathers
keeping sentinel on horseback, sexless
children never asking
questions. Sacred to the censor,
such charms have power
to blind it.

Select the book
you want banned.
Set it outside the circle
of charms, and carefully
remove the charm nearest
so the censor can detect
the presence of an attempt
at meaning.

Protect yourself.
Enraged censors have been known
not only to ban books
but to burn them
and then press on to people.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

COMING AROUND AGAIN--a poem for National Poetry Month

It has been almost 5 years since I began my battle with breast cancer. This poem for National Poetry Month looks back on that time and on other times before that when death was a possibility for me. One advantage of becoming an elder is that death is no longer the boogeyman, the monster in the closet.

This poem speaks to that love for life that keeps us clinging to the mortal realm, even as different aspects of our bodies weaken or begin to fail. It becomes possible to take the long look, and when that becomes possible, fear dissolves.


Three years ago—three years of poison and desperate
positive thinking—they cut off my breast,
carving out the lymph nodes
of the underarm as well.
They left me with an ugly, puckered scar
14 inches long and 3 inches wide,
raised one-half to one inch high
along its length, and another
incision 3 inches below that scar
where a length of tubing inserted
into the chest drained
blood and lymph into an attached bag
for 3 ½ pain-filled, sleepless weeks.

Death has come looking for me before this
several times. I have always tricked her
into leaving me to my life a little longer,
Scheherazade putting the random scenes
of daily living into dramatic narrative,
heightening conflict and tension,
generating suspense, embellishing
dull parts to create more spark and excitement,
adding touches of humor to lighten the mood,
a story playing out in front of her
to which she needs to know the ending
before she brings down the final curtain.
I’ve grown familiar with Death’s face,
can read it to tell if I need to spice up the story
because she’s losing interest. Old friend
and familiar, she bears no horror for me any longer.

I have seen the long view through her eyes,
the sacred labyrinth of galaxies
spinning out of control throughout the universe
pulling apart in spiral motion, eternal
dissipation of energy rippling outward
with magic like the violent change brought
by tropical storm clouds seen from the air,
galactic snake coiling around stars and planets
and black holes whirling like water
down a drain, sucking all matter and energy
within reach, voracious maws, widdershins,
sunwise, ears of creation cocked
for the song, symphony, story, vining
through the nebulae, gathering tension
and force, the vast’s giant spring pulled taut,
ready to snap back into the kaleidoscope,
force of tornadoes, whirlwinds,
passing into the still eye surrounded
by the stomp dance of the stars,
Creator’s medicine wheel, coming,
going, bringing, leaving, giving, taking,
moving up and down around the spiral
of time, infinity’s tilt-a-whirl.

Remaining attached to this life, these loved people,
I have no wish to join the stardust spiral dance
of destruction and creation before I must.
I’ll stay here in this incarnation as long as I can,
loving this insane world’s dark and light moments
and the people, trees, birds around me, clinging
until the last to its chiaroscuro, yin and yang.
Still, I won’t fall screaming into the void
when my time is up. I’ve seen the wheel of fortune
that is the cosmos. Life is circular, grinding all of us
into crumbs of creation, raw material for new wonders.
I’ve promised myself and lovely bony Ms. Death
I will embrace my ride on the celestial merry-go-round.
But the story’s not over yet—there’s at least one more chapter
before the spectacular, mystifying, completely satisfying climax.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

WHAT CROW SAYS--a poem for National Poetry Month

I have a strong propensity for crows. They're birds that don't get the love and respect that other birds do because they're not as flashy in appearance and their voices are harsher, even though they are classified as songbirds.

Crows are intelligent, can make tools and remember the faces of those humans who have been a threat to them or their community, even have rituals to mourn their dead. They often bring us messages of wisdom from the Creator and show us the way when we need guidance.

This poem is the first in a sequence of mine called "First Cousins Speak." In these poems, some of our relatives in the larger world discuss humans, those troubled, puzzling late-come additions to Creation.


This is how gods are made.
The land is wild and free,
soil just beginning to cover the warm rock.
One day, the stone lights up
with the dreams of animals.
Out of the shining,
something other awakens.
These things happen so easily.
Nature is crowded,
everything intent on being warm.
Who knew what damage dreams could wreak?

