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.
The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want….
Cyclonic zero of the word,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
History has a way of repeating itself. The urban, intellectual liberal democrat candidate for President, Stevenson, lost to the war hawk demagogue conservative, Eisenhower in the 1952 Presidential election. Lowell marked Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration with this sonnet, a satirical sharp-tongued intelligent critique of the icy death of American values while the negativity of McCarthyism held sway over our country in the midst of the Korean war. All of this sounds familiar. But we need not be stuck in our current icy path. Its time to move forward with a simple reminder of our better selves:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Cerrar podrá mis ojos la postrera
sombra que me llevare el blanco día,
y podrá desatar esta alma mía
hora a su afán ansioso lisonjera;
mas no de essotra parte, en la riuera,
dexará la memoria, en donde ardía:
nadar sabe mi llama l’agua fría,
y perder el respeto a lei severa.
Alma qu’a todo un dios prissión ha sido,
venas qu’umor a tanto fuego an dado,
medulas qu’an gloriosamente ardido,
su cuerpo dexarán, no su cuydado;
serán ceniça, mas tendrá sentido;
polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado.
Love Constant Beyond Death
By Francisco de Quevedo
The final shadow that will close my eyes
will in its darkness take me from white day
and instantly untie the soul from lies
and flattery of death, and find its way
and yet my soul won’t leave its memory
of love there on the shore where it has burned:
my flame can swim cold water and has learned
to lose respect for laws’ severity.
My soul, whom a God made his prison of,
my veins, which a liquid humour fed to fire,
my marrows, which have gloriously flamed,
will leave their body, never their desire;
they will be ash but ash in feeling framed;
they will be dust but will be dust in love.
“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”
by Stanley Kunitz
Only, when I am sudden loss
Of consequence for mind and stair
Picking my dogged way from us
To whom, recessive in some where
Of recollection, with the cross
Fall, the breast in disrepair:
Only, when loosening clothes, you lean
Out of your window sleepily,
And with luxurious, lidded mien
Sniff at the bitter dark – dear she,
Think somewhat gently of, between
Love ended and beginning, me.
It is difficult to summarize a career that spans so many decades. Stanley Kunitz is one of those rare talents whose writing got stronger as he got older, he never reached a zenith from which to fall. His poetry ranged from metaphorical postcards to autobiographical and deeply personal. He was fearless in his writing, laying bare the most intimate of wounds before the reader, unimpeded by dramatic flourish, only an invitation to witness our shared humanity.
Kunitz was marked from birth by his father’s suicide, leaving a pregnant wife with two daughters to fend for herself. He did not countenance his father’s selfish act as his inheritance for Kunitz would prosper for over a 100 years, wringing every ounce of enjoyment out of life that the human body can provide.
Kunitz was a poet’s poet. His poems carefully constructed, complex and eloquent. His poetry completely accessible, he embraced rhymes and excelled at free verse. Kunitz wrote what he wanted to write throughout his entire life with aplomb. His first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, was green lighted by a young editor at Doubleday, Ogden Nash, and published in 1930. His final book, The Wild Braid, was published in 2005 in his centenary year. Kunitz long career would influence many including such poets as Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, James Wright, and Mark Doty. Kunitz has the unique honor of being named Poet Lauraete twice, in 1974 and in 2000 and holds the distinction of being the oldest Poet Laurate in our nation’s history.
Kunitz is one of those poet’s that if I had come to poetry sooner in my life, I think I would have written him fan mail and wished secretly that he would respond. Here’s one of his most personal poem’s and a great example of why poetry is an art form unlike any other in its power to articulate what it is to be human.
PS. An interesting question, what living poet should I write a fan mail letter? What living poet would you write? A good idea to think about and maybe do…
by Stanley Kunitz
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek