sign that names nothing, being itself an unmade word;
sign that is no apt replacement of word for body;
sign that calls itself emotion, feeling, rage, anger, angry, on that day we were sore afraid—
as though by naming it could be contained—
say instead how the pith of the day was sour; how every touch of finger to world leaves a trail of wound;
say instead how this constant shimmer and shelter in flickering breast is blue flame behind bone; how the slam of open palm on table, or the punch of fist into leather padding, is a lash back at what whips and flails;
say instead how the morning won’t come soon enough, you lie awake all night, stare at the ceiling till your ears fill up;
say what sign is an evasion of: canopy of mourning and dismemberment;
say instead how the hand lashes in fury, fists itself into clenched restraint, sheathed, arm rigid with derision.
Perhaps some ghosts have followed you after all, from the camps of the dead;
perhaps the ghosts of long-dead warriors, from another age, another land, are with them;
perhaps this haunting is mere remembrance, a wayside cemeteried battlefield;
perhaps they rose from where they lay, spread-eagled, quartered, scalped, to follow a breeze;
perhaps some chant the enemy way, the ghost exorcism ritual, the ghost dance returning, the leavening of the moon’s daughter, she who walks between worlds and underworld, who holds key and dagger, whip and torch, who lashes the heads of enemies to her belt, she who walks in silence among dead and living;
perhaps the ritual slaughter of the innocents keeps them sated;
perhaps some chant freed of wraiths and shadows, take on the sun’s son, his solar insistence on light and leavening as the only way;
perhaps these thinning walls must be skinned and shuttered with nails and flesh;
perhaps sand’s whirling mandala, a door into something else, heals as it cuts, releases the dark sun;
perhaps this day is a dance of ghosts.
Come back again,
free the land from these pale killers,
their engines that make blood dance
that make our skins into drums.
Come back again,
return, and fade, to whole us,
even as we walk home stepping
through time, through echoing years,
sand in wind, in sleet, in rain.
Come back again,
return, sky-buried, sky-burned,
these nameless signs for an unnamed violence,
held tight to breast, and banishing.
Some readers took this as an anti-war poem, earlier. I wasn't thinking of it as an anti-war poem when I wrote it, though, in late January 2006; I was thinking of it as a ghost exorcism.
I wrote it in a hotel in Bozeman, Montana, after a long day's drive. I had spent most of the morning at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. There's an army cemetery there, as well as markers and guides about the history of Custer's last battlefield; finally there's the Indian peace memorial, for me the most beautiful place of all, at the Monument. (They symbolically and literally "buried the hatchet" there some years ago.) It's a sad, a sombre, but overall a peaceful place. Yet I found myself angry all day, driving along; an anger out of nowhere, for no reason. So, I wrote it out of my system that night when I was at rest in my hotel room, after eating and taking a shower.
The poem is also a rejection of the cipher, the sign, the intermediating symbol that presumes to speak in our stead, and diminishes us. A rejection of anything that stands in for experience, rather than conveying or embodying it, in the poem.
It ends with a chant from the spontaneous ghost exorcism I felt myself involved with that day, at the Little Bighorn, and the echoes of the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee still ringing in the air after a long century and more of blood.