Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Poem for National Poetry Month--Oklahoma Poem

I'm just back from the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) 2016 national conference in Los Angeles. While there, I gave a reading and saw many old friends and colleagues, starting collaborations on several new projects.

One of the things I most enjoyed was a Friday evening spent with several much-loved people and ending in a long conversation with Jeanetta Calhoun Mish about Oklahoma and the Oklahoma literary scene. Jeanetta is the director of the Red Earth Low-Residency MFA Program at Oklahoma City University and the founding editor of Mongrel Empire Press. 

Our long, fruitful discussion left me homesick for Oklahoma, so my first poem on here for National Poetry Month is a poem for Oklahoma. 

Please notice that the word, "squaw." is used in this poem as the pejorative utterance of a self-hating Indian man, my father. This word is always an insult, and I don't want anyone feeling that, because it was used in a particular context in this poem, that it's an okay word to use to refer to Indian women. It definitely is not.

(for Jim Barnes)

In his first words, I can hear Oklahoma,
the hill country way back behind his talk
about teaching French literature in translation,
as if I have gone home, drifted back
through all the years to that childhood place I fled.

I have described it to others
as the armpit of the nation,
when I was young and not long free
of its windy roads and redbud trees and overgrown
hills, still hurt and bitter
about things Oklahoma had little to do with,
beyond being the last place to stand
for a people and the place where one of them
was born and the place where he left
his wife and kids. The last two events were
what ate at me, and they could have
happened anywhere.

Only the first was unique
to Oklahoma, the old Indian territory
where my ancestors limped off the Trail of Tears
to join other tribes forced from their homes
by other ancestors of mine,
founded the Cherokee Female Seminary
at Tahlequah and a newspaper
all over again,
were finally forced to give up their lands
so rich ranchers could take the best parts
of the reservation and leave the hilly, scrub lands
to my great-grandparents, great-aunts, grand-uncles,
and Grandma.

What does any of this have to do with me now
all these years and miles away?
Me, with the broad squaw face,
as my self-hating father, from whom it came, called it?
When I hear Jim say about Oklahoma
(as one refugee to another), “We both got out,
but it’s still inside—it settles in you,”
I know he’s right, Oklahoma in more than his voice,
in the way he makes light of misfortune,
in his penchant for poking fun
at pretensions, his own and others’.
Oklahoma’s settled in us both.
And through the echoes in his voice of its turtledoves
and winds and sky that could pull you off your feet
into infinity if you didn’t have troubles to weigh you down
to the earth, I make my peace with it
and come home.

Published in Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)

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