This furless, clawless thing created
from whatever’s wasted or not wanted in us,
we watched it arise
walking on two feet like Bear
but so weak and slow.
Bear can outrun a horse,
kill a deer with one blow.
It should have died but didn’t.
Some tenacity kept it alive
and breeding and changing
the very world around it

We all spoke the same language
until that changed, too.
Now we’re left with consequences.
Now we are the other,
everything other to this being.
We are the constant target in the crosshairs.
Now we live with the burden of being seen,
living into our observed death.
Great plans never work out.
Chaos is forever seeping in.
All it takes is a crack in creation
like this to ruin everything.

Here is a wound no spell can heal.
We’ve tried them all.
Not even Spider can weave us whole again.
Spoilage creeps over the whole land.
Cherish your wildness.
It’s all we have left.
Live close to the edge.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publishing, 2018)

Monday, April 8, 2019

Tallgrass--a poem for National Poetry Month

One of my favorite places on the planet is the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Flint Hills is the largest surviving Tallgrass Prairie in the country, 4.5 million acres of bluestem and wild animals and cattle and tough people, all survivors. I went to school there, and my parents are buried there.

My computer operating system keeps showing me scenes of landscape from around the world that are supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful, and they often are. Still, I know people who drive I-70 west or east through the Flint Hills and insist that the Kansas landscape is just flat and boring. I insist that they must be lying or blind. The Flint Hills inspire me so much that I've written a number of poems about them, and I thought I would put this one up for National Poetry Month to remind us all of the quieter beauty that often surrounds us while we are seeking after what we consider the exotic or fashionable.


The prairie is a tough place.
Formed when the Rocky Mountain
rainshadow killed off the trees,
millions of buffalo grazed its big bluestem,
turkeyfoot, sideoats, switchgrass, grama, Indiangrass,
sweetgrass, prairie dropseed, buffalograss,
for millennia, but, big as a nightmare
when you encounter one up close,
the buffalo never defeated the prairie.

Summer in tallgrass lands is harsh—
blazing hot sun, only occasional rain in torrents.
Summer turns the plains into grassy desert,
But those grass roots plunge deep, deep into the earth,
some twelve or more feet under the surface.
The soil under a prairie is a dense mat
of tangled rootstock, rhizomes, tubers, and bulbs.
Those roots hold out against drought
and preserve the soil against thundering
gullywashers and toadswampers.
Summer never defeated the prairie.

Sometimes lightning strikes,
and fire races across the landscape
like water poured out on concrete,
spreading out with amazing speed and inevitability.
The prairie compensated by making seeds
that need to pass through flame to germinate.
Fireproof seeds, what an invention!
The tribes learned to set controlled fires
to bring back gayfeather, blazing star, prairie clover.
Now, ranchers burn the prairie each spring.
Fire never defeated the prairie.

As for winter, the waist- and shoulder-high grasses
triumph over the snow, spreading
large swathes of sun-colored grasses
across the scene, only occasionally punctuated
by a spread of snow along the meandering paths
where animal and human feet have trodden.
The prairie just absorbs the snow,
swallowing it down to build stronger, deeper roots
to withstand summer’s hot, dry onslaught.
Winter never defeated the prairie.

Buffalo, white-tailed deer, antelope, pronghorns,
gray wolves, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, red foxes,
black-footed ferrets, badgers, shrews, skunks,
raccoons, possums, black-tailed prairie dogs,
jack rabbits, prairie chickens, bull snakes,
and the occasional human for centuries
made trails and paths through the grasses
by trampling them down or cutting their stems.
If paths are not continually maintained
by a great deal of manual labor,
they disappear like smoke.
The prairie will always take them back.
The only thing that ever defeated prairie
was a man with a steel plow.
Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publishing, 2018)

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

AWAKE AT THE END OF NIGHT--a Poem for National Poetry Month

As National Poetry Month begins, I am still battling with this shattered right shoulder that has a destroyed rotator cuff. The good news is that I have finally recovered from the awful illness that help me and its grip much of this winter.

For my first National Poetry Month poem, I thought I would post “Awake at the End of Night,” in part because I am spending so many wakeful nights right now and have in recent months. The wonderful thing about the end of winter is that, during the worst wakeful moments late in the night as morning is approaching, now I can hear the cacophony of bird songs, and it is so welcome.

