The difference between
what I look like
from the outside and
what I am like within
is three thousand
miles or so give or take based upon
the precise starting points
and exact destinations
or so I’d like to think
The distance to the village
where I thought I might look right
for the part
is four thousand miles
The distance to the rez
where by rights no one could trust me
to be who I said I was
is two thousand miles
in the other direction
I’ve been to both
Neither fit me well
or at all
You hear this and choose to question
why geography and history
should matter so much to me
when I live right here and
I’m the only one bringing this up
on a routine basis
an obsessive basis
If I’d forgotten all that
gotten over it
I’d have been happier
You remind me that
I’m old poor and sick now
It would seem that should
matter most of all
not race and ancestry
Not missing any sense of home
Make a home here you say
It’s all that matters
I’ve lived among people like you
my whole life
and talked about this
the whole time
and somehow you still wonder
why I have been and will continue to be
mad and lost
all the time
Tag Archives: heritage
The difference between
I like to think
I could walk out to the middle
of any mall or office parking lot,
lie down on my
belly, start to gnaw through
I hit dirt
and then start to burrow
I find bones
and then breathe on the bones
until they can speak again
and thank me and clasp me
to their open chests as
one of their own. Yes,
I like to think
the past already
knows of me
and cares for me as
legacy. I like to think
there is something underfoot
that likes me
and nourishes me. Yes,
I am extremely fond
of my thinking.
Plastic, spiderform, childhood prize
from a vending machine. Tossed aside, vanished.
Mood indicator in white metal
recalled from adolescence.
So many in silver, incised, cast,
bought at powwows: where are they?
Two in torn soft gold,
each bearing a different grandfather’s initial,
stolen along with antique Dine’,
turquoise gone green with age; heirloom heartbreaks.
Moebius strip in hardened 14 karat rose
rendered venomous by living,
sold for weight upon release into non-desperation:
what my fingers would be now, what I would be now
without these ghost adornments, I cannot imagine.
Awakened at four twelve AM it’s all you’ve got
in the silent New England house:
the memory of being the driver
of the sole car
speeding west on a night highway,
speeding west from Albuquerque.
Tonight this memory
of the drive toward Acoma
is giving back a soul
you’d thought you’d lost years ago
to your boss insisting
that she knew better than you
how to pronounce the name of a place
she’d been to exactly
once on vacation. “Are you sure
it’s not a long O? It’s
Ah-CO-mah, I’m certain. Are you sure?”
“Maybe I’m wrong,” you said then.
But you weren’t.
Pronounce it in your head:
“AH-cuh-muh. AH-cuh-muh.” Acoma.
You were sure. Sure then, sure now.
Certain of the Sky City
still being there, ahead,
out there west of you off this shining road,
under this saving path
of stars, you say its name to yourself.
It wasn’t her speaking that took your soul.
It was your silence. “Acoma, I’m sorry,”
you say out loud
in the New England house.
Nothing feels like home tonight
except that name.
than I are needed
to figure out
exactly which numbers we need
that will come out to
creating something like equity
among the dispossessed
but even a stupid man
from stupid town like me
can see that if you start with
seeing only three-fifths of a human
then forty percent remains missing
and if you start with two words like
and end up with fifty-six million acres
of US land still run by Indigenous folks
(only two point three percent
of total US territory)
even if someone’s
massaged the numbers
along the way
and said that 60% is now 100%
so everything’s hunky dory now
and anyway we dig
and even if someone’s said
it’s not OK to hunt
those redskins anymore
they’re good enough to be on
they’ve built some great casinos
on that 2.3%
even a stupid man from stupid town like me
knows lip service when they see it
and even a stupid man from stupid town
should be able to tell you
that original sins
burn holes in a nation’s insides
and if we can’t see
or if worse we deny
that something is still owing
we are just as
walking around happy to be
stupid in stupid town
I didn’t forget enough
of your words or blows
to be healed — how
could I? My arms
and chest have thick, inflexible
scars. My ears are bent
to take in some but not all
of what there is to hear. If
you can see that this body
has been changed
by past abuse
so much that certain
functions are inalterably
compromised, why did you expect
you could waltz in, hat in hand,
and ask me to your dance
without my turning
my wounded back
upon you? It’s not like
I can dance to what is being
played in the room — I recognize
that it used to be mine, I see
it now and then can make
my clubbed toes hop,
but you’ve done something
to it. You’ve made it as forgettable
as you and what you’ve done
You need to understand
that I was what they wanted all along:
the Mistake beyond any blood quantum,
denatured Native boy turned White man
but not quite, somehow Nothing At All
because to admit my own split
is all in my head is to admit
my inherent lack of substance.
I detest myself as the proof
of their success — more than all
the forced sterilizations, more than
all the direct massacres and stolen bones,
more than even the mascots
and the plastic feathers on the sports fans —
I am what they wanted
all along: something less than real
and more than myth. It’s a Friday night
and I’m a touch more than fucked up about it —
a weekend ahead of being
a ghost of my expected iteration —
and then the week, and then another weekend,
and somewhere in that sequence I will eventually pass,
and the Nation is smoldering as it would
with or without me although some would say
it’s because of me and how I was made
that’s part of the reason the country ended up here.
