I will be reading with two other Red Mountain Press poets, former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low and Molly Kirschner. Teatro Paraguas, Sunday, July 12, 5 p.m. 3205 Calle Marie, Santa Fe NM 87507. FREE. Come, join us!
Family Discount Train Ticket, USA 1984
I try talking the travel agent
into selling me a family discount train ticket
What about sisters? I insist. Sisters are family.
No, she retorts. Man and Wife. Only man and wife.
Stalking back up the Bronx Street
with the family discount in my pocket
I have to break it to you
now one of us has to be the man.
What? you exclaim.
I can be the man, I reply.
You shake your head.
It’s decided. I become an East Coast Bohemian
sporting red plastic cat-eye glasses
two-inch stacked heels
hair swirled up, splash of lipstick, stack of books.
You dress up like a stodgy, well-educated Kenyan
Nehru jacket, thick glasses, cropped Afro.
We fake it from New York to Chicago.
You keep a growl plastered to your face.
I smile like an elite
know-it-all, possessive, protective wife.
Enjoying the backstory
I created for our cross-country gender performance
I proudly show our husband&wife ticket
to each conductor at every stop.
We are north of Kenosha
heading into Milwaukee
last leg of the journey home
when the conductor eyes us suspiciously.
He opens his mouth to question me
but before he can speak
I shoot up teetering on both heels
ready to make a scene.
You cringe pretending to sleep.
I hiss, You got a problem?
I am ready to slap him.
He hands me back our ticket
moves to the next passenger
I look around the train car
so I can point later:
You were there and did nothing
when they stripped us to inspect our female genitalia
and threw us from the train.
We make it home. We make it
knowing not everybody does.
Note: Image is entitled, Acolo, encaustic & collage on paper, from Romanian artist Victor Brauner. I photographed it last month at the Chicago Art Museum. This image expresses how I sometimes feel about being my gender.
I wrote this poem long after the event described in it actually happened. In 1992, I was working as an environmental reporter completing my doctoral research on how we communicate about environmental issues (which are human rights issues – right?). I was comparing and contrasting the dominant discourses leading up to the United Nations Conference on Environment & Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, and called by activists, The Earth Summit. I was in deep. The focus of my dissertation was to deconstruct the language and images being used and compare the stark differences between first world and third world; and between the dominant culture and indigenous cultures; and why we are often not even talking about the same thing when we try to reach international environmental agreements.
However, I write poetry not to try to understand the world but to understand myself, one livingbeing in this complex world. I write as a spiritual practice. I wrote this poem to try to understand my righteous anger, to understand it as power, and to diminish its hold on me. That subject came up again today, so I am posting this poem to share with you.
Another Challenge to Love, Brazil 1992
Just outside Santo Antonio da Platina in the southern state of Parana, the grand patron speaks a clipped British in the nasal twang of Brazilian Portuguese.
He boasts, It was much better when we had a dictator! You could get things done in this country!
I am the jornalista norte-americana writing for the imprensa verde. He needs to impress me. Serves warm coca-cola. I would rather have guarani, suco de caju, anything local, but coke is so much more cosmopolitan.
I am polite. I am his guest. I murmur, Obrigado, and he says I talk like an indio implying dumb.
I am doing a story on the floresta policia, former military police re-assigned to protect the forest. In the on-going undeclared war on the poor, the floresta policia shoot anyone they catch poaching palm heart.
PAH! he bursts. We gave the peasants bags of peanuts. And they ate them! They were to plant crop! Stupido!
I say, Perhaps they were hungry.
His two blond sons run into the room looking for snacks. They look like their father, descendents of German immigrants.
Your children like to eat, I smile.
Yes, all day long! He claps for the dark-skinned girl to feed them.
I say, Even the children of the poor get hungry. I guess that’s why they ate the peanuts.
He squints at me afraid he has a Marxist in his house.
On the tour of his property, hectares of sugar cane, a river stocked with jacaré for alligator boots and handbags, he brags he had the oldest daughter of his head fieldhand fixed before sending her to college.
So she would not waste her education making a poor man’s babies, he tells me.
I stare at him.
His wife screams at me, Entendi!
No, I do not understand.
How do you
get to take the womb
of a smart, young, brown woman?
But he had already done
what he had the power to do.
