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Seven Songs for an Old Voice


ISSUE:  Winter 1973

Fire Song

I watch the point of the twirling stick
Where you are sleeping, where you will come again.
Already your breath, pale as fog through a vine-maple,
Is rising through shreds of cedarbark toward me.
Open your dark-red eye, Fire-brother.
Here is my breath to warm you. You may have all my breath.
Show me your yellow tongue, and I will feed you
Alder and black locust in thick branches
To gnaw in half like Beaver. Now, with you beside me,
I can see the eyes of the First People staring toward us
Hungrily, with the hollow look of Soul-catchers.
Hold them out at the thin edge of darkness, and I will keep you
As long and as well as I keep myself through the night.
Toward dawn, you may lie down slowly, drift slowly out of the ashes
To sleep again at the cold point of my spirit.

Song for the Maker of Nightmares

You start your campfire on my breast like a mad grandfather
And eat my sleep for your food. Whenever you waken,
I must redden for war with your grunting children’s children—
Thorn Cheek, Skinless Foot, Old Knife at the Lips, Moss Face,
Mouth-changer No One Hears, Lost Hand, my terrible brothers.
If you fall asleep in the middle of my fear, I come back
To claim my throat and my numb belly, like a dog
Who has strayed too far at night and swallowed his voice
At the first yawning of Bear Mother. Tonight I have no charms
To make you sleep. Begin again. Call out of their burrows like woodworms
Stump, Mouse Woman, Snag, Split Man. Even in my terror
I must believe you: I will drink what you bring me in my broken skull,
The bitter water which once was sweet as morning.

Song for the Soul Going Away

I have wakened and found you gone
On a day torn loose from its moon, uprooted
And wilting. How can I call you back with dust in my mouth?
My words lie dead on the ground like leaves. Night speech,
Water speech, the speech of rushes and brambles
Have thinned to muttering and a vague crackle,
And the bird in my ribcage has turned black and silent.
Where a man would stand, I sit; where a man would sit,
I lie down burning; where a man would speak,
My voice shrinks backward into its dark hovel.
The dragonfly has taken his glitter from the pool,
Birds’ eggs are stones, all berries wither.
Without you, my eyes make nothing of light and shadow,
And the cup of each eyelid has run dry.
I go as aimless as my feet among sticks and stones,
Thinking of you on your mad, bodiless journey.

Dark Song

The faint scraping of stalk against leaf, the twig
And the caught thorn not quite breaking, yielding
Slowly in the night, are nothing
To fear: nothing knows
I am in this darkness, nothing knows which way
My dangerous eyes are turned. When young,
I bit the dark and clawed it, held my knife under its deep belly,
Set fire to it, jabbed it with sticks, strutted unseeing
Through its heart to my own rescue.
Now what stands behind my back is afraid:
I wait for longer than it can wait,
Listening, moving less than shadows.
It is mine now, soft as the breath of owls.

Song for the Soul Returning

Without singing, without the binding of midnight,
Without leaping or rattling, you have come back
To lodge yourself in the deep fibres under my heart,
More closely woven than a salmonberry thicket.
I had struck the rocks in your name, but no one answered;
Left empty under the broken wings of the sun,
I had tasted and learned nothing. Now the creek no longer
Falters from stone to stone with a dead fishtailing
But bursts like the ledges of dawn, the east and west winds
Meet on the hillside, and the softening earth
Spreads wide for my feet where they have never dared to go.
Out of the silent holts of willow and hazel, the wild horses,
Ears forward, come toward us, hearing your voice rise from my mouth.
My hands, whose craft had disappeared, search out each other
To shelter the warm world returning between them.

Song for the First People

When you learned that men were coming, you changed into rocks,
Into fish and birds, into flowers and rivers in despair of us.
The three under which I bend may be you,
That stone by the fire, the nighthawk swooping
And crying out over the swamp reeds, the reeds themselves.
Have I held you too lightly all my mornings?
I have broken your silence, dipped you up
Carelessly in my hands and drunk you, burnt you,
Carved you, slit your calm throat and danced on your skin,
Made charms of your bones. You have endured
All of it, suffering my foolishness
As the old wait quietly among clumsy children.
Now others are coming, neither like you nor like men.
I must change, First People. How do I change myself?
If no one can teach me the long will of the cedar,
Let me become Water Dog, Bitterroot, or Shut Beak.
Change me. Forgive me. I will learn to crawl, stand, or fly
Anywhere among you, forever, as though among great elders.

Death Song

I touch the earth on all fours like a child,
And now my forehead touches the earth.
For the sake of my joys, Sleepmaker, let me in.
I have turned away from none of the six directions.
I have praised the rising and the dying wind,
Water falling or vanishing, even the end of grass.
I have welcomed the seasons equally
And been one with all weather from the wild to the silent.
The only blood left on my hands is my own: now my heart
Will be strict, admitting none, letting none go.
Close all my mouths. I will sleep inside of sleep,
Honoring the gift of darkness till it breaks. I sing for a cold beginning.

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