The Index

In the beginning there was darkness,
then a bunch of other stuff—and lots of people.
Some things were said and loosely interpreted,

or maybe things were not communicated clearly.
Regardless—there has always been an index.
That thing about the meek—how we

shall inherit the earth; that was a promise
made in a treaty at the dawn of time
agreed upon in primordial darkness                

and documented in the spiritual record.
The nature of the agreement was thus:
The world will seemingly be pushed past capacity.

A new planet will be “discovered” 31 light-years away.   
Space travel will advance rapidly,
making the journey feasible. The ice sheets will melt.

Things will get ugly. The only way to leave
will be to buy a ticket. Tickets will be priced at exactly
the amount that can be accrued

by abandoning basic humanity.
The index will show how you came by your fortune:            
If you murdered, trafficked or exploited the vulnerable,

stole, embezzled, poisoned, cheated, swindled,
or otherwise subdued nature to come by wealth
great enough to afford passage to the new earth;

if your ancestors did these things and you’ve done nothing
to benefit from their crimes yet do nothing to atone
through returning inherited wealth to the greater good

you shall be granted passage. It was agreed.
The meek shall stay, the powerful shall leave.
And it all shall start again.

The meek shall inherit the earth,
and what shall we do with it,
but set about putting aside our meekness?

Tour of a Salmonberry

A salmonberry is a
luminous spiral,
a golden basket
woven of sunshine,
water, and birdsong.

I’m told that the birds
sing so sweet because
of all the berries they eat,
and that show you
can have a sweet voice too.

In my Native language,
the word for salmonberry
is Alile’. In Sanskrit, Lila means
God plays. Salmonberries
sometimes look that way.

Every year they debut,
spectacular in the landscape,
worthy of their genus name—
Rubus spectabilis, meaning,
red sight worth seeing.

Each drupelet holds a seed
and the shimmering secret
kept by rain—of how to rise,
float above the earth, feel
the sun, and return.

(A Poem Is a) Naming Ceremony

What has grown out of what has gone away?
The clear-cut patch has grown larger on the mountain.
The rivers have grown murky with timber trash,
and there’s enough run-off cow manure to grow corn
out there on the tide flats. I don’t want to think about
what has gone away. I want to meander and play
and forget myself until I can grow a new me
in place of all this grief—learn the language to see
the cotton wood as kwealich ice, the dancing tree;
the killer whales as quell’ lhol mechen, our relatives
under the sea; the whole glorious landscape
filled with meaning to end my grieving.

When I was young, I was invited to learn
Xwilngexw’qen, the people’s language,
but I said no. I didn’t understand. I thought
I wanted to learn how to be rich. I didn’t know
that the only way to posses all the weather
of the world is by naming it—here is bird song,
here is the kiss of a lover, here is the feel
of cold water at the peak of summer.
I have spent my life with words, trying to name
a hint of what I lost by not learning my language.
Estitemsen. Tu totest sen. Estitemsen.*

 

* I’m doing my best. I’m still learning. I’m doing my best.

The Forest for the Trees

I have seen a tree split in two
from the weight of its opposing branches.
It can survive, though its heart is exposed.
I have seen a country do this too.

I have heard an elder say
that we must be like the willow—
bend not to break.
I have made peace this way.

My neighbors clear-cut their trees,
leaving mine defenseless. The arborist
says they’ll fall in the first strong wind.
Together we stand. I see this now.

I have seen a tree grown around
a bicycle, a street sign, and a chainsaw,
absorbing them like ingredients
in a great melting pot.

When we speak, whether or not
we agree, the trees will turn
the breath of our words
from carbon dioxide into air—

give us new breath
for new words,
new chances to listen,
new chances to be heard.

Related Poems

from "Apocalipsixtlán" [5. Signs of the End of the World]

The right path. The phrase echoes in our heads
     as we travel west, away from the crack in the earth.
There is no way around it. Some say it connects
     Tierra del Fuego to the North Pole and cuts deep
down to the core—a wound that lets the heat escape
     each minute of the day. When all of the Américas
became a desert, dividing coast from coast, those
     caught in the middle either sunk into the crevice
or sunk into despair. The right path. That’s what
     Those Who Came Before tried to sell us before hell

rose from the bowels of the planet to burn the air
     in every lung. When the animals began to flee
and the birds headed east, we should have guessed
     the doom had come upon us then. But the right path
was not to panic but to study these changes, discuss
    policy, hold town meetings—negotiate. Catastrophe
was just another balloon to deflate. By the time
     the ground beneath our feet began to shake, it
were already too late to save our cities, which had
     turned to liquid we couldn’t drink. Next came thirst.

What comedy to witness humans think they’re
     in control of anything. The new collectives with
the old were just as tired and useless as the past.
     Their lifetime of mistake and misdirection was what
had killed us. Why repeat the leadership? Why
     allow the yesterday to roll its ancient wheels
into the present? Oh preachers of pretense, we
     silenced you. Oh teachers of nonsense, we erased
you. The future is ours, you all said, and the future
     arrived, bleak and black, but with much less room

to move around. A future without windows or doors,
     and one ugly hole in the ground that offers no escape.
What future is this? We asked. And Those Who Came
     Before simply shrugged their shoulders and shook
their heads. When the gas discharged from the opening
     we smelled the answer—sour odor of crimes against
the land and the centuries of death that had been buried
     there. Out flew centuries of damage and buried bodies
to hover above us like magpies shrieking: The crack
     in the earth, it is us. The crack in the earth, it is ours.

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

from "Dissolve" [A field that shivered with a thousand cranes]

A field that shivered with a thousand cranes
                        evaporates in someone else’s backyard.

Gills sliced into the mountain’s crest          resins hourly.

Televised vapor muzzles a hummingbird’s gassed lungs.

A cliff line wavers
                                    under a table’s August.

Shears jangle in the corral’s black-and-white photograph.

In the trailer’s hallway: the night’s unveiled ankles.

Rented from a shepherd of doves
          we return          replenished with categories.

We are husbands to razed hillsides; wives to drowned bridges.

When interred in plexiglass: our origin salinated.