From a dream photograph that might have been taken by A.L.Kroeber
The pages of the talking book are thick
and floury to the touch. Blades of shadow
in the old black-and-white plates cut
Klamath landscapes into sourbread slices.
The tree in the photo that draws me
spreads stocky bare limbs from a headland.
Dark eagles roost, row on row.
Two women perch among them, second row
on the right. Can this be a group portrait?
The tree stands like a scaffold.
I must know more. I lean into the picture
and find it is an open window.
Leaning through, I see the tree has no roots;
strong native men hold it in place,
tensing their muscles against the wind
that wants to sweep it out across the bay.
Everything has been prepared by man’s –
or woman’s – intention. Birds and women
perch on cross-boughs tied together.
Early ethnographers, Teutonic ladies
of military mien, stand bespectacled watch
but will not speak to the interloper at the window.
I turn back to the book for help.
On the facing page is a Farewell Song.
The book sings utterly foreign words to me
full of long Es, full of keening,
and counsels me never to confuse
a terminal N with a final M.
I think this would be a sweet way to go:
to leave the body in the scaffold tree
to be picked clean by fastidious carrion birds.
Better than moldering in the earth
or viler still, in an airtight cask above it.
I will have my body burned to white ash
when my spirit is done with it
because scaffold trees are problematic
in places with health codes and too many people.
Yet in my heart I would like to fly off
with the sea-going eagles, rising into beauty.
Comment: This poem is in my collection, Here, Everything Is Dreaming: Poems and Stories, published by Excelsion Editions/State University of New York Press. I am inspired to post it today because of discussion of the influence on Ursula LeGuin of her anthropologist father, A.L.Kroeber, who is mentioned here.
Graphic: Tree burial of the Oglala Sioux near Fort Laramie, Wyoming. American Indian Select List number 18, US Government Archives.