Friday, November 27, 2015

WHERE I COME FROM: Final poem for Native American Heritage Month

My dear friend, poet Levi Romero, turned the poem, "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon, into a writing exercise that I, along with many others, have used in writing workshops, especially with young people. One day, while teaching, I wrote my own poem based on this writing exercise.


I come from crocheted dishrags
and hand-me-down clothes from cousins
on the “good” side of the family.
I come from canvas cotton sacks (200 pounds for an adult
“but you’re a big girl now, eleven,
you can pull enough cotton to fill that ol’ sack”),
from Lifesavers and Nehi Orange
and salty peanuts dropped into sweating-cold bottles of RC Cola
and traded among us kids for back rubs
when we couldn’t quite stand up straight after a day in the cotton rows.

I come from the heady, dangerous ozone smell
of summer thunderstorm nights
when I walked alone across town
to buy my mother’s cigarettes.
I come from rain-soaked redbuds and lilacs and irises,
from mesquite and cottonwoods,
from beachfront bougainvillea and date palms.
I come from drive-in movies and drunk fathers and mothers
and singing in the church choir
and stone-headed stubbornness.
I come from Sequoiah and John Ross,
from “Cielito Lindo” sung everywhere
(I thought to me since it had my name in it),
from driving out in the dark to see the desert bloom after a rain,
from altruism and diabetes.

I come from “get your nose out of that book”
and “if it’d been a snake, it’d bit me”
and Grandpa’s sermons in the pulpit on summer Sunday visits.
I’m from the Great Smokies and Tahlequah and Broken Arrow,
from Highland crofts and Dublin slums and England’s younger sons
from San Diego and Coronado and El Cajon,
I come from snobdodgers and frybread for breakfast
and from fried chicken I helped kill and clean for Sunday dinner.
I come from the month the money ran out,
even my illegal paycheck from the drugstore after school,
and the grocer wouldn’t give more credit,
when some angel left a bushel basket of turnips on our kitchen doorstep.

I come from Aunt Joan and Uncle Glyn on their dirt-poor farm
who took us in on a moment’s notice, six kids deserted by both parents,
and raised us with our four cousins
in that house the size of my living room with never a cent or a thank-you.
I come from those nights on the mattress on that kitchen floor,
waking to take little ones to the outhouse in the dark,
from cooking for harvest hands and combine crews
while Aunt spent the day on the tractor with the men,
from her dark Indian spitfire and his tall, Indian peace.

I come from all the photos of us kids in places all over the country
where Dad dragged us around like a tail behind him,
from all the photos of the five babies after me
and the photos of all of us with grandparents and cousins
and my school photos from San Diego, Kenosha, Arlington,
and so many others I don’t even remember,
stored only in my brain, except for the handful
Aunt Joan saved for me all those years until we found each other again
when Uncle Glyn was dying in his quiet way
and cousin Dickie’s abused son, raised by his grandparents,
bussed and hitchhiked back from the Navy to sleep
on the floor at the foot of Uncle’s bed, faithful hound.

I come from my grandmother’s Cherokee teaching stories and stubborn strength,
from that grandfather’s wild goose chases and big dreams and fine talk,
from my other grandmother’s domestic fussing and ambitious nurturing,
from that grandfather’s preaching and Bible values,
from my father’s hatred of his Indian half and tolerance toward everyone else,
from his bright, inquiring mind, his hope for humanity, and his drunken violence,
from my mother’s cold beauty and rewriting of the past,
from the short tragedy of her life, and the strength with which she bore it.
I come from a long line of male preachers and teachers, drinkers and dreamers,
from conjure women, curanderas, women with the Sight,
and women who survive and make do.
I come from fallen gentry and half-breed hill trash, from parsonages and trailer courts.
I contain all of these,
and I choose,
I say,
who I will be.

(published in Imagination and Place: An Anthology, 2009)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

WHAT RIVER SAYS: A Poem for Native American Heritage Month

This poem is from a suite of poems I've written called "First Cousins Speak."