Under my breath, I curse him:
Your river will grow thick with sludge
An alligator will bite off your cock
Your cana will spoil in the field
Your wife will abscond with your money
She will flee the country with a servant boy
Your youngest son will marry
An Afro-Brazilian Candomblé priestess
And have brilliant twin mulato daughters
Who will spit on your polished shoes
Then the ancestors and the descendants
Of every man and every woman
Who ever worked your fields
Will make filth of your intestines
While dancing samba at Carnaval
You will be left begging for your life
On the streets of the city.
The first stars of the Southern Cross
begin to shine in the lavender twilight.
Star light, star bright, I wish I may, I wish I might
I wish I could love my enemies
but my heart goes cold against those
who seek to destroy the liberties I cherish.
Candomble, Afro-Brazilian religion and spiritual cosmology derived from Ife in West Africa.
floresta policia, ‘forest police’ term for federal armed guards of areas designated ‘natural’ by the Brazilian government in the early 1990s.
guarani, popular drink
imprensa verde, ‘green press’ term for environmental reporting
indio, Indian, indigenous person from any of the hundreds of tribes/nations found originally throughout Brazil
jacaré , alligator
jornalista norte-americana, female journalist from the U.S.
obrigado, thank you
suco de caju, cashew juice
In my on-going relationship with the Croatian American Society located in Zagreb, I am please to be reading live and responding to questions with an audience of faculty and students from Zagreb via the wonders of Skype. This Thursday, 7 p.m. April 23 in Croatia and 11 a.m. in Santa Fe. Live from my office on the campus of Southwestern College. If you want to join me in my office, let me know!
I will be reading from my book, Love Enough, with other Red Mountain Press poets: Denise Low, Donald Levering, and Susan Gardner. Please join us at AWP in Minneapolis this coming Saturday, April 11, 1:30 pm, main stage.
Purpose, Personal Destiny and Passion: What We Love Makes Us Who We Are
What’s love got to do with it? I believe love has everything to do with it.
The lyric from Tina Turner’s comeback hit asks the right question, but her answer is different from mine. The love I am talking about this morning is not a second-hand emotion. The love I am talking about is what thrills us. What makes us happy? What makes us feel a little more alive?
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. I’d like to share this poem from my recent book, Love Enough, (Red Mountain Press 2014) entitled, A Child Falls in Love with a Storm.
In this poem, the child is not simply thrilled by the intensity of the storm or the sudden shift in the weather. Yes, she feels the rain on her skin. But the child is also a metaphor for innocence and for that innocent sometimes lost part of ourselves, for in this poem, innocence is completely alive in that moment when the storm rolls in. The girl is not thinking, Oh, I wish I were dry and safe indoors. She rushes out into it to experience it fully. She feels what is truly happening. She is fully present with her senses. She is connected. Connected. That is a key point.
An old Zen Buddhist saying, and I am paraphrasing, is: When you walk in the rain, get wet. In other words, be where you are. Feel what is happening. Do not turn away. Do not dismiss what is real and true. Be fully alive. Pay attention to your life. Wake up.
The storm wakes the girl up. It shakes her world. Death enters the poem. And that is real. We live. We die. In that line, the poem unfolds. It is no longer simply about innocence but about spiritual awakening. For all that happens in between our birth and our death is an opportunity for awakening. The girl realizes she must live fully, embrace her life, or die. When we are just going through the motions, numb and indifferent, caught in a rut of repetitive thinking and doing, are we dead inside? The girl loves the storm because it wakes her up. This is the kind of love I am talking about today.
A remarkable word in Ojibwe is Bimadisiwin. This single word can be translated as “having the courage to live one’s life fully through all of one’s senses.” This is what love invites us to do. The very root of the word, courage, from the French, cour means “heart, innermost feelings.” Our emotional bodies have so much power to help us fulfill our purpose. But we get sidetracked in anger, bitterness, jealousy and frustration. I am learning how to turn away from these consuming emotions toward joy through love.
Take a moment, don’t think too hard about it, just jot down a few things you love. Think of people, places, times or situations that have made you happy. When have you felt most alive and connected? Make your list and hold onto it.
Spring is the season of rebirth. Ancient symbols of rebirth include the egg and the rabbit. So we celebrate today with colored Easter eggs and floppy-eared bunnies. That is appropriate. The egg represents all possibility, as yet unrealized, unformed, the ovum in the ovary. The egg is potent symbol of our raw potential. In the West African spiritual tradition of Ifé, a raw egg is cracked over the crown chakra to ignite a rebirth of consciousness for the initiate who will become a priest or priestess. What is your highest potential? What is the as-of-yet unrealized egg you are carrying in your consciousness?
