And was it I that hoped to rattle
A broken lance against iron laws?
Was it I that asked to go down in battle
For a lost cause?
Fool! Must there be new deaths to cry for
When only rottenness survives?
Here are enough lost causes to die for
Through twenty lives.
What have we learned? That the familiar
Lusts are the only things that endure;
That for an age grown blinder and sillier,
There is no cure.
And man? Free of one kind of fetter,
He runs to gaudier shackles and brands;
Deserving, for all his groans, no better
Than he demands.
The flat routine of bed and barter,
Birth and burial, holds the lot…
Was it I that dreamed of being a martyr?
How—and for what?
Yet, while this unconcern runs stronger
As life shrugs on without meaning or shape,
Let me know flame and the teeth of hunger;
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on May 26, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
For Darlene Wind and James Welch
I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn't stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.
Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.
I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.
I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.
From In Mad Love and War © 1990 by Joy Harjo. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.