The Cherokee call me Long Man,
yun wi gun hi ta,
because my body stretches and unravels
with my head in the mountains
and my feet resting in the ocean.
I constantly speak words of wisdom
to those who can understand me—
fewer every day.
It takes a quality of attention
fit for magicians or poets.
I have much to tell those
who expend the time and energy to listen.
I have seen so many things.
I know the history of rain
intimately, leaning on the world
to feel it on my skin
and take it inside me
to swell my body. Maybe,
they should have called me Long Woman.

I remember when
the mountains were home only to gods.
I knew your ancestors,
now tangled in the ground.
I swallowed my share and more.
I have seen innumerable generations
driving toward their deaths.
I am acquainted with the bones of earth,
ancient as the word of God
and stronger by far.
Men have tried forever
to change me and chain me,
but I still wander where I will
when I grow tired of being tame.
I remain the promise of tomorrow,
the hope of new growth
that haunts the night with hypnotic murmurs
and softens the edge between act and dream.

When all hope has fled,
come to me.

(Published in TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Learning Cherokee--A Poem for Native American Heritage Month


O si yo. Hello.
To hi tsu. How are you?
Di gwo ye ni u si wha. My hands are empty.
Ga do u s di hi a What is this?
Gi ga ge i. Red.
U ne ga. White.
A ma. Water.
Wa do Thank you.
Yo ne ga. White man.
Nu la. Hurry.
Ani yv wi a. The People.
Ga tli da. Arrow.
Ga yo tli ga do hi. Just a little land.
A ge hya. Woman.
A ni s ga ya. Men.
A sa no. Dress.
Qua na hl gv ni. Peach trees.
Ga yo tli ga do hi. Just a little land.
Dlo ge si. Field.
Yv gi. Nail.
Ga yo tli gado hi. Just a little land.
Tsa dag’ sta sde sdi! Be careful!
A de la. Money.
Tla hv. Absolutely not.
Ni gad a ga do a! All your land!
Gi ga. Blood.
E hi sti yu. Pain.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Meeting Hecate--Another poem for Native American Heritage Month

This poem is based on a traditional Cherokee teaching story my grandmother used to tell me when I was small. 


How I fear the witch in me,
the one in touch
with power, the one who knows
without knowing
how, the secret
priestess, spirit-bearer, the ugly side
of woman, the crone—
and I remember the Cherokee
legend of Stoneskin, superhuman
cannibal, devouring whole
villages, how the People
set up a fortress of women
menstruating, how the sight
of each weakened Stoneskin
until he died and, dying, told them
all the secrets, ways
of power, conjure spells, ways
to do things.

The Cherokee live
off the wisdom
of a dying monster and the power
of bleeding women, and they remember
this. There is a witch somewhere
in every woman.

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Indian Removal Cartography: A Poem for Native American Heritage Month

I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.
— Georgia soldier who participated in the removal


It’s an old map,
looks hand-drawn.
Starting in Georgia,
North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama,
a broad swath of territory
belonging to the Cherokee,
yet shrunken so
from where the first Europeans found them,
that kidney-shaped province
splayed across the states
down to these thin lines
marking the paths they were forced to travel.

This old-looking map
has been modified for the modern scholar
with gray-banded place names highlighted.
When you hover a computer mouse
over one of these shaded names,
pertinent facts appear.
From New Echota, capital of the Cherokee Nation
in 1838, now a state park,
to Fort Butler, one of five North Carolina stockades
where Cherokee were held under foul conditions,
to Fort Payne, yet another
removal fort and internment camp in Alabama,
to Ross’s Landing where more than 2,000 were held prisoner
and departed in three large groups
to travel to Indian Territory by water.
The Unicoi Turnpike, an ancient war and trading path,
took other groups onto the Trail of Tears,
is now designated a Millennium Trail.
Charleston, Tennessee, where 13,000 were held
for months, waiting to begin their unwilling trek
across five states in winter.
Hopkinsville, Kentucky,
Chief Whitepath died and was buried here,
remarkable for being one of the few
whose graves are known.
Hover long enough over Hopkinsville
and the screen will tell you
“Most of the thousands of Cherokees who died on the Trail lie in unmarked graves.”

(Published in The Whirlybird Anthology, 2013)