The Land We Dreamed: Poems

The First Hunters

Where they lived
it was cold.
There were storms.
All was frozen.
Even the sea
had a mighty
desire to freeze.
They dreamed
of milder lands
full of giant elk and
herds of the giant buffalo.
Generations went east,
they went south
over the snowy plain,
over the frozen sea,
over the hard
slippery water.

Of these people
the freest were
the hunters,
the purest were
the hunters.
They did not
build houses together.
They followed the animals.
The found the
mighty path made
by elk larger
than four deer.
They found the
path beaten down
by great buffalo
whose horns grew
from their mouths,
long curving moons.

The hunters followed
this road south,
stopping at salt
places where all
the animals came
and the hunting
was always good.
They followed the
trail and hunted
the salt springs
until they came
to a beautiful river.
Crossing the river
they found a place
with great trees
shading rolling
hills of grass and
tall stands of cane.

The animals had
never been hunted.
The animals were many.
Buffalo traveled
in large herds.
It was easy
to kill them
for meat and robes.
Deer started at them
but did not run far.
Bears grumbled at them
and stood up
like men to stare.
The hunting was good.
The living was good.
The sun always shone.
The deer and the buffalo
loved the clacking cane.

The people were happy.
The children’s bellies
were always full.
The women smiled.
The hunters talked
among themselves.
They smoked and
talked some more.
They poked at the
fire with sticks.
Let us stop here,
they said. Let us,
live here, near
the animals. This
is the land
we dreamed.
This is the land
Manito made for us.


Winter Among the Mystassins

Fr. Jerome, 1638

This cabin of poles and birch bark fills
with the smoke of a smoldering fire.
My clothes and hair reek with it.
My eyes burn and weep with it,

by morning swollen shut so tight
I stumble out into the cold
rubbing off a thin crust of dried
rheum and collapse in a coughing fit.

Cold is everywhere, blowing through
the bark walls, seeping from the ground
through my fir branch bed. My head
feels tamped with woolen lint.

I eat from a dish cleaned with greasy
hides, or licked by dogs. I wipe my hands
on their fur as they press forward to steal
food. They growl as if they meant

to do me harm, but do not bite. This morning
I awoke with five standing around me.
The Mystassins ignore me but their dogs
must think me a weak and dying meal.

Ka-waw-ska’s sick son sleeps
near me and the rotten smell of his scrofula
turns my stomach. We eat from the same
bowl and pick deer hair from our meat.

Daily despite the cold I shake out
my cassock and stockings to throw off
the vermin that infest me. Never have I
seen savages so dirty. I fear my death

among them, yet must not complain
confronted with the suffering of one before
me – the slow death and torment of
Father Jorges in the camp of the Hiroquois.

Here with the Mystassins, I endure only
what they endure, a hard life in a cold
hard place. I accept my fate among
them, and to my faith bear witness.

God grant that I may live out
this winter and go on to the southern
tribes on La Belle Riviere before I die,
a worthless servant of the Missions.

Eskippakithicki : What He Found


Ken-ta-tha, 1639

not wilderness or empty space
Eskippakithicki blue lick
last Shawnee place

3000 acres shaped
by buffalo and people
on the Great Warrior’s Trace

cabins palisaded near
the cleanly flowing creek
fields of squash and corn

Ottawa and Miami
IIlinois and Lenape
Piqua and Shawnee

coming and going
from raids or hunts
squatting to smoke

women working fields
stoking cooking fires
skinning gutting game

smell of smoke
carcasses scalps
hides drying by fires

licks bringing buffalo
shouldering shoving
over salty ground

buffalo heavy bodies
threshing lush fields
of grass shoulder-high

wide-racked elk
clattering stomping
in hollow cane

bears bloated bullies
stained with blackberries
standing snorting

deer traveling secret
narrow lanes in sumac,
cedar and sassafras

pigeons heavy at roost
mourning at daylight
and heat of noon

turkeys barnyard geese
dissolving in woods
along the creek

fish in schools
perfect selves
in warm shallow pools

catfish yellow and horned
hiding in hinges
layered limestone shelves

herons long blue
needles searching the
stream’s floating trash

elm’s fine architecture
honeysuckle bound locust
restless lakes of cane

white oak black walnut
silver beech red maple
black cherry blue ash

Eskippakithicki, a pause,
a brief parenthesis
between the hill and creek

Beyond the Mountains

Jack Gordon,
Kan-ta-ke, 1755

My family dead
in a Clinch River raid,
Meg, boys, brother.
All killed. Neighbors too.
Shawnee threw bodies about
like a savage wind,
took scalps, then passed.

