When They Talke by Jeffrey Roessner

1.
“When they talke amongst themselves of the English ships, and great buildings, of the plowing of their Fields, and especially of Bookes and Letters, they will end thus: Maittowock They are Gods.”

Before the Chauquaquock,
  or knife-men, who brought
their metals and disease,

brought their books, their letters
importing god, before
the songs and plows, the councils

and the treaties, earlier
than all the words for all
the things and earlier than

the things themselves, before
justice and injustice,
equality and prejudice,

before the law and thieves,
ideas of choice or of
distinction, even before

the idea of ideas…
Cautantowit made man
and woman from a stone;

unhappy with his creation,
he dashed them both to pieces,
then began again

with a tree—the couple
this time made right.
Called from living wood,

they held a memory,
knew they were made
not to forget the root

that tapped the soil,
not to dismiss the strength
their sinews drew

from the patterned grain.
How do you remember
once not being yourself

only becoming so?
Falling through the shells
of self, you return

always to the source,
to these same broken parents;
gravity pulls you back,

back to them, to feel
the weight of a stone center.
Set to spin around

the solid core, you try
to collect myself

in objects drawn to you:

this is how you forget
that you are not these things.
So during Nickommo, every

winter and at every
harvest, light the fire
to burn the tools and pottery,

release them from their present
forms; this bowl was cast
to mold the empty air—

charred and broken, it shows
a truer form, always
already shaped and full.

2.
gods who haunt the dark,
  spirits of the dead who lurk
in cold, windy spaces,

these ghosts—the Chepi—come
to warn you and to punish

  burn or bury
  this husk of self

Your frame carries
the weight of the sky,
but you forget the heaviness.
This world is lent you

  burn and bury
  this husk of self

Living wood, your root
taps the earth—
and like the wood,
you will be tapped
and rooted,
cased in soil.

This world will devour you—
watch as you break against it,
endlessly broken

  burn and bury
  this husk of self

Buried with your knees
drawn to your chest,
your head set
toward heaven in the fields
of the south and west.

This body is a mold,
turned and tuned
as the compass-needle
swings to its
magnetic homing pull.

The spinning earth
creates a field
that moves metal,
calls through air
and water:

where are you pulled,
homing,
to what distant field
where you will unclench
your gathered self
and stretch and play?


Eastward
From the Fields
1.
Eastward from the fields
  of plenty, east from the land
tended by the great god
Cautontowwit—came crow.

Ungainly and awkward,
for all its size a coward,
this bird of deliverance—
Crow lurches to a halt

and shakes its head:
from one ear, a grain of corn,
from the other, a bean.
The ancestors say that’s how

God provided the seed
that was sown in toil
for their harvest. So who
now can kill the crow?

It is that other thing,
but why kill it? For its crow-ness?
Black-feathered, beady-eyed,
a coward and a thief, yes,

but punished for its instinct?
Killed for its nature?
Who then should be spared?
The bird is a guise of god:

Blessed are those
  who do not sow

Blessed those
  who do not reap

Blessed those
  who do not store up food
  or gather it into barns.

Thrice blessed then, crow,
and every bird that spends
its age in song.

2.
careless with your senses:
  careless eyes, careless ears
and nose, careless the touch
of your hand, and careless taste.

Your eyes are for seeing
  but you do not see.

Your ears are for hearing,
  but you do not hear.

The word is a seed;
  cast hastily it will be
  caught up by the wicked.

“mystical Fowle follow
the sowing of the Word,
and picke it up from loose
and carelesse hearers”

The seed strewn among briars,
  scattered on stone.

The word, misheard,
  careless listener.

Parables in red tongue.

“Cuppitous / I understand you.”
  When can we trust our vision?

“Kukkakitous / I heare you.”
  When will we know we’ve heard?


THey Have
Often Asked Mee
1.
“They have often asked mee, why wee call them Indians Natives &c. And understanding the
reason, they will call themselves Indians… .”

Abergeny men, Pagans, Barbarians, Heathen.
    Natives, Salvages, Indians, Wild-men.”

“Wesouk / A Name.”

This naming begins with words for wildness,
words for the untamed and ungodly—

because they have not need to distinguish
themselves, because they do not know

any others, these unregenerate tribes
have no names for themselves as a people.

So English men teach them how
to say, how to know themselves.

“Tocketussaweitch / What is your name?”

An understanding inflicted,
a boundary carved in ink:

named, Indian, you are put in place,
set down in a habitation,

and given a sound for yourself.
Re-word your world.

Re-shape you mouth and learn
to tongue the consonants

that you did not speak before.
With no “l” of “r” in your voice,

how did you hear your name?
Nanohigganset, Nahicans, Nahigonset?

Now when you speak to yourself,
you say easily, Narragansett.

Translated, transposed, you sing
a melody pitched in a new key.

“Matnowesuonckane / I have no name.”

Summer, 1643:

Seeking a charter for his colony,
Mr. Williams ships from Boston.

The hull pitches in the current,
the horizon sinks and rises,

never level, always new.
Below deck, he bows to the page

and dreams of what is rolling into view.
He clutches his pen and records a story

of the Indians accepting a name.
The work of salvation begins.

2.
“’Tis not a storme on sea, or shore,
  ’Tis not the Word that can;
But ’tis the spirit or Breath of God
  that must renew the man.”


forget the politics of history,
  let others make it their task

to count the profit and the loss,
  all sunk in the deep sea swell,

leave the courtly battles,
  the royal suitors locked in towers,

and the nameless, numberless dead
  of Ypres, of Austerlitz, of Waterloo.

What remains is a tone of voice,
  what survives is a way of speaking,

what sticks are the words
  that set a world in motion.

The English have a language
  for knowing others,

for naming Indians and calling God,
  for writing down the good news:

“All that know that one
  God.
That love and feare

  Him.
They goe up to Heaven.
They ever live in joy.
In God’s own House.

They that know not God.
That love.
And feare him not.
They go to Hell or the
  Deepe.

Who told you so?
Gods Booke or Writing.”

In this sturdy Elizabethan dialect,
  the subject firmly grasps its object.

But could this language also lose
  its speakers?

The words that chained, starved,
  consigned people to stocks,

allowed merchants to trade
  lives for livelihood—

will these words become unpronounceable?
  Like a child, run your finger

under the syllables and try
  to breathe life into them.

Resuscitate the expiring phrase,
  as if you might call and call

and call, and bring it back,
  help a meaning surface, gasping,

a sound that might tell you
  where you’ve been, that could

present you to yourself, complete.
  The recent past arrives in a language

that misleads because
  it can be read too easily.

History always appears,
  always, in an act of translation.

At its best, this testimony
  reminds us who went

to the sword and who
  preserved his name for God.

[These three poems come from a series entitled “Key into the Language of America.”

Issue Two

Editorial: Archipelagos and MFA's

Babylons: The Conclusion

Russian Poetry Now

Michael Anania

Joe Francis Doerr

Catherine Kasper

John Matthias

Orlando Ricardo Menes

Jeff Roessner

Reviews of: Janet Holmes and Stephanie Strickland



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