Friday, November 17, 2017

A Poem for Native American Heritage Month--"Grandmother's Basket"

For Native American Heritage Month, here is a poem about my grandmother, who was so influential in my life, even though she died when I was thirteen. Like a lot of families, mine was torn apart by divorce when I was young, and as great as the loss of my father was, I think the loss of his family, my grandmother and aunt, was even more traumatic. These women had been the strong stable base of my childhood while both parents were chaotic children. Once the divorce occurred, I lost that stability and their wisdom, but never their love. Fortunately, as an adult, I could and did seek out my aunt while she was still alive and rebuilt the family connection. Unfortunately, my grandmother was long gone by then.


I loved Grandmother’s baskets when I was small.
They had intricate patterns and figures
woven into them in brown, black,
yellow, red, and orange.
She had different sizes and shapes,
used them for storage rather than display.
My favorite was in reds and yellows with a black border.
It looked to me as if woven of fire and grasses.

I would climb into cupboards, find one,
and ask why she didn’t keep it out on a tabletop
where everyone who came in could admire it.
“These aren’t the best ones,” she said
as she fingered baskets that looked beautiful to me.
“We used to make them from rivercane,
which makes a better basket and dyes the best,
but they rounded us up in concentration camps
and drove us on a death march to a new land
that didn’t have our old plants like rivercane
so now we use buckbrush and honeysuckle.”
Grandmother shrugged. “You make do.”

I asked her to teach me how to make a basket
like the one I loved with feathers of fire
along its steep sides. She shook her head.
“It’s a lot of hard work.
First, we need black walnut, blood root,
pokeweed, elderberry. Yellow root’s the best yellow,
but blood root will have to do.
They’ve dug all the yellow root
for rich people’s medicines, call it goldenseal.
Got to have our dyestuffs first.
Got to forage for most of them.
It takes lots of trips, out and back,
to get enough to make good colors.”

I knew I could do that and said so.
She laughed. “You’ve got to know what to pick
or dig or gather. It’s like with my medicines.
Can’t just go taking any old weed.”
I pointed out that I was learning from her
about the Cherokee medicine plants. She just shook her head.
“It’s not the same. I grow most of those.
Haven’t taken you out for the wild ones yet
because you’re too little still. Same for dye plants.”

I nagged at her for days, begging her to teach me
so I could have a basket of my own.
I had in mind that amazing fire-flickering basket.
I wanted to make one just like that.
My visit was over without her ever giving in.
I was used to Grandmother’s strength of will.
I knew I would have to try harder next time.

There was no next-time visit.
My mother had always hated her mother-in-law.
Now, she won the battle to keep us away.
Our relationship poured out in letters
until my mother destroyed them,
refused further correspondence.
Years later, Grandmother wrote me—
a letter that slipped past my mother’s scrutiny—
that she was making a basket
one last time for me.
I knew she was very ill,
soon to die.

I don’t know who got the beautiful baskets
when Grandmother died, especially the one
that I loved when I was small.
Her sister and niece who cared for her
in her last illness, I suppose.
That’s fair. My parents had divorced by then,
and my mother allowed no contact
with that family. But
a lumpy, brown-paper-bag-wrapped package
with Grandmother’s shaky, spidery handwriting
arrived for me after her death.
My mother opened it first and laughed.
I stood waiting eagerly to snatch up
the last thing my grandmother would ever give me.
“Look at that,” Mother said with more laughter.
“That ugly old thing’s supposed to be a basket,
I think. She sure lost her knack for that
at the end, didn’t she?”

When I was small and visiting, I knew
Grandmother already had arthritis
in her hands. That’s probably why
she wouldn’t teach me to make baskets—
because she didn’t have the dexterity any longer
to make the kind she once had.
I still have that simple handled basket
of vines (probably honeysuckle).
The whole thing is dyed black.
There are no intricate patterns of flames
or anything else. It’s just solid black.

I can see her plodding out to gather
butternuts for the black dye
and to pull the honeysuckle vines,
stripping off the leaves.
I can see her gnarled hands
painstakingly weaving under and over,
no fancy twills or double-woven sides.
Hard enough to shape
a shallow but sturdy gathering basket
for her long-unseen granddaughter.
All these years later
I have my own herb garden
where many of her medicine plants grow.
When I gather them to dry for teas and poultices,
I use that black vine basket.
I think it will last forever.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications,, forthcoming)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

To a Young Native Artist

I had great news yesterday. My next book of poetry, DARK SISTER, which is dear to my heart but languished unsubmitted while I learned how to navigate the new world of commercial mystery fiction and then the bizarre landscape of cancer treatments, will be published in 2018. 

