Some nights we feel the furred darkness
of an ancient one’s breath and are trapped
in awakening, dismembered
by events we no longer recall.
We can touch the windowsill,
where October air gathers
as hours slip past in thin robes,
the forest a concert of voices.
The last crickets let go of their songs.
The land speaks, its language arising
from its own geography—
the mountains’ hulked shapes
are blue whales, remembering
when they were undersea ridges,
and rivers are serpentine strands
hammered from silver, and dark trees
talk to the wind—weaving mortal lives,
drumbeats, pillars of smoke,
voices wavering into updraft,
the storyteller shifting the present.
Imagine another arrangement of stars.
Beneath them a man, so old he has never
not been among us, raises his rattle-stick,
palms the bone nuggets, gnarled roots,
earth’s incantations, and he speaks
from behind the hunter moon
your first language, your name.
As he calls you from a maelstrom,
he imagines you, molded from words.
Through love you begin,
and something condenses—
through utterance you come into being.
Tuned for utterance, our senses
are like gates encircled by landscapes
of voices—antlers and feather shafts,
rivers and cliffs that have spoken to us.
We exchange possibilities
with forms, textures, bright webs
of meaning inhaled through the skin.
The sky’s hue and rushing of waves
talk to us and within us.
Imagine a black lake
reflecting constellations, a river of light
and, between earth and sky,
fireflies pulsating, mirrored
in water, like three worlds of stars.
Receive the night’s density.
Enter its water—
that grace, which allows us to sleep.
When we locate the sleeping bear’s den,
we cannot speak of it aloud, because
the bear’s spirit can hear. Women call it
hulzinh, meaning “black place,”
where bear spirits once spoke their laws.
In the autumn, when bears have grown fat,
we travel with dogsleds to the dens.
If we point at a bear we have seen,
it will vanish. So we speak to it: “I am
your friend—go slowly—put up your head.”
Nedesnee ts’e soolaaleełtl’onh?
The bear gives its life as a gift,
and we make its ceremony as for one of our own.
We consume the bear’s life.
We walk for the bear in the Koyukon way.
When we find him, he offers himself.
With our tongues we offered
names to the waters that still
speak of us: Shenandoah, Mississippi,
Iowa. Minnesota, Niagara,
Illinois. Will our enemy’s children
hear the rivers singing those names?
Among our stories it is told
how a chief led the remnants
of his people across a great river.
Striking his stake upon the dry ground,
he exclaimed, “Alabama!”
Here we may rest.
Names have determined the world.
To use them, call language out whole,
immersing yourself in its sounds.
We are made from words, stories,
infinite chances through which
we imagine ourselves. Estranging
ourselves from the sensual world
in which language was born, we will die.
What if, as through history, a language
dies out, if its names cannot be uttered
or if they exist mapped
as place markers no one interprets:
Passapatanzy, Chattanooga, Saratoga?
They are part of the ground now,
a language of vanishing symbols.
Is this what we are now,
a language of shattered dispersal?
Grief keeps watch
across a field darker than water.
We live in a wounded space,
voiceless cries breaking with all
utterance, even the idea of utterance.
Without a vocabulary, how
does the story continue? In words
that have murdered the people
before us, their voices airborne
like corn pollen, out into the desert?
In the Akimel O’Odham desert,
we celebrate the songs of ants and orioles,
given to dreamsingers in a distant time.
Through hundreds of poems,
each a rendering of dream,
we are calling the singers
of past generations. They come forth
among us now—ancestors, beings
of sky and of earth—through the dance
and the dreams we connect.
Our songs reflect occasion
through a poetry of sequence.
If you think that birds and insects
cannot dream, you are not listening.
Around us—from the air
and from the field—
ants and orioles come singing.
When we walk for the peyote, what we know
changes shape and shifts meaning,
for nothing can be as it was.
The symbols we take with us—
gourd bowls, yarn discs, and arrows.
When everything is made, we pray,
we set out, and the meanings
must change to unite everything.
The mara’akame tells the seekers
his dream, and the dream changes names
every year. That which is sacred
reverses. Call the women flowers.
A man’s clothes become fur,
doves become eagles, a cat a coyote.
We will hunt the sacred deer, calling them
lambs. Everything must be right.
