- Six Poems
Pictograph: Red Ochre
Not a place to “house” the dead but a place for them to appear. The dead, made of rock, bound with the living: egg, fat, urine. In other words: wave the paint stick near the surface. Feather the incense in. What would spirit be inside the earth if we could see it? Foothold, finger-hold, grasping onto the bare shelves, its steps trailing down to the ancient rivers. Foxglove, how the spirit hides. Its carapace, the cliff. Does it resemble the human body, loosely woven, like cheesecloth? Or is it dense, dark grit on a ledge? I wonder if they were scared, if they were children, men, or women. Chained in lines that seem knotted even as they stretch out. Note the extensive scratches on what could only be a torso. The wind, the trees cry after them with open mouths. Which is the saddest piece of music ever written.
Pictograph: Star Being Cave
Womb of earth and we, its organs. It is bone-dry, now dead. To run our hands over its sides would be to scrape them. Lice-filled nests, broken shells with inner seams of blood, guano pooling like oil on the ledges. Flicker and pigeon feather, dirt and scat in tiny chains of pellets, rat or squirrel, some fur-bearing creature hunting eggs. But if there were a fire, if we crouched by it in the night, walls drawn with stars and humans who resemble stars or birds, the cave would come alive, by which I mean, the lower kind would rush out, the eagle walk with its wings lifted so they don’t drag. Its eye, a predator’s eye. Graffiti and beer cans, the deep ruts cut from a truck in spring, curators who chiseled out the central pictograph and then left— couldn’t they see it? How it ties us to the past? The cave has elbows. The cave breathes and counts its breaths, its cavities filling up with light and dust and allergens. [End Page 51]
Madison Buffalo Jump
Snow collects in the creases so that the oldest trails are marked, suddenly visible in the lengths of yellow foothills. To feel oneself into a place the way the pale grasses feel themselves into their long fading from fall. Snow so dry it has crumbled into pebbles. We are safe now, the soldiers far gone to their cold beds, the rattlesnakes asleep under warm earth. Only us and the ghosts, who are forgiving and soft, as if we have been allowed to enter time here before the curse. Shoshone first, then Salish, later the Blackfeet, and the Cree, and if we speak, it is in a whisper, pointing out what we almost see, the body permeable, breachable, with pores. If we knew we would be given only one day to be on earth, it would dazzle us so we couldn’t breathe. Wind bites our uncovered faces on the climb up to the cliffs, but is mysteriously gone where we expect it to be strong. Then the creatures fall out of us. The buffalo falls out of us.
Photograph: Powder River Battlefield
I know your country, its hundred miles of grasslands and sage, how it plants its emptiness inside us, separate from our trade, stilled by the profound nature of what happened. Yellowhills. Color as path of cognition. Life here, not covered with dust. What could be more gold than this? We have entered the valley where the dinosaurs lived. Why not call it willow? Dark brown alder flowers against new leaves. Tree people. Rock people. The Christians burned your fields. What kind of people must you be, hidden with your saved gods. The earth spoke to you. It was frightening. It will be frightening again. All the great cultures know this. How you sang from your own hunger, calling like dead men, decoys. How you whistled for the buffalo that had left. By what means are you able to come to us? What means of ours keep you away? A teacher’s body rotting in a shallow grave—we dismiss the past, thinking we are done with it. [End Page 52]