I could not save them.
With Ben and others, I
dogged their trail for two
days, then caught them camped
and unaware. We were an
even fiercer wind. I went
among them with my ax.

Then, with good Ben Hill
I sought the western mountains,
through the Gap, past
the Blue river of the Piqua,
past the Temasqui, that the
Keetoowah loved, past even
the farthest survey of ourselves.
The Chain

Jack Gordon
Kan-ta-ke, 1756

Since I cannot see
the top of things,
I’ll start where I am
with the squirrels I hunt,
here in this muggy bottom.
No. I must look down
to the lowest on the ground.

The cursed mosquito
in its gauzy gown
that whines around
my eyes and ears ?
Lower yet. The invisible
chigger that infests the weeds
and loves the moist

warmth of my crotch
and makes my nights
a hell of sleepless scratching
despite the bear grease
plastered on. I wonder
Shawnee out hunting bears
don’t track me by the smell.

Is this the bottom
of the visible world
before the kingdom
of the grass ? I do know
the lowest thing there,
am intimate with the catch
and tear of saw-toothed briars.

And easily name the top,
the oak with its great tower
raising its crown, a bower
five hundred could gather around.
No, oak and briar
are the easy parts. It’s harder
to parse the weeds between,

though I do admire
ironweed with its
tall tough stem
and darkly purple flowers,
and Indian tobacco
that some call bluebell
and the Shawnee use for fever.

When the squirrel finally
moves and shows itself,
I shoot and hear a
dead thump. Is this
the way down, the warm
body with a blowfly still
living beneath the skin ?

With my knife I cut
out the thing in its side,
the awful larva that
must have been a torment
to the living squirrel.
Should I have started here,
with this squirming lump of fat ?

Is this the squirrel’s chigger,
its itch a link
between it and me ?
How did Adam and Eve
ever get to the end ,
this ritual of names,
this placement on the chain ?

Is there some itch
within this grub that
causes it to jerk
and twitch upon my hand?
Its chigger ? And does
that chigger in turn have its own ?
How deep does torment run ?
The Hard Winter

Cassandra Magruder
Kentucke, 1789

The cold came early
and never went.
The ground and sky
filled up with it.

The river froze
too thick to break
and each night rang
like solid bronze.

Turkeys froze
and fell from their roosts.
Deer died in their beds.
Buffalo starved in the fields.

We used our axes on the pond.
We filled the floor
with Indian grass.
We fed the fire with logs.

We ate our cow.
We ate our dogs
and boiled their hides.
Then, one of the children died.
Coal: A Codicil

My Lord, He said unto me,
Do you like my garden so fair?
You may live in this garden if you keep the grasses green
And I’ll return in the cool of the day.

Now is the Cool of the Day.
Jean Ritchie

The shallow seas
rose and fell quietly.
Great swamps lived and
died along their rims.
There were no seasons.
There was no end to
the warm wet weather.
Life had no limits
in oxygen-rich air.
Plants exceeded
the imagination.
Mosses grew
to 40 feet.
Ferns and horse-tails
to 60. Slender
climbing plants with
whorls of leaves
threatened to over-
run them all.
The seas shimmered
with small animals
devoured by five-armed
hunters and snake-like
worms. Giant mollusks
with toothed hinges
were disembodied mouths.
Great sponges and
tree-sized corals
filled up the floor.
Armored fish with
the jaws of snapping
turtles ambushed tiny
plant-eating sharks.
Lungfish and 50 inch sea
scorpions invaded the land.
Dragonflies with 30 inch
wings filled the air.
Giant spiders and
oversized ticks
roamed the forests
flashing like exotic
jewelry. Here,
diamond encrusted
gold brooches
stalked the undergrowth
for anything smaller
than themselves,
there, emerald and
ruby earrings clung
patiently to drooping
fronds, waiting
for a meal.
Twenty foot lizards
with scales like
plates hurried by,
quicker than dinosaurs.
Seven foot millipedes
were voracious.

The swamps and seas
came and went.
The vociferous struggle
of all the ravenous
creatures, the intricate
motives of the great
plants were forgotten
under the unbearable
weight of 300
million years.
Reduced to their
lowest selves, they
became buried seams
of voiceless coal.
They waited in
smothered darkness
for coughing diesels
to move the earth,
releasing once more
their urgent hungers,
the burden of their
needy appetites
into the hills
where waw-bi-
gon-ag, wild
flowers Shawnee
girls once loved
to wear would
wither and die,
where lilies would
no longer chase
the dripline of
retreating snows,
old ones falling
as new ones rose.

© Joe Survant