Texts by and about Natives: Texts

15. Duane Niatum, “Son, This is What I Can Tell You”

Duane Niatum, “Son, This is What I Can Tell You,” Chelsea 47 (1988): 152-53.

Time, the mapmaker and the one who peppers the road
with holes deeper than thunder’s crack,
the clown who laughs or cries in the tunnel
by which you stumble until it offers oblivion,
grows louder than the madness drums
as you grow smaller and deafer.

O yes, in my vanity and pride I was nourished
like a water ouzel on the iced, tart-red punch
of The-One-Who-Knows—but never tells.

This then is the hurdle that will test your bones
as well as spirit the most: nothing
during these forty-eight years hinted how
the minutes, days, decades can be stopped
from slipping through our fingers like jelly
as we drift in absence. For what lights
the future to the past is blacker
than Killer Whale’s fin and as indifferent
to our story as our birth.

Recently I picked myself up from a fall as slow
as a face focusing on a yellow photograph,
yet more lightly than a dragonfly’s wing.

This was the night I heard for the first time
the bird that chanted from my ribcage
an answer to death: not yet, not yet.

Son, its voice hummed a reality more present
than all the objects discovered in city,
country, river, sea, sky, and heart.

These figures change our lives, the puzzle,
shape, color, direction, and name
of what we see before they can live
with our ashes or their own.

So time shows the way to drop into ourselves
like the turtle on its back, to want
merely the half-notes of Venus and the stars,
to be the remains of night, its dancer
dangling from sky’s daisy-chain web.

And there is a woman’s embrace, like your mother’s,
there are the arts, the shield of love.

I loved your mother because she gave me a gift—
you, and the will to be soft and not cruel,
a man and not a machine, a failure
but a carrier of the moon’s. Your gentle
mother set loose a sparrow that sometimes
flies through my sleep’s evergreens.

From such a field I can believe the diamond-cutting
fiction of a rising sun.

So son, when you can roll like riverbed gravel,
move more as light than bone,
the wounds I gave you will circle back to me.

For your father has been seasoned on salt air
and the stories of the burning longhouses
of my Coast Salish ancestors.

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