The fertile rabbit, ancient symbol of the Goddess, is curious and inquisitive. The rabbit lives close to the ground, close to the mysteries of the plant world. Each spring seeds burst open sending fresh shoots up from beneath the soil. The fruit trees flower in the orchard. New life abounds. It’s amazing to witness a forsythia bush bursting with yellow from branches that only a week ago appeared dead. It is Persephone returning to her mother, Demeter, after a cold season in Hell. It is the Celtic Goddess Brigid opening her green cloak to bless the land. Bring those flowers into your heart. What lies dormant inside you that longs to burst into bloom? What is your truest desire?
A beautiful song in the Ojibwe tradition speaks of the magic of invoking your true desire every night before sleeping. I would like to share it with you. . . Kamino . . .
What is your heart’s desire? If you desire world peace, you begin by making peace in your own relations, peace within yourself. If you true desire is to heal, you begin by healing yourself. We have an opportunity every spring to realign ourselves with our truest love and longing.
We cannot forget the Christian story that also unfolds this weekend. The arisen Christ represents the possibility for each one of us to awaken the Christ within, to experience our own divinity and our unique relationship with God, Goddess, Creator, Great Mystery, Allah, Holy of Holies. The divine expressed as the light or hidden fire within each one of us.
Christ’s message was a message of love. Love your neighbor as yourself. This teaching has three messages. One is to LOVE your SELF. Not to disregard or punish yourself for your imperfections. We are imperfect human beings. The message is to forgive, to be patient, to Love Your SELF.
A second is to LOVE your neighbor. Now sometimes my neighbor gets on my last nerve. So how do I love despite differences of opinion, lifestyle, belief, behavior or attitude? How do we choose love and not go to war with our neighbors, our families, our co-workers? How do we choose love – not once but over and over again, everyday?
First we have to choose not to make anyone the enemy. In the words of the late poet laureate of Minnesota, Meridel LeSeuer “ no mother births the enemy.” So you have to actually refrain from participating in the cultural practice of making enemies. Do not make the homeless, the ill, the police, the other political group, your sister-in-law, your boss, the enemy. Make no one the enemy. To do this you must choose to love your own life regardless of the circumstances of your life. For that is the essential message: TO LOVE.
This kind of loving means we give up judgment. We are not better than anyone, and no one is better than us. Every life has the same potential for enlightenment, for courageous acts, for love. We are different, that’s all, and ecosystem science has taught us that difference and diversity are necessary for healthy biological communities. We are biological creatures. We are deep air animals craving warmth and light. Difference and uniqueness among and between us is precious and should be protected, even celebrated, by us.
Let me share another poem. My sister told me this is her favorite one, Widow in Muir Woods.
Here we see not innocence but weariness. There has been aging and loss. How does one recover from difficulty and pain? One immerses oneself into the body of the ancient world tree. In this poem, the redwood tree represents the Tree of Life. The Kabbalah, the Iroquois Long House, and many traditions speak of this mighty tree. The widow, who represents our suffering, gives herself to the darkness within the Tree of Life. She enters the hollow, empty place that has been seared open by lightning, representing sudden change. And she lets herself feel what it is to be alive, even to be alive in suffering . That is all. To feel again. Now LOVE is possible again. This is her moment, and our moment, of rebirth.
We do not necessarily love the same things. What we love is an expression of our unique way of being and seeing. Honor what you love. Honor what others love. Honor love no matter how curious it may be. Make more room for love in your life. Invite love to inspire you. Set an intention with your love card in your hand. Join your heart with the heart of Spring and allow a rebirth of love to enter your being.
As you open yourself to your new love story, I will share one last love poem with you. It is entitled, A Woman Falls in Love with a Turtle.
Thank you, Dianne Deloren, for inviting me to join you today at The Celebration!
I did not realize that my weekend intensive, “Wisdom of the Earth Medical Phyto-Aromatherapy Certificate Level I” (March 14-15), was to be an initiation. When the instructor, Dr. Sam Berne, mentioned this, I became immediately more alert. I am an initiate and have been trained to initiate others. I stand in the lineage of the late Keewaydinoquay, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) mashkikikwe (plant medicine woman), with whom I studied for twenty years. I served as her personal helper or oshkibewis, learning the songs, prayers, ceremonies, plant medicines, oral traditions and sacred stories. I studied the language. I made a commitment to carry this lineage in my body for it cannot be written down. I am now a leader and a spiritual teacher/healer in this tradition.
