Thursday, March 7, 2013

Of Bears and Men - a poem by Billy Stratton




This fine poem, by my friend Billy J. Stratton, a teacher of Native American literature in the English Department at the University of Denver, is also of Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, and the glimmerings in pain, of nonviolence in some soul sense (among humans and the earth, to the extent possible) and decency...

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Of Bears and Men

Nothing compares to the sight of a grizzly bear
swatting sly salmon from a rushing river,
frantic caudal fins fluttering in the spray, wounded
mortally. The hunter kneels on one knee,
posing with his kill as blood seeps into the sand
only to disappear at the edge of the creek.

Before there were people there was this creek,
and through its bounty it gave birth to the bear,
who watched panicked fish stirring up sand,
but, who can imagine an undammed, unspoiled river?
Just the thought of it brings some to their knees,
to imagine the earth mended of its wounds.

What is history if not the accumulation of wounds
on the soul of man. Who listens to the sound of a creek
these days, trudging through leechy bayous, knee-
deep in the mire, in the wet tracks of sly black bears,
stealing past creatures that lay eggs in the sand?
What is a swamp but a boundless river;

one that extends beyond the mud of its own river
banks, where an ignis fatuus seeps from the wounds
of the earth. A place where drifting particles of sand
collect to form a fan of sasparilla, where creeks
converge at somber places, where weary old bears
go off to die, and young pious men fall to their knees

and then wander away with bruised, dirty knees.
Some walk miles to bathe their guilt in the beautiful river
surrounded by stone walls where figures of wolves and bears
are commemorated in ancient petroglyphs, wounded
by hunters throwing spears. Once I followed a creek
high into the mountains and found it seeping from a sand-

stone cliff. That is all I know, my prints were left in the sand;
they were gone after a few days, swept clear in the creek’s
surge of spring rain that can cleanse even the deepest of wounds.
Darkness falls as resolute hunters drive the last few bears
from their dens, into a land cleared of trees from river to river.
In the night the hunters march on, resolute, invincible, with knees

crying to bend, eyes of sand, carrying a burden only a killer can bear.
Once more, let us trace the creek to where it empties into the river
and rest there, knees buckled under the weight of earth’s vast wound.

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