Chíki Táu Mecéri
When we cross over to another country,
we turn the world backwards to hunt
the peyote, which is alive. We return,
make a ceremony, and the names change.
Our world grows familiar again.
The world is an open field,
reciprocating us, living pulses
of streambeds dried into grass,
mountains with cheekflesh exposed,
winds that echo the elk’s mating cry.
What precedes our knowing—
this collective landscape
of which knowledge always speaks?
Can you know the sequoia
without caressing its bark?
When you touch it, it also touches you.
You have walked through its forest of eyes.
Land whispers a geography—
when you live in a place long enough,
it will recognize you, as your body
of membranes exchanges itself with the air.
You are not above the land but within it,
rooted in soil, related with all that completes you.
Are the rocks dead? They merge,
they were once shards of boulders,
they will turn into dust as we will.
In the end we begin in the depths of the earth.
Into the earth, they went away to hide.
When their destroyers rode in, the air shattered—
gold plains were strewn with bodies
left to rot, skinned humps of marbled meat
humming with decay. When the earth
cradled their skulls like white crocus bulbs,
they went into the ground.
They could not return until we sang to them.
Pte Oyatė upo
Pte Oyatė ahi akė
Do you remember when we lived as people
who prayed when they offered themselves?
Now they stand fenced with guardrails,
hooves mucking the earth.
No one sings when they die.
Someone keeps saying, “Aren’t they just wonderful?”
Look at them. Ask their forgiveness.
Can we forgive our grandfathers,
who left the bones of their relatives
to the wolves?
Their voices grow thin on the air.
We can hardly hear them now,
their cries not those of warriors but children,
voices lost mourning injuries,
the vast desolation of the people.
These are graves scattered about,
and a wailing passes through the tall pines.
Only ashes remain.
The warriors have gone to the West,
but here lie the dead.
Nunahi duna dlo hilu-i
Now they are shadows, scarcely reaching
our knees. The people are scattered
and gone. When they shout, they can hear
a sound deep in the forest, but nothing
comes back. And now their words are few.
In the forest, beyond the village palisade,
one hut crouches like a boulder.
The holy man works to balance
forces of wind, animals, insects,
rivers, stones, each with its language.
From here he listens and journeys entranced
into realms no one inhabits.
Now he rises from kneeling by the fire,
takes the rattle from its hook,
lifts his arms to the moon.
His voice is thin smoke, blue corn
popping, a coyote over the ridge.
He would speak, we might say.
As the river speaks, and sometimes we hear it,
its story a song of the water’s beginning.
It goes on, through its water,
an accounting of reminders,
not legends, of cloth strips
and implements left along a road.
It goes on through a voice
speaking names and events.
Somewhere a family plods west,
their backs hunched with belongings,
weighted by what they carry
or a home they will not see again.
Their descendants ride
eastward, retracing their steps.
Somewhere the faces of children
at Sand Creek and Carlisle,
the various mappings of war.
Somewhere the calls of wolves echo.
Now the wind lifts a circling dust,
and all that has been rises—ancestors’
chipped flints and potsherds,
photographs, cartridge shells,
acorns and jerky, buffalo dung,
cavalry uniforms, medals from Washington,
antlers, notched arrowshafts, shoulder
bones, discarded tires, smashed bottles,
ashes in fire pits, dry-rotted baskets,
tin cans, commodity wrappers,
Indian names and the names
strung before us, cavern walls
painted with red petroglyphs,
the pressed forms of insects and fish
gone to rock, and the rocks
to air swirling, settling again
into the silence we become.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage, 2007.
Bahr, Donald, Lloyd Paul, and Vincent Joseph. Ants and Orioles: Showing the Art of Pima Poetry. University of Utah Press, 1997.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Nelson, Richard K. Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “The Pueblo Migration Stories,” in Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. Simon Ortiz, ed. University of Arizona Press, 1997.
McLuhan, T.C. ed. Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence. Promontory Press, 1971. Speeches of Eagle Wing; Colonel Cobb (Choctaw Chief); Young Chief (Cayuse) at Walla Walla, 1855.
Medina Silva, Ramón. “How the Names Are Changed on the Peyote Journey,” in Imagining Language: An Anthology. Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery, eds., MIT Press, 2001.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations . John Wiley & Sons, 2009.