There is nothing so lovely as listening to a northern mockingbird sing in the dark. You will find that such an image or sound shows up in the number of my poems, simply because this bird is so important to me. I wish you all a month of marvelous poetry. I am enjoying all of the Poetry that is being posted on Twitter and on Facebook. I hope to post poems several times a week throughout the month on this blog, but I am teaching a pretty intensive class right now in writing the novel with lots of written assignments for the students, entailing lots of written feedback from me, so we'll have to see how the month goes.


Praise the mockingbird singing farewell to night.
Praise the owl flying home with its mouse-feast.
Praise the beetle scurrying from sudden light.
Praise the moon sailing down to sleep.
Praise the branches whipping the house in the wind.
Praise thunder shaking windows and walls.
Praise sheets of lightning flaring across the sky.
Praise the seeds in darkest soil uncurling.
Praise the tendrils of root and stem reaching out.
Praise the worm that leaves riches in burrows behind it.
Praise the rain coursing down the brick walls.
Praise the blanket wrapping in our body heat.
Praise the sound of your even sleep breathing beside me.
Praise the body I wrap my leg around.
Praise the heavy arm thrown over me.
Praise the breath moving in and out between my mouth and yours.
Praise the spirits of the sun and moon that live within us.
Praise all things silent and hidden.
Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Whitewashing History--A Native American Heritage Month Essay

Our current president has a habit of insulting Native America, not only by calling Senator Warren “Pocahontas,” but by installing a portrait of Andrew Jackson, architect of Indian Removal and of genocide, in the Oval Office in the place of honor before bringing in Native Code Talkers to honor them for their contribution to the war effort in World War II. The worst, however, is when he says, our ancestors tamed a continent,” and “we are not going to apologize for America,” referring to the destruction of millions of Native lives.

Our ancestors tamed a continent,” of course, refers to the idea  of the North American continent as an empty wilderness, devoid of human life, a place ripe for the taking. Of course, our current president is not famous for his intelligence or his knowledge, but this concept of the “Virgin Soil” has had plenty of play among academics, as well.

This kind of misguided and, in some cases, deliberately dishonest, information is why I always caution my students in workshops and classes I teach on writing about other cultures to regard the works of outside academics as questionable and to give greater weight to first-person narratives from people within that culture or diaries, letters, writings, such as poetry or fiction, from people within that culture. The paragraph below is in every talk I give on this subject and every lesson in any online class that I teach and speaks directly to that issue.

As a part of this second danger, one thing you must remember about doing research on other cultures in books, libraries, on the internet, is that much of it is wrong, accidentally or willfully. Accidentally, because journalists, anthropologists, other scholars, and explorers may have misinterpreted what they saw or heard or because—and this was common—their informants deliberately misinformed them to protect their people or to protect their own source of whatever the white man was providing them. Consequently, even primary sources from past times can be contaminated if they are “as told to” or are translated. Willfully, because a lot of that research was done by people, usually white men, who had an agenda that placed wealthy white male Europeans at the pinnacle of creation and everyone and everything else downhill from that, which led to eugenics and a lot of other horrid, stupid things. So there's your second caveat: You can do your research and still get it wrong in some way.”

This idea that there was no Native genocide because disease alone killed all the Indigenous peoples on the continent, leaving it conveniently vacant for Europeans is a race-based “intuitive” theory from the 1970s that has been refuted since the end of the 20thcentury by scholars actually working with primary documents and other evidence. The “virgin soil thesis,” based on the belief that Natives’ lack of immunities and their inept healers were responsible for their downfall, was propounded by Alfred Crosby in 1976. This theory was quite popular for a time early in the last half of the 20th century because it placed all the responsibility for the massive death counts among Indigenous peoples after European arrival on the Indigenous people themselves because they were genetically weak, lacking in acquired immunity, and lacking in competent medical care, rather than on the violence waged against them by Europeans from the very beginning of contact and continuing into the early 20th century.

As David S. Jones points out in “Virgin Soils Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly(October 2003), “Perhaps the idea that Indian depopulation can be explained by the Indians' lack of immunity took hold because it served an ideological purpose. White physicians in South Africa, for instance, used virgin soil theory to explain the prevalence of tuberculosis among African mine workers. … theories of immunological determinism can still assuage Euroamerican guilt over American Indian depopulation, whether in the conscious motives of historians or in the semiconscious desires of their readers. … the epidemics among American Indians, despite their unusual severity, were caused by the same forces of poverty, social stress, and environmental vulnerability that cause epidemics in all other times and places.”

David Stannard argued in American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York, 1992) that "by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent."

