Publish the Word
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The Lord gave the Word and great was the company of those that published it. 
Psalm 68:11

My first book, written when I was 23, was published by the University of Illinois Press before I really knew what poetry was. 

I only knew how I felt to be intoxicated by words and the magic
of rhythms, like an inner music, that came from. . . where?

This poem originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine:

            Swimming in the Rock

 

Emptying my body of its last breath

            I am free to walk the paths

of rivers at such depths

 

that mucky bottom sand sucking

            on my hollow, moving steps

cannot keep up.  Crawfish and finger

 

leeches kiss my flesh and wet

            red pores pass their salt.  Floating

its gold domethe bobbing sky takes the shape

 

of my eyes.  I pull the riffling

            surface on my head

and I break skin like a bone.

 

My birdwing lungs flap in new

            air and currents press their spilling

noses to me.  I like the feel of living

 

in two worlds.  Below my floating belly

            my legs remove themselves.  Like fat

driftwood I watch them go and am alone

 

in the air.  Riverwater becomes

            my blood, eddies in curved veins.

A soft dead fish rolls his bloating

 

body into mine.  I am unable to take

            my eyes from his, his pregnant soft

wild eyes.  He wraps around my chest

 

and floats off.  In the air above

            someone is breaking branches and slinging

the ripped arms into the water.

 

Along the shore I see the rocks

            putting on moss.  The green robes

are three shades brighter under river.

 

Like mother birds with worms in their beaks,

            my legs are coming back.  There is no

ceremony; they just clamp onto my hips

 

and swivel footfins into a cloud

            whorl and the liquid twang

of my ascending body frees the river.





            One of my favorite poems, Last Song, begins the collection.  I love the litany of names -- the native tribes and those people most prominent in chief Black Hawk's life.

 

            Last Song

 

In my sixty-seventh year I am prisoner

of the whites.  Between the spaces

of barred metal, my people, my dead

people, appear, sullen as judges.

 

Sun Fish is gone.  Thunder is gone.

Nea-a-pope is gone.  White Beaver is gone.

Wa-pel-lo is gone.  Quash-qua-me is gone.

Ma-ta-tah is gone.  Gomo is gone.

Wash-e-own is gone.  Singing Bird is gone.

Wa-co-me is gone.  Ra-she-pa-ho is gone.

Mu-ka-ta-quet is gone.  Ma-she-ma is gone.

 

The arrow of execution, the waiting

arrow of death, the goose-quilled

scratching shaft of black blood

is taking the lands east of the

 

Kishwaukee, is taking the lands

between the Rock and the Great

River, is taking all Indian lands,

is taking all wild game.  Our

 

brother buffalo is gone.

Bear and deer refuse to shake

newborn from their bellypouch.

No thing escapes the white man's

 

guns.  And the coming arrow

is opening its raven teeth and

bending the weight my dying

skin wrinkles before it.

 

Ottawa are dying.

Chippewa are dying.  Potawatomi are dying.

Fox and Winnebago are dying.

Sioux are dying.  Menominee are dying.

Cree and Kickapoo are dying.

Oto are dying.  Iowa are dying.

Osage and Cherokee are dying.

 

Delaware and Muscow are dying.

Omaha and Quapaw are dying.

Ponca are dying.  Kansa are dying.

Sauk are dying.

 

The white blade is stroking

flesh of all Indian peoples.

In the blue marsh our bones

twitch and thrash their invisible

 

flesh.  Molds of arm and leg

become rock and press into

limestone paths on journeys

deeper along the way our

 

leading, rigid tracks bring us.

We are the color of earth clay.

Our spirits have shown us how to

shape soil in holy image.

 

Clear streams run in our veins.

Pure air wings our bodies home.

Our sorrow for lost lands

and lost people is the sorrow

 

of spirits, the sorrow of our fathers,

earth sorrow.  Our lives are rising

in wings of smoke from bone

fires on mountainsides into

 

the shuddering black torch of sky,

into flaming night,

into dreams and song.