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  • The Good Mind and Trans-Systemic Thinking in the Two-Row Poems of Mohawk Poet Peter Blue Cloud
  • Daniel Coleman (bio)

This article explores the far-reaching philosophical, environmental, and legal profundity of Peter Blue Cloud's (1933–2011) two-column poems with reference to Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) teachings about the Good Mind. In order to illustrate the far-reaching implications of Blue Cloud's two-column enactments of the Good Mind, I discuss one of the most famous uses of Haudenosaunee two-column thinking in the Two Row Wampum before I turn, toward the end of this article, to Chickasaw legal theorist James (Sa'ke'j) Youngblood Henderson's concept of "trans-systemic" analysis as a way to map out the importance of Two Row thinking for recalibrating relations between Indigenous and settler-colonial legal regimes. But first, one of Blue Cloud's two-column poems:

first light

First light, a dark outline evening
of a mountain peak and too
pines their morning scent will
carried on first breezes, call,
stars a naked brilliance to
pulsing to coyote cries sleep
And keening chorus, again,
a cricket's tentative chirping, the
long pauses, mind
      the fall of an oak leaf is
a bird's sudden question, dreaming,
that deepest blue of sky mind
And now the stars turn is
brighter, a
      a sliver of moon nation
      followed by a star of
And then the pink of morning people
sky as vast and open in
as a child's dreaming, search,
a carpet of leaves, hazy mind
grey to mist of yellow is
the oak growing a cliff face Creation
reaching out for balance, space,
a dog bark crawling over a hill, mind
a snapping conversation of twigs is
      and branches in fire, space
I wrap myself in morning is
      as echoes void
            of a silly dream is
linger my mind crowded
And I smile to it, lodge,
my urine splashes the ground mind
sending up an acrid steam, is
a long, ribbed cloud I reach for, memory
      I want to of
Soar on hawk wings and whistle a
An all-consuming pride, way,
I smell the pine and cedar a
and the damp morning soil, people
      a flicker calls, seeking
my feet are hooves a
I run, law,
      taking great, soaring great
            leaps law
above the trees, over hills of
to meet lasting
      the sun. peace. (Clans 96–97)

[End Page 55]

Peter Blue Cloud loved to get up very early, around 3:00 a.m., and write until 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. each day (Blue Cloud, "Talking" 32).1 Like-wise, each of the four two-column poems included in his Clans of Many Nations: Selected Poems 1969–94 (1995) presents a speaker in the pre-dawn hours, attending to the waking earth of the new day. In each of these poems, the left-hand column presents Creation as alive and nurturing, and the speaker himself acknowledges his immersion in and wonder at each detail as the dawn emerges. By contrast with the rich, sensory images of the left-hand columns, the right-hand columns in these poems descend in one-word lines that trace, in very spare language, an essential thought or growing realization that runs like a thread beside the lush imagery of the left-hand column.

How are we to read poems laid out like this? Are we to read one column at a time? Should we read some of one column, and then some of the other? Should we read across from left column to right? None of these poems is organized in such a way that the grammar reads smoothly across from one column to the next.2 You can't read Peter Blue Cloud's two-column poems without being confronted with your own habits of thought, your own assumptions about how to make meaning, which are challenged and made conscious by your simultaneous encounter with more than one way of doing things. The only comment by Blue Cloud about this two-column format that I have been able to find appears in the anthology New Voices from the Longhouse (1989), where he explains

The visual structure is: seeing it...


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pp. 54-82
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