For me initiation is “to find out how you’re related to the world of the divine, know how you belong, how you’re at home there just as much as here. It is to become adopted, a child of the gods . . . making a connection between this world and that . . . [as a] matter of being prepared before you die. Otherwise, it’s too late.” (Kingsley p. 64) Initiation is therefore vital to one’s ability to live consciously and deliberately with death as partner. For as every healer knows, death is the partner of life.
The plant essences I met over the weekend want to work with us as partners in healing, as partners in our deepening relationship with the divine, and therefore they help us fully partner with both our lives and our deaths. I bow to the plants for their sacred wisdom. I open myself to learn directly from them as they are our elder brothers and sisters, our sacred teachers.
The first to speak to me in a clear unique voice was Cypress, Emerald. Interesting. I have no specific relationship to this tree or its place of origin. Australia? Never been there. Who is she to me? Is our relationship strictly vibrational? It seems something in her quivering nano-realm speaks directly to the throbbing need in me to live my life as fully awake and aware as I can be.
I look up Cypress Emerald in the reference guide and read: “Deeply spiritual friend for the times we are living in.“ I also see that she is a newcomer to the fold, and her gifts are being revealed. Here is my contribution: She wants to partner with those of us already on a spiritual path to help us grow stronger and clearer. She wants to support us to fulfill our true purpose.
The second to invite my joy was Violet. I know her well. I know her heart-shaped green leaves in the wet woods of southern Ohio, and the intense pleasure I always feel to see her purple-bright soft face turn to the sun. At the close of the first day, Violet greets me back to my childhood of running barefoot and free. Violet was one of the first to invite me to study herbal healing as a teenager, to connect the wildness outside to the wildness within. This began a lifelong journey that continues to bring new surprises, including this weekend initiation into the plant medicines of Wisdom of the Earth. On the second day my chakra meditation partner and I immediately agree that Violet will be our contribution for the 6th chakra. It is perfect.
On the second day Davana totally surprises me when my partner anoints me with a touch of Davana on my crown chakra. I am on my back when she applies it to the top of my head. I feel it travel immediately down from my crown to the base of my spine. I feel that it connects directly with the serpent power that resides in the spinal column bringing light energy from above to below in seconds.
Later I notice in my notes that Sam had mentioned Davana for skin repair. I have highly sensitive skin, an Irish fair complexion. My pale face has a tendency toward rosaceae, and recently I have had two treatments by the dermatologist burning a spot on my face he says has pre-cancer cells. Sam through Christy had recommended help from frankincense, cistus (rockrose) and cedarwood (atlas). I began using all three in layers, but my skin became more aggravated. I experimented and settled on morning and evening applications of cedarwood atlas. The raw red spot seems to be vanishing. But perhaps Davana has a contribution to make to my sensitive skin? This is a relationship I need to explore.
The Guide informs me that Davana belongs to the family Asteraceae. I have a long relationship with this family. According to my training, it is connected to the moon cycle, especially the beginning of menses and menopause. Members of this plant family are part of women’s ceremonies in my spiritual lifeway. Davana is helping me connect these new plant medicines with what I already know and use. The old Girl Scout song rings in my mind: “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.”
I enjoy noticing plants from my healing tradition that are important among your plant essences: Balsam Fir, (who we refer to as Nimisse, Elder Sister) Birch, (who we know as NiMishomis or Grandfather), White Pine, Calamus, Peppermint (who we call Ombendam, which means: to open the mind powerfully), among others. When Sam anoints me at the altar, he brings Tamarack from the table, calling it, “The Alchemist.” In my lineage, Tamarack is Mashki Autig, Medicine Tree, for a bit of Tamarack can be put into any oil, lotion, cream, salve, balm, tea or related herbal plant medicine that we make. It potentizes (is that a word?). Tamarack amplifies as your materials say of Helichrysum.
I learn new ways to know some of my old friends. For example, I have had some vertigo when I am falling asleep or waking up. It is disconcerting. I am lying in bed on my side and suddenly the room swirls. Then everything is right again. Sam tells us that Calamus can be used for dizziness. I am happy. An old friend has a new trick to share with me! I have used Calamus for sore throat. Typically, it is part of our all-night ceremonies. We chew the root during all-night sings. It is both a mild stimulate (so we can keep going until the sun comes up and the ceremony ends) and it coats the throat to keep us from getting hoarse as we sing.
