A Place Older than People

 

Hometown

I come from a place where the high plains lift
into waves, crest and fall into hogback stone,

plates of iron-stained rock that anchor
my own magnetic north. The pine trees know

the starting line—the draw, the ditch,
the lee-side from which to take

hold. A few loners stand in that sea
of grass and wave their arms like prophets

the wind has her way with. The city sleeps
under the skirt of its gods—half its sky

is a closed mouth of stone. The city
was once a town I was small inside,

the wide roads, the quiet buzz of streetlights
flicking on to hide from the teeth of stars.

I could say that happiness spilled in orange
poppies tangled in fences, or purple hyacinth

I picked behind the dumpster and plucked
like a cluster of grapes. I could say

there is that slab of sandstone like a boat
above the mouth of Deer Canyon where

my mother sat us down, opened
a jar of ashes that was our black dog.

When my father died, we returned
and rocked in that boat, looking over

the ocean of prairie with the primal
fact of stone at our backs.

I could say that happiness grows
on graves, that I grew up ignorant

of whose I walked on. My father’s grave
is there now, and there’s a bench with
his name on it like another boat
we ride down the sweep of foothills.

Now my mother’s wheelchair is parked
by a window, perched above the city

where she can watch pine siskins
and a few goldfinches that stayed

over the warmer winter, where each
morning those hogback plates turn

deeper pink then red like a bruise
on her arm where the blood rises.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

èit

Like a storm, or a stone, this word
spins its urge under water. Its swallowed

light, spilled by moon via sun via quartz through
lens of river. Moonlight blackens the water, burns

inside each stone like a spell. The spark
becomes stars the fish cannot help

but return to. So I gather rocks, veined
pink, milk-white, and place them

in the pebbled shallows, between
my feet. With the word, the current darkens

with tandem salmon that sway and push
upriver. Their cold bodies silk and slip

against my shins as I cast and pull my line
across the flow. All this to eat my love.

It’s more than food I’m after, more
than tree-rings and sea maps engraved

in their scales and shed like flecks
of mica on my skin. More than the deep

red in their flesh, the taste my blood knows
before my tongue. More than the slippery pink

egg sacs, heavy as lungs, or the cream slabs
of sperm held in organs that fill this last blush

of return, this fish. More even than this river,
near the mouth of sea, the clouds of crying

gulls that dive and circle for scraps
I toss into misted air. It’s hunger

to complete this circle, to swallow all I see
and try to see. This salmon

in my hands, the black circle of my eye
tunneling into the black circle of this

salmon’s eye, something swimming

back and forth between, the flash
snagging starlight in my stones.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Deborah Westmancoat, Wave Scrolls

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Catching My First Sunfish with My Grandfather

I must be twelve. I gather mussels
where they lie scalloped, lip-
sealed, half-buried in mud
under our blue dock. He finds me a fist
sized rock. One by one, I smash
the shells into pearled shards.
He shows me how to scoop
the meat, feed the hook,
drop the line. I am hungry
for their tug against my will,
for my will to pull each one—silver
scales, dots of turquoise,
spiny fins jeweled
in sun—out from the other
world. I pry out hooks,
pin the discs of their bodies
with my palm against the dock.
I fill the tin bucket
with nine living fish.
They’re getting warm, he says,
so I dump them back
where they pause—
stunned still in the open amber
water before flicking their tails
to dart back into depths.

It was endless: the fish,
the mussels, the deep
silence of the lake where
it darkened beyond sight.
I remember his wool flannel
shirt, a silk scarf tied around
his neck, the warmth of his hand
on my back as we walked the trail
of duff and roots worn smooth
to the cabin. I don’t need
to explain what is gone
from childhood. But remember
how small our bodies felt
when we swam in the lake?
How we could take
what we hungered for, how
we still believed we could
give it all back?

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Niwot’s Curse

This city, my tribe of next-best-places, my family
of dead ends, my people of forgetting—

I call this place mine to come from somewhere,
to know those blood-red plates of rock that tilt

towards the snowy divide as my own magnetic north,
the gulch choked with cherry and Gambel Oak,

piles of seedy bear shit, still warm. I want to feel inside
my tailbone, my wingbuds, a place older than people.

Next to the creek, below Settlers’ Park, a statue of chief Niwot
kneels on one knee in bronze buffed the color of creekwater.

Pigeon shit smeared on his head. He squints
towards foothills that rise as waves towards

the high country – Arapaho Glacier, Niwot Ridge,
Pawnee Pass, Hiamovi Lake – names that seem to cost

nothing in our mouths, to the west where
water is born from high country, feeding the river

that speaks in riffles & churns & sounds like static
beneath, or a murmur below this slick city

that I call mine because my parents will die here
and their parents came from the east, and their

grandparents came from hunger, passing on
another hunger I carry in my chest to that smell

of sandstone & sumac in rain. I learned to walk
with mountains at my back. As I close my eyes,

feel them rise behind me—my hood, my antlers,
my spine, the tethered deep tones of my blood.

But I know that old story, a curse Niwot left
for the gold-seekers who swarmed this valley:

those who saw the beauty would stay & their staying
would be the undoing, he said, after first peace,

before the massacre at Sand Creek. This morning
I walk to his statue, along the bike path under

good shade, in the fresh-rivered air, with skateboarders,
bikes, baby carriage-pushers, a steady hum

of cars down Arapaho avenue in this beautiful city,
this river, this land we can no longer afford. I’m leaving

again—we are leaving, I tell him, but where?
My voice rushes with this river, these mountains

are stuck in my spine, these ghosts hissing
at my back. I am made of stolen land.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Creation Story

There was a loneliness
spread so thin that no one
named it. She collected
her dead around her, missing
the dead she never knew.
The ravens remembered all
the dead, and they
catapulted down shafts
of wind, ragged plummets
before swerving up and laughing
on thermals. They tried to tell her,
chortling their watery croaks
from telephone poles. She only
answered with more
questions. Or she kept
driving to another parking
lot, late again. In another
place, the raven people still
traveled with wolves, diving
to play with pups and calling
out seal carcasses. Where
the ravens went, the wolves
followed. Where the wolves
ran, the ravens flew. Long ago,
this was agreed upon, and nothing
could break it. Even now,
in the lands that have forgotten,
with the people who have forgotten,
in the cities that have forgotten,
the ravens perch in the branches,
of the old trees who have seen
it all. The ravens wait
for the wolves. Finally, she
traveled north, and she learned
from a raven who came each morning
for scraps left on a flat rock.
Across the shoreline where
the raven soared and
stitched the air, she looked
up as the wolves looked
up, and something
old was born.

 
 

Image credits: (top to bottom)
Deborah Westmancoat, Sea Scrolls (2018)
Deborah Westmancoat, Wave Scrolls (2018)
To discover more about Deborah Westmancoat you can read our feature on her work, The World Without Us. You can also see more of her work on her website.

 
 

This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Anne Haven McDonnell

Anne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, NM and teaches as an associate professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has been published in Orion Magazine, The Georgia Review, Nimrod, About Place Journal, Fourth River, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. Her work won the fifth annual Terrain.org Poetry Prize and second place in the 2019 International Gingko Prize for Ecopoetry. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and she has been a writer in residence at the Andrews Forest writing residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.