April 15, 2012

Episodes in the Navajo Degradation: A Five-Poem Sequence


Episodes in the Navajo Degradation: A Five-Poem Sequence
by Charles Tarlton

1. Southwestern Fragment, New Mexico, 1840

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent. . . allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.
     —John O’Sullivan

Of course, a people who puts up a fight against an enemy who controls the writing of history is hardly ever given praise or credit.
     —Raymond Friday Locke

There are echoes in some older voices here, echoes of my own voice, as if an offering of trust was being made. More squandering of chances before the bat’s eye night has settled. A gathering of warriors and elders counsel deceit; ride out, they say, under a pale waved flag, pretend to be messengers of peace.

what undercuts
even the sweet red rose
this double line
the sweetness piling up
around hidden weapons

Sharp, protective necessary threats; remember, you are but cynical shadows and twisting winks, hired dancers to whirl in false circles, scuffling and kicking up a dust.

we eagerly
wait to discuss a peace
long sleepy nights
in strictest confidence
no disturbances, some calm

Manuelito’s Song

           take the body

           envelop the air

           in the air
           and answer me
           give me an answer.

and an end to wanton
pleasures waking
to the cold morning light
thin frost on the gravestones

We count the races, call out the moon-faced gods with their slits for eyes, in wooden masks, slits in the stiff drum leather shields, slits that show the thunder fainter now, the rain stopped up the wind far off.

where warriors
chant hidden in low tones
where their slow breaths
while candles were blown out
dark clouds came down so close

dust of the street
stirred, blew up in funnels
twisting the sky

Will they fell the trees where the river ran, where the breezes tumbled in puffs of pollen, dance among the leaves?

word has come to end war!
the savages have met

and they have stood for peace—
dare we believe them?

They have extensive fields of Corn & Wheat—fine Peach orchards, and grow quantities of Melons, Squashes, Beans and Peas, and have immense flocks of sheep, a great number of Mules and horses of a superior breed. . . .

a civilization
of whatever credence

. . . they hold the country over which they roam [by] mere possessory title, which the God of nature has permitted them.

ancient heroes
on a wind, a turquoise wind
from the mountain
they bore strong likenesses
to the long singing arrow

These Indians are hardy, and intelligent, and it is as natural for them to war against all men, and to take the property of others as it is for the sun to give light by day.

wild cries in the dark night
wave after wave
hungry farmers whose plows
impatiently wait to cut

to dig just where
the land will richly yield
he drove the spear
ahead, down the new road
intrepid avant-garde

iron-wheeled wagons
raw nerves of emigrants
scratch in the dirt

Manuelito’s Song

           wealth is proven
           stacks of hay
           cribs of corn

           bushels of sweet
           dreams of peaches
           golden juices

           clinks of silver
           coins down the chins
           bread from an oven

           in the shade
           shapes of animals
           on the canyon walls

an unknown wilderness
our wildness come too fast

when suddenly
the desecrating plow
where there had been
the perfect life—Eden
ancient, carved from the rocks

they came ahead
ready to open the land,
tear it open
their desperation born
bitter disaffection

the Navajo moved on the earth as the Elk or as Coyotes do….

2. Around the Fires, 1863

Aside from all considerations of humanity the extermination of such a people will be the work of the greatest difficulty.
     —Lt. Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, U.S.A.

We’ll first chastise, then civilize, bold Johnny Navajo.
     —Santa Fe Gazette

hot winds stirred up
by a thousand horses
blow brightly dead
leaves, yellow and red leaves
under the high sky dome

blow them high up
in close clouds billowed
before distant
mountains. Some stick against
the stones, some in damp pools

leaves a cold wind
can play a killing song
so sweetly played
clogging the dry creek beds
unavoidable war

without rancor
or can the wind itself
blow on the leaves
dead red leaves flutter
jiggle the sweet peaches

swinging yellow
on their short leafy stems
and the leaves sing
a leaf’s song, call the wind
its master or its slave

in rust canyons
harnessed winds and dead leaves
in one hollow
red stones and the river
time rubs and opens its eyes

wild intrusions
added aggravations
hunger tightening
distances beneath the skin
listening in the blood

We could read the distant soft drum tapping, meant to scatter barriers when barriers are being built. Hiding behind bravado and a continent of endless men, wagons, guns, flour, beer….

a bravery
seldom tested either way
but face to face
confident in the whip
the size, snaky heft of it

On his knees in a New Hampshire furrow weeding precious vines, a boy dreamed of a wild ride on an Indian pony across sparse grass prairie in Wyoming— Arapaho, Sioux, Cheyenne yelp behind him. He turns, gets off a shout of his own, and feels his heart pound—“EEEYYYIIIEEE!!!!”—to the edge of the known world of unexpected creatures, unheard of geography.

