EXPANSIVE POETRY ONLINE
A Journal of Contemporary Arts 

 

POEMS

by

JENNIFER REESER
____________

 

Ballade of Drowned Western Art
  (Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas)

Where are Russell, Bierstadt, and Paul Kane
With Remington and Teichert and the rest?
Hung helplessly, have they been drowned by rain,
Our finest paintings from the Old Wild West?
And Dunton’s “Talking at His Fluent Best,”
His close-knit bronco riders in a brush
Of grays, the Sioux child’s beaded, leather vest –
Were they immersed beneath the torrent’s gush?

And where is John James Audubon’s blue crane –
Above the flood, or swimming in unrest?
Do Couse’s lovers, spoiled by water stain,
Irreparably float – the brave’s bare chest
Against his Native maid, who, chastely dressed
In buckskin, holds her cheek, to hide a blush?
Against her modest form, is he still pressed,
Or have their figures turned to swirling mush?

“Harvey,” they have called this hurricane,
Whose currents cover cattle at its crest,
Like those on Teichert’s watercolor plain.
What comfort have I – that museum’s guest –
They were protected while the streams progressed,
Like mines of gold to which those pokes would rush?
Have they survived, untouched somehow, and blessed –
Like Harvey bluffed at poker, with four flush?

Chief! Do those proud indigenous remain,
Or – like their forebears – did they die, distressed
Within their true, apparent, “safe” domain,
Their hopeless cries – for pride’s sake – unexpressed?



 

Some Other Indians

Some other Indians mock me for my love
Of feathers, stones, and for my stilted talk,
And that I stop to watch the circling hawk,
And that I may be stilled by mourning dove
And bluejay both, before me or above.

They whistle shrilly, while they watch me walk
For miles in rain and cold, to pick a stalk
Of tasseled corn, or stamens of foxglove.

But Grandfather growls, “The child is a poet.
Leave her alone, and should she wish to weep
Because the shamans chant, because the birds
Have spoken -- though the rest of you don’t know it,
This speech of winged things – snicker in your sleep;
For I prefer her wild, old-fashioned words.”


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sedna, Mistress of the Underworld

 

The Eskimos recount from ancient lore

The tale of one without a loving wife.

An Inuit dwelling on a lonely shore

With daughter, Sedna, lived a quiet life.

 

The girl grew handsomely, till every youth

Attempted to obtain her, for a spouse –

But Sedna, proud and vain, found each uncouth,

Refusing to forsake her father’s house.

 

At last, upon the breaking of the ice

In spring, an esoteric seagull flew

With gliding, silver, skilled wings to entice

Young Sedna, and a winning song, to woo.

 

Seducing not with song alone, but words,

The gull swooped towards the girl beguilingly:

“Into the territory of the birds,

Into my country, Sedna, come with me!

 

The finest leathers reinforce my tent.

Soft bearskins will enwrap you by the fire.

My fellow gulls will listen, make descent,

And bring you anything you might desire.

 

Their plumes shall fall in fine folds to your feet;

Your lamp shall never lack abundant oil;

Your bowl will never be in need of meat,

And you, yourself, shall never have to toil.”

 

Not long could Sedna, so bewitched, withstand

Such wooing, sung by one to whom the feather

Came freely – so towards the seagull’s land

They made their way, and entered it together.

 

Arriving after long and brutal travel,

Sedna rested, only to discover

His song had been a lie, and watch unravel

The lovely story promised by her lover.

 

Her home, not something any wife could wish

To be, was not of leather pelts, but pinned

In patchwork style, with skins of wretched fish,

Which gave free entryway to snow and wind.

 

Instead of downy reindeer hides, her bed

Was hard with walrus wool, and she must live

Not on rich, sweet venison, but instead,

On foul fish, which were all the birds would give.

 

Too soon she found her husband gull had lied.

Regretting, as she shivered with a pang

Of hunger in her gut, how foolish pride

Had spurned her Inuit suitors, then she sang,

 

“Aja. O, my Father, if you saw

How miserable I am, then you would come

Before the ice and snow beneath me thaw,

While I still sit within this fish tent, numb.

 

If you could see me in my present danger,

Across the sea by boat, we both would hurry

Away from these, who treat me like a stranger,

While round my bed, the flakes whirl in a flurry.”