Paul Kelton, author of Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight Against Smallpox, 1518-1824 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015) and "Avoiding the Smallpox Spirits: Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival," Ethnohistory, 50 (Fall 2003), is yet another of the many scholars who have gone to actual primary documents and other evidence to examine this thesis as it pertained to the Cherokee Nation and found that many epidemics were not as severe as had been claimed or assumed and that the Cherokee healers and spiritual beliefs were as effective as the primitive medicines of the Europeans in dealing with smallpox. He also discusses the part that the overwhelming violence—the bitter wars that decimated population, the actions of the white settler armies in destroying towns, homes, farms, and stored harvests in an attempt to starve the Cherokee, the forced surrender of huge swathes of territory necessary for a hunting-gathering existence—played in rendering the surviving remnant of Cherokees susceptible to smallpox and other illnesses.

As far as the idea that the Europeans thought the continents were empty, there is such abundance of evidence of the contrary that the idea that academics would put that forth as fact in university classrooms and scholarly publications is ludicrous. The history of the United States is filled with statesmen lamenting the fact that American Indians own the land they want and with their plans and chicanery to force them to sell or give it or to just force them off the land. That relentless push westward that came to be called Manifest Destiny in the 1840s continued from the first landings of Europeans on the Atlantic Seaboard through the war with Tecumseh, the Indian Removal Act and many Trails of Tears (killing tens of thousands—one would think that alone would qualify for designation as ethnic cleansing or genocide), to the Indian Wars of the 19th century, while in California, the Spanish mission system devastated the Native population, and when the Americans took over, they offered official government bounties on Indian heads. Not exactly the acts of people who thought the continent was vacant.

As far as various academics’ statements that the destruction of the native population could not be genocide because it was not “deliberate or on purpose,” I offer a tiny sampling of the quotations from speeches, letters, newspaper articles, and other documents to be easily found in a search through American history. The researcher will easily find many, many more quotations from Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, and many other Founding Fathers and presidents, as well as governors and other civic leaders, all speaking of the need to wipe out the Indigenous population of the continent.

The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” – General Phil Sheridan

Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under god’s heaven to kill Indians! Scalps are what we are after… I long to be wading in gore!” – Rev. John M. Chivington, co-founder of the University of Denver and leader of the Sand Creek Massacre

"Civilization or death to all American savages." – Major James Norris

Discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest.” – Chief Justice John Marshall

The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.” – General George Washington, orders to troops, 1779 [Those captured prisoners of every age and sex were then sold as slaves to the West Indies.]

This erasure of the destruction of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is a pervasive problem in this country. Witness the proponents of the virgin soil thesis of the past century, who were the modern versions of the Puritans rejoicing, after one massacre, that they hadn’t had to commit another due to disease and starvation, thanks to the mighty hand of God. The history of this country is a history of broken treaties with Indian nations, a history of massacres and forced removals that killed many thousands, a history of continuous greed for the land and other possessions of the Indigenous people and violence and wars to obtain what was so desired. The history of this country is a history of theft and slavery, a history of prisoner of war camps called reservations (that Hitler studied and used as models for his concentration camps—he admired the efficiency of the U.S. genocide of its Native population and emulated it in his own Final Solution), a history of official bounties on Indian heads, skins, and scalps. The history of this country is a history of kidnapping children and imprisoning them in boarding “schools,” rife with physical and emotional abuse—“Kill the Indian to save the man!”—a history of forced sterilization and medical experimentation without consent. If you look at it openly, it adds up to something that can hardly be called anything but ethnic cleansing and genocide.

So, of course, as a country, we don’t look at it openly—and when someone forces us to face it, we cry, “Not true! Get over it! Victim studies! PC,” anything we can to make the awful truth go away and be buried once again. Still, it happened, and the results of it remain with us, especially embedded in Native communities and lives. American popular culture is still in the grip of Manifest Destiny and “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” with the enshrinement of the Hollywood Western as one of our great art forms. I would hope for better from academia, however, where the truth is supposed to have value above belief in American exceptionalism, but I am often disappointed.

This situation is a perfect example of why we need ethnic studies classes—and why they should be part of the required core of classes and not electives that only a few students will take. Our citizens need to know our history, to know what we’ve done as a country, to know how we got here today, to know the truth and not the photoshopped Hollywood version of who we really are. Without that knowledge, we will continue to make the same mistakes, doomed to repeat the past we choose not to know.