the horizon
a low line of mountains
soldiers riding
fresh from the fratricide
now posted to the moon

Chief Manuelito’s song

           they come here
           speaking of ocean

           that walks for days
           on the water

           human waves
           pilling up
           pushing in

           from a world
           of machines
           their big wheeled guns,

           where the big guns
           when they roar
           they make the sky burn

           they eat each other,
           sleep in the ground
           they have come

           to master the Diné

3. Peaches and Roses, New Mexico Territory, 1863

On the 3d Moved Camp about 3 miles no. [to] another Orchard. there I cut down 500 of the best Peach trees I have ever seen in the Country, everyone of them bearing Fruit.
     —Captain John Thompson

Found in our camp a rather rare thing in this country, abundance of wild rose bushes. Gathered and prepared some sprigs for home on the Hudson.
     —Captain Eben Everett

It was the thorn that plotted to outsmart
The cunning of the rose. . . .

     —Henri Coulette

Shaken to the ground, rare sweet desert peaches, each time black axes cut through the smooth hard skin to soft heartwood underneath. The trees would shudder and sigh as they rolled over on their green crowns and thrust branches out in front to break an awkward fall.

lowing cattle
reluctant in the chute
wait to be stunned
you can hear the captive bolt
but they all bleed to death

the real horror
lies in the magnitude
of our misdeeds
the difference between
murder and massacre

All day, into the night, they hauled in the ragged downed trees. You could hear the ring and rattle of the horses’ collars, the slap of the traces; the horses snort as they come out of the dark into the fire’s circle. The soldiers stacked up peach-tree mountains and set them alight. In the hot smoke, the smell of fruit roughly cooking, sweet then bitter, a harsh syrup in the air.

a job of work
they might have been hauling
oak beer barrels
in a bustling city
street, up into the pub

all the orange trees
in southern California
were bulldozed out
stacked in massive jumbles
and burned all through the night

The burning Navajo peach trees threw shadows against the canyon’s red-rock walls, making silhouettes of the laboring soldiers’ dance. In twos and threes, they stooped and hauled, turned and pulled, a slow gigantic ballet in the twisting light.

the symbolism
of bonfires is not lost
around the world
they burn in hot vengeance
or wild celebration

wayang shadow
dancers tell the story
of the bloody
battle of Kurukshetra
mythology for war

A military operation, the hunting down and destruction of peaches were executed without sentiment. Mounted soldiers searched the length of the Canyon de Chelly; on the way they tore up melons and squash, ripped out the beans, and stole the corn for their horses.

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.
     —The Geneva Conventions

war veterans came home
having destroyed
whole towns and villages
remembering dead friends

my uncle Ray
recalled on bomb raids how
on the way back
all the guns on the B-17
strafed every living thing

Searching later for ripe peach trees they might have missed the first time, another Captain of Horse from New York came upon thorny wild roses cast among the stones.

back in the church
where thirty years before
I had served mass
the same long late shadows
same redolence of flowers

a rainy spell
and purple wildflowers
around Grapevine
rise from the desert floor
oh, you had to be there!

In 1898 Prof. E. O. Wooton described a remarkable new rose from southern New Mexico, giving it the name Rosa stellata on account of the stellate trichomes. The peculiar, mostly trifoliolate leaves, the leaflets with cuneiform bases and more or less truncate, sharply toothed apices, gave the plant an unusual appearance; while even the flowers, described as large and showy, deep rose-purple, were not at all like those of the ordinary wild roses of the Rocky Mountains.
     —T. D. A. Cockerell, nature (1913)

How much do the prickly desert rose sprigs weigh when we carry them home to grow on a fence in Coxsackie, New York or Schodack Landing where a wife might wait and watch every day for the Mary Powell steaming up against the current and the tide from Beacon or Catskill on her way to Albany.

on the tarmac
at Auckland airport, 1972
they sprayed the plane
with insecticide—up
and down the aisle

blow prairie winds
blow the transgenic corn
to organic fields
forget dwarf thoroughbred
maximizing the yield

Theoretically, in fact, a tender heart was in there amongst the regiment, to counteract the crushing burning stones and—the sun. The fires burned out, and settled down to peach coals; the Captain’s roses, wrapped in coarse dampened cloth rested in a rolled slicker.

the peaches small
hard red-yellow clingstones
used mostly dried
they had come from China
brought by Conquistadores

4. Ironic Moment, 1846

Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain the eagle to the ground - he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up at the sky which is home - and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat and beans.
     —Written by a Navajo