 

One year passed, and again, the sea was stirred

By warmer winds. Her lonely father came

To see the country of her lover bird,

And finding Sedna, heard her beg in shame,

 

“O, my Father, let me now return!

Hear the outrage done to me. I cringe

To be the teller of what you will learn.”

And, having heard, her father sought revenge.

 

The Inuit destroyed those who defiled

His daughter, brought them down from arctic air,

To leave them irremediably piled

Within that land which brought her such despair.

 
The other gulls, discovering him dead,

(for whom they mourn and cry until this day),

They set out in pursuit of those who fled,

And found the two at sea, not far away.

 

Over the boat, they stirred upon the air

A heavy storm; within the ocean rose

Immense waves, threatening the helpless pair.

Her father, in this mortal peril, chose

 

To offer Sedna to the birds. He flung

Her overboard, then, cruelly, he took

A sharp knife to her knuckles while she clung

To the boat’s edge with a tight death grip, and shook.

 

Her fingers severed, first joints, to the nails

Into the tempest tumbled, there transformed

Upon the froth. They turned to living whales,

The second joints, to ringed seals as it stormed.

 

Meantime, the seagulls – thinking she had perished –

Allowed the storm to cease. The father let

His daughter back into the boat. She cherished

A hatred for him, helpless to forget.

 

Bitter and deadly vengeance, then, she swore

Against the Inuit. Once they had stalled

Against her native and familiar shore,

In safety and composure, Sedna called

 

Her dogs, who waited for her in those lands

With loyalty, from winter till the thaw.

And Sedna set them on her father’s hands

And feet, commanding them in spite to gnaw

 

Them off, once he had fallen into sleep.

He woke, and cursed himself, and her, and those

Who maimed him, when Earth opened in a deep

Pit, to swallow them, and then to close.

 

In Adlivun, the couple now reside,

That zone beneath the Heavens and the Green,

Where Sedna – wounded daughter, seagull’s bride –

Is now the Underworld’s eternal queen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Native Strain

 

“We never talk about the Native strain,”

My mother warned in secret, early on.

My father honored her. Our photos – drawn

From generations, grey with filmy grain –

 

Were never framed and flaunted, on display

Like other people’s. Faces by the dozens

Remained in albums – uncles, aunts, and cousins

Enclosed in boxes, shelved and stowed away.

 

Her father, although handsome, could not “pass.”

But this fact was as absent from discussion

As crass vernacular, or formal Russian,

Or choruses of “mountain man” bluegrass.

 

Our Native ties, however, were the sole

Connections we could talk about at all:

A tightly-bound clan, insular and small,

Whose lives we heard as through a locked keyhole.

 

To read my mother’s scrapbooks, one would think

The Indians were our one folk, for none

On our “white side” received us -- they would shun

Us totally, to be our “missing link,”

 

So they received her mention on no page.

This was Grandmother’s lifelong punishment,

Dishonoring her people – wild, hell-bent

On “savages,” at fifteen years of age.

 

No single nor escorted Anglo member

From my maternal granddam’s well-heeled kin

Would travel down by train, nor enter in

To my grandfather’s house, that I remember.

 

Occasionally, I might overhear

Some snippet of a whispered conversation

Long-distance -- when my wild imagination

Would rampage, and the mystery disappear.

 

The while Monk drew a breath, I never saw

Those Scots Virginians. Untamed Tennessee

Became an oft-seen, second home to me –

The birthplace of my “alien” papaw

 

They called “Damned Injun” to Grandmother’s face.

On Lover’s Leap -- the tragic promontory

Where Cherokees maintained the moving story

Of Sautee’s and Nacoochee’s deaths took place,

 

The ancient Romeo and Juliet

Of Native America— he loved to stand;

On Lookout Mountain, where he could command

A view of seven states, all in a set;

 

Where Chickamauga Cherokees defied

Colonial encroachment, and no cragging

Of cliffs is customary – there, where Dragging

Canoe once took the Cherokee to hide.

 

Those were the photos hung in every room,

Of precipice and mountain, peak and bluff:

High, low, as though there could not be enough,

With scenes of snow, by harvest, or abloom.

 

Cliff faces were the faces we would see,

The hill, the valley, and the still, blue lake:

The earth for whom our forebears would forsake

Their tribe, their culture, and their family.

 

                

 

 

 

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