As we enter the season of increasing darkness, the cold intensifies. This Friday, October 31, is popularly known as Halloween, a derivative of an older term, All Hallow’s Eve, a sacred time when it is said the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. The magical night is followed by November 1, another important holy day known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, also called All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Families throughout Latin America from New Mexico south visit the graves of their ancestors on November 1 with flowers and food to celebrate continuity and the ongoing, to cherish memories and share relationships. They know relationships do not end even when someone dies. This is an important aspect of what this time of year symbolizes.
Additionally Halloween/Day of the Dead represents a cross-quarter day, a time in the cosmic cycle of the sun that marks an important midway point. Coming up this week is the midway point between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. We are halfway between the beginning of Autumn and the beginning of Winter. Between now and December 21, the days will grow shorter and the nights longer until at last on December 21 we reach the darkest night. Then the wheel of light begins to turn increasing the hours of sunlight until we arrive once again at Summer Solstice.
For all of these reasons, and because of the recent losses of friends and family, a small group will gather tonight to read poetry and sing songs beside an impromptu ancestor altar created to commemorate our beloved gone.
As a poet, my contribution tonight will be to read three poems. I have selected each one carefully considering how it speaks to the subject of ancestors, the dead, and the living.
The first poem I will read is for my father who died a year ago on October 4. I have written a number of different poems to honor his life and his impact on my life, but this poem, My Father Becomes a Raven, I am choosing to read tonight.
When we try to stare death in the face, we find only life. We may recall our beloved dead through memories of times spent together. We see the past we shared with them, or the future without their presence in it. But even their absence is situated among the living.
When we face our own death, we can feel more keenly alive. Death can be the great awakener urging us to live life to the fullest. When I look at death, I find only life. Perhaps this is because both life and death are born from birth. Death is in life, and life is in death. They belong together the same way form and formlessness together make the bowl. Without the empty center, there is no container. The negative space in art defines the shape of each object precisely. Through silence we hear the rhythm of the song.
So it is with this poem inspired by my father’s death and cremation in Santa Fe last October. He is not in the poem, but everything points to him. It is a mysterious poem even to me who somehow wrote it. This poem more than any other expresses my sense of his death, my loss, and of our ongoing belonging. Even the title of the poem speaks to the mystery of life and death, of form and formlessness, of the visible and invisible realms coexisting together.
The late Keewaydinoquay, an Ojibwe medicine woman and one of my spiritual teachers, often said, “Death is not end: only change of form.”
My Father Becomes a Raven
The sky is not my father but the sky
has his eyes
Autumn blue, bright edge of mischief
playing on aspen leaves.
My father is not late afternoon
but in the crisp air he was born to flame
bone blackened, becomes mica-flecked stars.
The coyote is not my father
Four-legged, covered in bamboo-colored fur
loping across the dirt road where I live.
My father will live in the desert now
his smoke mingles with cloud
the coyote inhales
casts me a sideways glance
disappears in yellow grasses
The second poem I will read tonight is inspired by our common human prehistory.
In the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia, members of our lineage have lived, died and been buried for over six million years. The oldest complete skeleton that has been found is of an adult female. She lived and died 4.4 million years ago, that is 4,400,000 years ago. She enjoyed a woodland diet of fruits and nuts. She probably also enjoyed the sunlight, the nearby river, the trees, other plants and animals, and her children, family and friends. Her community is our community. Perhaps it remains encoded in the deepest places of our minds and bodies as a lost paradise.
For us to find a clear biological link, we go back between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago to a single woman. Her mitochondrial DNA exists in the bodies of every person living today. Mitochondrial DNA can only be passed down from the mother to the child. This genetic stamp, called by some the Eve gene, mutates perhaps every 10,000 years creating various families, a diversity of peoples, from her many daughters.
It was the discovery of this source code, mitochondrial DNA, evidence of the one mother for all human beings, which inspired this poem.
It’s the same woman
naked, upright, who came
in the wet grasses of dawn,
the man’s hands on her hips
moaning before the moon set.
The snake knew the polish
of oval egg in yellow nest,
knew the urge to live
never dies, offered this
single insight. She gasped
to see the oracle undulate
legless and free.
She gazed into its milky eye
noticed the hairline split
and watched the serpent inch out
leaving behind what it was
shining in late summer sun.
The bead of sweat on her upper lip
tasted of salt, she trembled
as she reached out
to touch the pale, empty shell
holding only the memory
of what it was, and knew then
what every single thing is
the moment before it is not.
When he returned she was
speechless and free
holding a snake skin in one hand
an apple in the other.
My father took the fruit and was fed.
My final poem speaks of the relationship between people and land, between the ancestors of a place and the special continuity of that place.
Everywhere we walk, breathe, sing, or stand, others have stood before us. The memory of those who came before us is so important that we make monuments, memorials, historical sites, cemeteries, and other significant marks upon the land so that we might feel a greater connection to those who have lived before us. One of those special places for me is Tsankowi, New Mexico. It is located on the Pajarito Plateau west of Pojoaque Pueblo, south of Santa Clara Pueblo, near San Ildefonso Pueblo, in the shadow of the Jemez Mountains on a high mesa above the Rio Grande. Here a modest national park preserves an ancient pre-Puebloan village site. Living near here we immigrants and descendants of settlers breathe in the ancestral territory of the Pueblo people. It is good and right that we remember that with gratitude and humility.
In these special places we may feel how the dead keep living, not as zombies or some fearful undead, but as a strong presence, a blessing upon the land. In these places we may experience our own lives as fleeting. The temporal existence of our own sensual bodies slips away into the unexpected light, yet we may long for more. We may love someone so much that we want to meet again in the sweetness of a life after this life. Call it reincarnation or imagination. This poem celebrates that in the place called Tsankowi.
High above the Pajarito Plateau
is a place called Tsankowi
Even the dead do not die here
too red, potent with dust
Whose bones, whose ashes, whose
shattered pot scattered
beneath leaf salt
Could it be my footfall
half hidden in blue scrub?
My hand in yours
Juniper and pinyon twine together
Lightning cracks canyon wall
stabbing rampage of rain
down the cliff face
Smell the pungent wet clay
green pollen rising like smoke
scorch and sear of drought
Sun erupts from cloud
splits the ridge
trembling solidity of light
Black Mesa beneath blue vault
will meet again
No one can stay
touch your mouth