I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the lazy purity of snow-snags.
There—west—were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?
Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore
The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?
In the shabby train no seat is vacant.
The child in the ripped mask
Sprawls undisturbed in the waste
Of the smashed compartment. Is their calm extravagant?
They had faces and lives like you. What was it they possessed
That they were willing to trade for this?
The dried blood sparkles along the mask
Of the child who yesterday possessed
A country welcomer than this.
Did he? All night into the waste
The train moves silently. The faces are vacant.
Have none of them found the cost extravagant?
How could they? They gave what they possessed.
Here all the purses are vacant.
And what else could satisfy the extravagant
Tears and wish of the child but this?
Impose its canceling terrible mask
On the days and faces and lives they waste?
What else are their lives but a journey to the vacant
Satisfaction of death? And the mask
They wear tonight through their waste
Is death’s rehearsal. Is it really extravagant
To read in their faces: What is there we possessed
That we were unwilling to trade for this?
Why do trees along the river ….Lean so far out o’er the tide?
Very wise men tell me why but ….I am never satisfied:
And so I keep my fancy still ….That trees lean out to save
The drowning from the clutches of ….the cold remorseless wave.
Alex Posey may have had a premonition of his own death when he wrote those lines ending in “the cold remorseless wave.” Posey drowned while trying to cross the North Canadian River in Oklahoma, his body washed down stream and wasn’t found until a week later. The lines equally fitting as metaphor to the cold remorseless wave of white settlers sweeping over the Oklahoma territory and stealing the land promised to the Creek Nation.
Posey had a fruitful if relatively short career as a writer. He was a poet, a journalist and a humorist. He founded the first daily Native American newspaper, the Eufaula Indian Journal in 1901. As editor, he published a satirical op/ed under the guise of a fictional elderly Muskogee Creek man, written in his native dialect that became known as the Fus Fixico Letters. The letters were a bitingly funny, satirical commentary about the Muscogee Nation, Indian Territory and the United States during a period of great turmoil and political conflict as both the Federal and State governments reneged on prior treaties with new legislation that stripped native people of their land and their human rights. Posey used poetry and satire to inspire, educate and fight against the tyranny of the Dawes Act, a political hammer to break up tribal lands. The Curtis Act of 1898 dismantled tribal governments and institutions at a time when politically savvy Native leaders were attempting to organize, to prevent the land grab that was occurring in preparation for Oklahoma statehood.
Chitto Harjo was a Muscogee leader who resisted the allotment process and privatizing of tribal lands. He fought on the side of the Union during the civil war, hoping that it would align Creek interests with the Federal government. The pressure of white settlers for state hood meant prior promises made in treaties were to be forgotten. From 1900 to 1909, Chitto Harjo led those Creek who opposed cultural assimilation and allotment. As the United States was trying to extinguish tribal government, Harjo and his followers set up a separate government. They were arrested and convicted in US court and imprisoned briefly. During the next five years, the majority of the tribe accepted the changes and were allotted individual plots of land. Chitto Harjo and other Snakes refused. Harjo remained defiant until his death and added to the lore of his legacy by eluding capture, despite several armed encounters with white militias. Harjo retreated deeper into the safety of what remained of native lands and remained free until his death in 1911.
Here is a short passage of Harjo’s speech to the Special Senate Investigative committee into why the Creek Nation objected to allotments.
“Now, coming down to 1832 and referring to the agreements between the Creek people and the Government of the United States; What has occurred since 1832 until today? It seems that some people forget what has occurred. After all, we are all one blood; we have the one God and we live in the same land. I had always lived back yonder in what is now the State of Alabama. We had our homes back there; my people had their homes back there. We had our troubles back there and we had no one to defend us. At that time when I had these troubles, it was to take my country away from me. I had no other troubles. The troubles were always about taking my country from me. I could live in peace with all else, but they wanted my country and I was in trouble defending it. It was no use. They were bound to take my country away from me. It may have been that my country had to, be taken away from me, but it was not justice. I have always been asking for justice. I have never asked for anything else but justice. I never had justice.”
Chitto Harjo 1906 Senate Testimony
On the Capture and Imprisonment of Crazy Snakes
by Alex Posey
Down with him! chain him! bind him fast! …..Slam to the iron door and turn the key.
The one true Creek, perhaps the last …..To dare declare, “You have wronged me.”
Defiant, stoical, silent, …..Suffers imprisonment.
Such coarse black hair! such eagle eye! ….Such stately mien! —how arrow straight!
Such will! such courage to defy, ….The powerful makers of his fate!
A traitor outlaw, —what you will ….He is the noble red man still.
Condemn him and his kind to shame! ….I bow to him, exalt his name!
Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?
The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)
The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed– Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
–sings from the dusty stubble.
These things happen. . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . .
The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
Few poets wrote as much as about death as Donald Hall. He made a career of death, he had plenty of experience from which to draw upon, writing very personally about the loss of his wife Jane Kenyon to cancer. Does a lifetime of writing about death prepare you for your own?
Hall passed away last weekend at the age of 89. He was by his own admission pleased by his ability to earn a living as a writer, calling himself a “bandit” for having such good fortune. Hall was awarded nearly every award and recognition a poet could receive and was by all accounts a writer who wrote hard, nearly every day.
If work is not antidote to death, nor a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.
by Donald Hall (1928 – 2018)
To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.