I was adopted by the Native elder, Kee, when I was twenty, so most of my adult life has been in this world into which she ‘assimilated’ me. Though I worked with her for two decades, I was aware that even then I did not learn everything she knew. I was also made aware that even with all of her knowledge so much had been lost. I know specific songs and stories for specific plants. I know our kinship relationships. But I also know that once every plant had its song, story, and medicine. Whoever it was that lived nearby and worked with that plant knew the spiritual and material properties of that plant. All cultures, all peoples, all of our ancestors were once embedded in the land and knew how to relate with all the beings of that specific land. This is our birth rite. We must reclaim it for the generations that will follow us. I feel that Emerald Cypress serves to support this purpose.
We have in our hands today the torn-up bits of the once whole cloth of our inter-related and inter-dependent lifeway. That unity has been destroyed by modernity, and yet it can be restored. We can recover the lost material through dreaming, through listening, through loving dedication to our wholeness. We can re-member and we must. We have the opportunity now to bring together the intense scientific specialization perfected by the Western intellectual tradition with the holistic understanding of ancient peoples. The two ends of this spectrum are being brought together. The denigration of indigenous knowledge systems is coming to an end. And the future of life on this planet depends on those of us today willing to be part of the great transformation. This change has started, and though we will not live to see it come full circle, we must not give up our vision of what will be. Cypress Emerald speaks to this clearly.
In 1992, I was completing my doctoral research and was invited to witness the First World Parliament of Indigenous Peoples in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They had gathered to convene their own dialogue simultaneous to the United Nations Earth Summit, to which they were systematically excluded. Most indigenous groups exist as internal colonies inside nation states, and only the nation states are recognized by the U.N. So I went to listen and learn from the contemporary representatives of these diverse ancient land-based cultural groups gathered from Canada, Ecuador, Africa, Peru, the U.S. and Mexico to discuss their relationship to the Earth and what is being threatened right now. The preface to their powerful Kari-Oca Declaration is this:
We cannot heal the Earth until we heal ourselves.
We cannot heal ourselves until we heal the Earth.
This insight has become the mantra of my life. I have been dedicated to the path of education to make change. I began by teaching troubled youth in alternative inner city schools. Then for fifteen years, I was a leader at Antioch College developing and delivering an undergraduate education based on personal empowerment for social and ecological justice. For the next nine years I served as the Academic Dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Last summer I joined Southwestern College as Vice President. Their mission is: transforming consciousness through education.
This is where we are now. We are partnering with the sacred plants, soils, waters, animals and ancestors as equally important members of a spiritual and physical interdependence. As healers and teachers, we are part of this change. Specifically, Cypress Emerald and Davana want to help us now. They both spoke to me with such clarity.
I feel connected to the work you are doing at WOTE as it is part of the work I am doing. Thank you. I am so happy to feel this connection to these plant essences.
I would like to close with a poem that came to me as I was driving into the workshop. I arrived early and found a spot to settle in and wrote fragments of the poem. Then over lunch I walked away to a quiet place beneath the cottonwood trees beside the pond of recycled wastewater and completed the poem. I shared it with the group after lunch.
In the warming light
Spring’s green steps
begin to mark the land:
furred, hoofed, horned
feathered, humming, cloven,
singing, howling, silent,
buried, sleeping, slow ones –
The hungry, the wanting
the wild unbidden
stir in me.
In the waking light
early iris opens
ice breaks in the river
flows to the throat of the sea.
A voice rises in me.
Beast, Buffalo, Bear,
Gods of cave and prairie,
Forgive me for fear,
the false wall I keep
between you and me,
brick by brick
I take it down
Yielding to Holy Ground
Kapp, Barry B. Wisdom of the Earth, Medicinal Grade Plant & Tree Essence for Phyto-Aromatherapy. Essential Essences (oils) Book & Reference Guide. 2008
Kari-Oca Declaration, Rio De Janeiro, World Parliament of Indigenous Peoples, 1992. Personal copy.
Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Press, 1999.
Peschel, Keewaydinoquay. Translations of plant names and information about these plants learned from personal conversations, classes, workshops and trainings 1979-1999.
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
Calling in the Ancestors, on October 29, poetry & song, with Onde Chymes, Marcia Starck, James McGrath, Dana Negev, Wendy Brown-Baez. In honor of those who have gone before us. Invitation only.
This is coming up next weekend! Please join us!
Saturday, September 27, 6 pm
Introductions by Melissa Febos
Free and open to the public.
10 River Terrace
New York, New York
Made possible by the generous support of the Poets House Literary Partners Program