I’m the token slipped into the Great Genocide Game
to get the balls rolling.
God, if you exist, this isn’t your whole fault.
It’s also mine. I failed to die soon enough
to make them regret me. They call me a dirty word
that isn’t even obscene enough to mask my own name,
which is beyond dirty,
a blasphemy of how
I was supposed to be
revised from march 2020
of the contagion’s start
took me over
rolled my hands into chafed red fists
started punching through my pale shell
I spend my mornings now
watching fancydancing videos
little girls in jingle dresses
little boys in full regalia stomping
all raising their arms against contagion
on small and common
on the edges of empty roads
in furrows left
in winter land
by spring and summer plowing
all of them elsewhere west of here
beyond this city
with unbelievers shopping
for safety from what
they don’t yet fully believe is already among them
is no longer a rumor of plague
east and west of here
but no, not here
west of here
people are dancing
I think of my sister
sick as sick can be now
in her jingle dress at eighteen
whatever is inside me pokes me gently
reminds me of smallpox blanket stories
this is how you survive
A friend, a chef,
uses the same secret ingredient
in anything they make, and all they make
are acclaimed masterpieces.
Naturally, they have told no one what they use
and just as naturally we try to guess,
as much for the game of it
as for the gossip or theft
since no one believes that using any one substance
is all it would take to replicate any of their dishes.
We suspect they are in fact
using some magic for their results
as opposed to a tangible spice for what else could explain
the signature spell of their food
from first course to last bite of dessert?
I will not say we are transformed by it,
instead will say we are transported.
So we needle and wheedle and bug them: tell us,
we say. Don’t try to laugh it off and say
it’s all about the love, either; we can tell it’s more.
We know esoteric when we taste it. This is
esoterica. You got your hands on something
and we will leave you to your own use of it
once we too have it on our hands,
even if it’s blood. So tell us. All we want
is the flavor. If it demands a sacrifice or a torture
we already know you took that pain, and thank you
for that — but it’s over. Why should anyone else suffer?
I’m trying to convince myself,
not for the first time,
that if I can just get all my ancestors
to stop warring against each other
inside me, I will get better.
That until I make a truce happen,
I will be at their mercy.
That if I can calm them
and put them to sleep
they will never again make me
sit up straight in bed
soaked and desperate,
wondering who among them
from which side of the family
had spoken the death-spell
that roused me: “here you go with
that stupid half-breed shit again.”
That I have healed myself
from history and its consequences.
I’m trying to convince myself
that if I somehow put them together
to talk out all the violent years among them,
they — and I — would be OK.
That they would throw a party
to honor me.
That they would gather in a hall
somewhere to mingle and laugh,
to smudge the air and toast
the better days ahead,
waiting for the healed me
to make a great entrance
down a broad staircase.
That after everything
we’d gone through together,
I would not fling myself down the stairs
to die at the bottom among them.
See, I’m trying to convince myself
I won’t fuck it up.
That all my pain
comes from my past
and fixing that
will save me.
It’s that stupid half breed shit again,
I tell myself. The need to become
the site of the peace accord.
The broker between the factions.
The broken one who heals all
and himself in the process —
but once again
I’m sitting up in bed
soaked and desperate
with no one but myself
to blame, and I don’t even know
who that is.
waking again surprised to be
still alive this far out to sea
so far from the shore
and grounded living
awake same time daily
then fall right back to sleep
upon seeing and feeling
the same old drift
you have to wonder
if this started with Columbus
thirty five days into his voyage
not knowing the next day
would change all forever
you have to wonder how
he expressed his hope
to his men and to himself
that they would land somewhere full of plunder
and how many today
are rolling their hands
over and over against each other
with the same hope
that the new world on
the other side of this long drift
will offer them good luck and fortune
(no matter who else dies for it)
once this rotten ship
scrapes bottom upon
a yet unknown shore
I feel like I owe the world some explanation
for the breakdown where I live.
In truth I owe it nothing more
than to live as if I was whole
while not forgetting I am not,
but the feeling remains.
When I tell my story in public
I don’t mention feathers or powwows
or drums. I don’t speak of my old regalia
still hanging stiff with age
in my parents’ basement,
or of my memories of a late night fire
that was never left unattended.
These things are not for you to know;
they are all I have
and living here and now
has left me unsure of holding even those
long enough to take them to my grave.
When I tell my story in public
I do not speak Italian either.
Raised with that tongue till school
erased it. Much as my father lost his
when they took him away to school.
That is all there is to say to you
about Italian and my tongue;
there are more things to say
but they are not for you to know;
living here and now has left me unsure
of holding even those
long enough to take them when I go.