They’ll all soon be gone, anyhow.
     —Kit Carson

the timber wolves
in the National Zoo,
behind hardened
endless chain link fences
pace in the unsettled

dust underfoot
ice-gray eyes restless in
focusing black irises
their long walk to nowhere

Manuelito’s Song

           first white voices
           heard on the wind

           as when a wind
           announced itself

           as from stillness
           something untouched

           left on a cheek
           hinted coolness

here unknown words
in a muddle, unknown
hear the broad Boston vowels
lumbering in the sand

talk overheard
voices on a zephyr
the desert night
consonants before unknown
clicking and rattling

Manuelito’s Song

           the perpetual instant
           now the sudden moment
           could leak out

           time revealed
           its near and farther sides
           what’s at hand
           the dead long past

           what’s still yet
           to come
           some future neither past
           nor present shattering

           Navajo time

           pushed the moment to the fore
           carrying on
           the unfamiliar voices
           in the night,

           on the night wind
           from that moment
           swirling in that moment
           the Diné past

broke away from
consolidated time
and rolled away
a wagon a minute
all that would future be

5. Lost in the Bosque Redondo

I beg respectfully to call the serious attention of the government to the destitute condition of the captives, and beg for the authority to provide clothing for the women and children.
     —Brigadier General James H. Carleton (Report on the Condition of the Tribes)

Probably no folk has ever had a greater shock. Proud, they saw their properties destroyed and knew what it was to be dependent upon the largess of strangers. Not understanding group captivity and accustomed to move freely over great spaces, they knew the misery of confinement with a limited area.
     —Clyde Kluckholm

fragrances blow in scents
of poetry
long angles and dusty
sunlight at five o’clock

an appetite
for story and caged birds
wild birds, their wings
tied down, back from wire mesh
fatalist, limp, and passive

captive birds sing
a slow enslaved song
where prisoners
the Navajo nation
exiled to a dirt hole

Manuelito’s Song

           rolls in the dust and dung
           leans into a foreign plow

           with total distraction,
           a numbing distance

           fears of flogging,
           life at hardened labor

           falls onto his shoulder
           the long light at five

           rises in his throat the sour
           and a hard cold night falls
           on the Navajo, caged up
           along the Pecos

…make them plant cottonwoods along moist banks; the alkaline river, stick the shoots right into the mud

     —a General’s Fantasy

shaded dreamy
punts and pastel parasols
drifting along
a magical river;
Navajo children singing

Manuelito’s Last Song

            “All people that
           on earth do dwell”

walking home
from church in billowed skirts
and blackened boots
back to mud-covered huts
over dug holes in rows

           a fire of little sticks
           their events

           leave little to chance
           exceedingly simple

where warriors
on warhorses charged the sky
empty barrels
waterless saline wells
and choked-up filthy springs

           cooking skills
           an illogical enemy

roll in the waves
on their pipe-dream beaches
where recent dunes
rise from a ploughed furrow
lifting from the sea floor

           who will not take
           the bait:

where wind unseen
pushes dire events your way
arise before
some unforeseen tragedy
insects invade the corn

            the jaws
           of Providence close

* * *

Charles D. Tarlton has a Ph.D. in political philosophy/American history from U.C.L.A. and has taught at several universities here and overseas. He retired in 2006 to write poetry and he has recently published a number of poems in magazines such as Review Americana, Jack Magazine, Houston Literary Review, Tipton, Barnwood, Haibun Today, Simply Haiku, Ink, Sweat, and Tears, Atlas Poetica, Red Lights, Sketchbook, mango moons, and an e-chapbook in the 2River series, entitled, “La Vida de Piedra y de Palabra: Twelve improvisations on Pablo Neruda's Macchu Picchu.”

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?

I am in the habit of looking outside myself for the initial stimulus, as in the Navajo poems, I was reading a biography of Kit Carson and that led me into further reading, documents, journal research articles, etc. I wanted to encompass the crushing of the Navajo because of its resemblance to the German concentration camps and our treatment of the Japanese in California.
But, usually, I find passages in my reading or in philosopher and poets, etc that I have read in the past. I look for a passage the carves out a little niche in the universe that needs talking about.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

The sheer pleasure of it. For years I wrote only scholarship, but once I had retired I went back to my youthful love of poetry and I am simply invigorated by it.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction poem?

Finding imaginary voices that speak truthfully even if not specifically correct.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

I was for many years very much an historian, albeit of ideas. My fundamental truth, to the extent that I have one, is that the “facts” of history are beyond our reach; we are always interpreting signs and making up stories to fit them. True historical fiction lets historical figures speak even when we have no documental record of them having spoken just then and just in that way.