Unfortunately, though, something happened that took the edge off that joy. For the third time in recent months, a gifted Native woman writer who had been achieving wonderful success was attacked from within the Native community over identity issues. Identity is a fraught issue in the Native community, but the crazy thing in each of these cases was that these women are all documented citizens of their respective (and different) nations.
We're all too used to having mainstream American society, especially publishing, tell us Native writers that we're not “Indian enough,” because we don't/won't write in the tropes and stereotypes they expect or think the readers expect from Native writers, because we “don't look Native” to their eyes (not like Iron Eyes Cody's great masquerade), because we live in urban areas rather than on reservations (ignoring the fact that over 70% of Natives live in urban areas—in large part due to US government policies of the mid-20th century). There's a special sting, though, when it comes from our own community.
Success as a Native writer is not a zero-sum game. When one of us achieves success, that opens eyes and doors for more of us. We're surrounded by a mainstream literary community with a few staunch allies, a lot of often destructive ignorance about us, and a surprising number of people with knives out when it comes to us and our writing and needs. We shouldn't be carving up our own and tossing bloody pieces out to appease them. We should be celebrating and lifting up our own writers who attain success and supporting each other as we all work toward greater things for each of us individually and our community as a whole.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this poem and posted it on Facebook, and I think it's relevant to this discussion.

To a Young Native Artist

How many people made love, or just had sex, and survived,
often under bleakest circumstances,
to create your unique spirit and body.
How many women gave birth, suckled,
and nurtured babes in violence and in injury and illness,
hoping for a future they would never see.
Every one of us born is a victory
against colonialism and attempted genocide.
You are the culmination of all those who loved
in the midst of hate. You are the resistance.
You are hope made flesh.
Never let this society dictate what you create.
Your ancestors have given you gifts. Use them.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Poems for Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead)

Today is the first day of  Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) in Mexico and among Mexican Americans. Contrary to what most Americans seem to think of it, Dias de los Muertos is not a zany, drunken extension of Halloween. It's more of a family party to honor the spirits of deceased loved ones. In Mexico, many families visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are interred to decorate the graves for a party and eat and drink with their dead, who have plates prepared for them, as well. It has more in common with the older American customs around Memorial Day than Halloween.

Much like Samhain, the Celtic feast day that lies forgotten at the roots of America's Halloween, Dias de los Muertos are two days when the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead thin to the point of allowing communion with dead loved ones. Calacas and catrionas, the skeleton figures that are dressed up and posed, often in zany situations called calaveras, are a way of paying respect to Death without fearing or giving Death undue power over the living.

So, in honor of Dias de los Muertos, today and tomorrow, here are two very different poems.


In this time of marigolds and mariposas,
calacas, calaveras, and candles everywhere,
in this time when the veil between the worlds,
living and dead, is stretched thinnest,
watch the souls streaming through the tears,
trailing that unnatural chill of Lord Death’s land.

Here he comes himself, skeleton jester,
with crown and scepter to beg
for the taste of mescal y pan muerto.
Dress him up for photos,
Lord Death just bares his teeth
in an everlasting grin and dances,
loose-limbed and clacking, bone on bone,
holding out his sombrero at the end
as he mimics a hacendado’s formal bow.

Who knew he was such a comedian?
All our legends tell a different story,
scary and grim, not this grinning,
fingerbone-snapping prankster.
Who knew he could be so funny,
prancing around in silly costumes,
telling knock, knock jokes,
juggling sugar skulls,
striking ridiculous poses?

Be generous to that hat he passes
when his performance is finished.
No small change or paper bills.
This bony clown performs for one pay only,
a taste of what we take for granted
every day, a mouthful of mole,
a kiss, a look at the sunlight,
a breath of air like sweet wine,
one heartbeat rubbing up against another.

Once a year,
he comes to remind us
that life is a slapstick farce,
and his skeletal leer
is the ultimate punchline.

Published in Present Magazine

This second poem arose from a challenge given to me by a fellow member of The Latino Writers Collective--to write a passionate love poem for Dias de los Muertos.


This is the altar I’m building
to my calaverada,
that madcap dance of death
my heart tangoed with you.
Boxes stacked and covered with fabric
to make a place of power
to draw you back to me.
A calavera of great artistry
will stand in for you, mimicking life
almost as well as you mimicked love.
I will bake you pan de muerto and rosquete,
still trying to please you,
buy finest bourbon, your favorite,
no mezcal or tequila for you,
place it next to the water, salt, and bread.
Mustn’t forget the mirror and comb
so you can check your hair
of which you were always so vain.
I will slice my fingers cutting
papel picado skulls and hearts,
yellow, orange, pink and white,
and purple for pain,
to decorate the velvet of the altar.

I adorn the ofrenda and myself
with bright, guilt-swallowing marigolds,
chaining them through my hair,
string their petals across the ground
to lead you back. Let me light the copal
and inhale the sweet smoke,
trying to attract you even now,
drawing you to me. Mustn’t cry, though.
“The path back to the living world
must not be made slippery by tears.”
It will all be to no avail.
I can’t fool you or anyone
into thinking I have finally found acceptance.
It’s all too clear I would wrestle
the Lady of the Dead herself
for possession, to wrench you
from peaceful rest in Mictlan
and back into the tempest
that was us.

Published in Present Magazine