I feel as if an explanation is owed to someone
for the breakdown where I live
though I know there’s nothing owed to
anyone, really, on this side and possibly the next;
the feeling is strong nonetheless
and it drives me to speak in riddles such as this one
so let me say this:
when I tell my story in public
I am forced to shout it from the bottom
of a slot canyon. It does not carry well
to the top of the opposing walls.
I hold back more than I release
to keep from bringing the half-informed
to where I am, knowing how seldom
they arrive ready to listen.
In spite of the isolation here,
I believe I’ve done right by myself.
I feel I’ve done right by myself,
as right as I can,
but I still feel like an explanation
is owed to someone.
Today I speak neither
of my parent’s
I did speak
Italian, my mother’s
tongue, until I was five
and sent to school.
Lost the ability
to speak it, although
I still understand
a bit, as long as my mother
As for my father’s language?
Gone; tossed upon
a boarding school’s trash heap;
can’t even pronounce it
when I see it written
as I’ve never heard it but once
in a reservation store
on a visit there; someone
was looking for Fig Newtons,
the only words I understood;
I assume he found them.
I didn’t stick around to find out.
My only authentic voice
speaks nothing but English:
all my truths must be drawn
in an occupier’s medium,
a colonist’s artifact. How I work this
when I feel so robbed by history:
strive to turn the tool
toward mastery of the house
where I live. There must be words
I did not learn
or have forgotten
that I can reincarnate if I try,
and I must try.
Tired unto death
assuming that there must be
enough words already
for all I know
when I can’t even
speak the full truth
to myself which is all
I’ve ever tried to do,
the only reason
I write, the only reason
I’m still here.
When there is a beginning
worth mentioning, I will
mention it. I will tell you
that I have returned to the source
and after a proper interval has passed
I will tell you that I’ve moved
onto a fresh path. That I’ve dressed myself
in clean clothes and washed myself
deeply for a change. That I’ve cut my hair
to the scalp, that I’ve trimmed my beard
to the chin, that I’ve razed my shanty
and set up a small tent where it stood,
that I’ve cleaned the ancient campfire pit,
relined it with new flat stones and
rebuilt the tumbled walls. That at night
I tend the fire with great care,
my new face warm before it,
my backside cool behind me
as I turn it toward darkness unafraid
for the first time in six decades,
the first to do so in many generations.
When there is a beginning
worth mentioning, I will tell you
where my family graves are,
what events sparked
my long suffering, where
desecrations took place.
I will tell you I’ve forgotten
that smallpox blankets
must have indeed been a myth, that
all those heroic statues
just look like stones with clean hands
and faces, that I can see
how to you any mountain
with such monumental outcroppings
certainly begged for its own carving.
When there is a beginning
worth mentioning, I will tell you
that I’m ready, that I’m
healed at last. I will tell you
that the slurs I’ve heard, the ones
I’ve carried with me everywhere,
are all packed away and dropped,
that the half-measure
I’ve always taken
of my half-breed self
is brimful now, wholesome
and complete, that I’m together
and at peace;
no longer merciless,
no longer savage.
When there is
a beginning worth mentioning
I’ll let you know. Until then
I will sit by my fire alone
in these new clothes,
body clean, half warm
and half cold,
waiting to see
what you do next.
Originally posted 2016. Revised.
Longing this morning
to trade back my boots
for the soft soles
I surrendered to get them.
I can’t feel the ground
when I walk in these.
Doctors try to tell me it’s
neuropathy from my diabetes.
They’re half right, I suspect;
certainly some shiny whiteness
is to blame and whether it’s the sugar
or the culture, it’s killing me
from the feeling parts up
to the thinking parts.
If I still had ancestors to ask about it
I would but they’re gone and they
never knew me anyway. Maybe
it’s for the best that I’m numb
and becoming more numb the older
I get. Fewer things terrify me now.
I didn’t belong to those earlier times.
I don’t feel I belong in the ones we’re in now.
If I am afraid of anything anymore
it’s of finding a place where I truly fit in.
I still want to trade these hard boots
for the moccasins I had as a kid,
the moccasins people used to say
I should trade for the boots I wear now —
good tall boots made to hold you
separate from and untouched by earth,
the way it is these days;
even when you are put into that earth
they put you in a box
and that box goes into another box.
How is it right that even when I’m dead
I’ll have to lie forever in that tiny space?
Colonized in death as in life,
forbidden the right to return
to my own soil. It’s why I long
to trade my boots for moccasins
and walk away to find my own resting place
somewhere; if my feet burn
the whole way there, at least
that pain will be of my choosing.
Even if the grave I choose
turns out to have been dug from lies,
at least it will be mine. Any debate
over whether I belong there
will not be mine to argue.
I’ll decay and disappear
like moccasins and boots do.
I’ll be as much of a myth one day
as I always knew I would be.
That’s the truth. I walk toward it
deliberately, my feet on fire
in boots not made for walking
or for feeling. I still feel
for now, if not as much
as I once did, which I guess
is a bit of a blessing, anyway.