Northwest Schools of Literature: Texts

2. David Wagoner, "The Elders"

David Wagoner, The House of Song, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2002.

When by the fire at sundown the elders
No longer spoke, no longer
Shook their heads or reached for the food
Put down beside them, when their eyes stayed closed
Or open without blinking,
When they no longer saw or heard
What they were asked to understand, their children
Would cover them and let them lie
Close to the embers and would turn them over
Carefully and gently in the night
As they would have turned themselves
If they had been sleeping
And would let them rest there through the day
To be covered with leaves in rain,
To be dried by the sun
Like clothing newly washed in a spring,
And then would bring them to the fire again
At evening, to their accustomed places
As the warmth and light of the flames
Healed them, as the smoke healed them and the ashes
Smoothed across their faces, across their arms
And legs and over their whole bodies
Healed them slowly night after night and morning
And afternoon, till the bundles of their skin
Grew light around their bones, still lighter
Each time they were lifted
And carried through the forest to a new campfire,
Till even the youngest could lift them
Like those just born. Their eyes would be changed
To cowrie shells, to slits in a whiteness
Able to see more clearly into the sky
Even at night and far below the earth,
As far upstream as the source and as far
Downstream as the dark mouth of the Sepik River,
Till their spirits became large birds flying away,
Not into trees or into the clouds
But straight against the shoulder blades of their children
Where they would hold as tight against their spines
As if they had grown there, down-curved beaks
Firm along the tops of the living skulls
Of those grown children, where they would walk
And whisper whatever children need to know.

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