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Story Tree

This poem was co-written by Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann and US Poet Laureate Jo Harjo for Fair Trade, a Poetry Month Signature Program

 

Ali, Sister--

I lay my body down. My mind does not slow for sleep. It has no place to rest,
Not in this country, this government, this time of the heavy turning earth.
An eternity can exist in a moment, an hour, or in the song life of the humble
sparrows who mutter as they dream in the tree that breaks through concrete and
sorrow of this poem.
 
Five trains cross the city.
The man chased by demons screams out. He roams this area day and night.
His bad dreams never sleep. They beg our ears for mercy.
A ruined goddess dressed in streetlight begs a ghost for change.
She wears a crown of cigarette smoke.
 
Tulsa is the corrupted form of our name for “town” or “old town”:
Tallasi, or Tvlvhasse.
Down the street the ashes of the fires we left behind in the forced march
Were rekindled beneath the Council Oak Tree. It is still there: our story and
The tree who holds it in place, and the memory of fire.
The thieving never ends. And now the pandemic haunts us Indians, takes us,
Especially those of us who are older. In our Mvskoke culture
Elder is respected. In the swallowing-everything-up culture, we are
death watch. 
 
Those viral killers approach my mind to plant fear. They act familiar, shake hands,
make treaties. They sit down without being invited. We recognize them as part of
the great disturbance.
 
I give my mind the task of holding the door open for the ancestors, the guardians,
the winds. When I sing there is no way in for evil.
 
Once in the middle of the country in the early of my life, I drove my children through
the night in our small pickup truck, back from a winter break in Tulsa, north to my
education, my way out. We stopped for gas.
 
Cold winds had blown and blasted us for hours. Snow was now drifting the highway.
My son jumped out to clean the windshield.
My baby girl stood up and yawning, she said:
 
“I was just dreaming someone somewhere else, and I wonder if someone
Somewhere else was dreaming us.” 
 
Then she went back under the sleep blanket and drifted to where she had come
from—to the origin place of poetry, the eternal road between your people and mine,
between you and me.
 
We filled up, kept driving through the darkness.
 
My girl became a dreamer with her beadwork
Her designs emerge from father-mother ancestor patterns as her children and
grandchildren play around her.
 
And my son labors on the railroad, always moving, leaping agile to the next thought
of history on the tracks of living. He worked on each of these trains running through
this city, Just yards away from this room as they carry oil, coal, and other extractions
from beloved earth, as his daughter takes the path of plant and animal knowledge.
 
Here we are on the verge of shift. We lost three culture-carriers within days.
Others are on ventilators, turning toward the next sacred story.
 
I find myself in the night, which is your next day, reaching through
Eternal wonder, through the mind field of prayers, to you
 
Everything is a prayer driving, singing, crying, falling down, getting back up, the
small animals that we meet on the road, the trees, the beingness, the becoming. 
 
You are a prayer, my sister.
 
 
****       ****       ****       ****       ****
 

Dear Sister

There are no trains here. The railway lines have been removed, the station house
vacant in disrepair. I wait by the broken platform for my son's return. There is no
view of him. I no longer knows where he lives.

Millions of trees are demolished to build the railroad. Now barely a tree survives.
You and I know old trees hold memories. It is tragic these trees have been destroyed.
No factual re-telling of first contact is encouraged here. So much is denied
when truth hangs dismal in the air.

Miles of empty railway corridors are re-sown with native seeds, the regeneration of
saplings an offering to the native animals and birds, a haven built by those who have
destroyed what was. Of course I am excluded. I am no longer fauna and flora. There
is no returning. There is no re-turn. Truth is a lonely weight to carry.

An urgency arrives on a crying wind. My grandmother lives there. She reminds me to
walk. I turn and walk and walk and walk. I do not run. I feel hope dying on my
breath. A thin ribbon of trees reveals hidden inside the horizon. My mother lives the
sunset. My mother reminds me. This is the route to the river.

I wade into the water. I know you are here by the trees. I know everyone is here. Tall
trees grow here. The girthed trees are the Elders. They remind me to rest. In the
comfort of their shade I perceive my daughter. She lives here in the shadows unable
to leave. She has become water that slows silent over sand. I follow her to the sedge
grass. It grows strong here. I weave a dilly-bag to carry her. I weave a dilly-bag to
carry us. I weave my way back through the mystery of time. I am footsteps in the sand.
 
I send you stories in my dreams. I read your stories in the leaves. I love our secrets. I
have guarded mine since birth, my inheritance from my grandmother. A story-tree
grows inside me and can only be viewed in my eyes. I remember you held me in
your gaze. You know my secret. Now everything is secretive. Ask the birds.
 
On the platform I wait for my son. Roads crisscross where the trains once ran. I walk
to the motorway. Our grasses do not grow here. Our animals lay dead by the
roadside.  It is the sacrifice of us for as far as the eye can see. It is the tactic of the
government to halt the arrival of prayer. It is a desolate land barren of trees.

Your prayer arrives through the silence of dismay, dropped from the talon of an
eagles' claw, winged from your window to mine, that has flown from your heart.

Joy. It is exactly what I need.

And truth.
 
****       ****       ****       ****       ****
 
 
Let us sew dresses
So we look the same as we walk toward the sun
 
We will make them together of grasses and winds
We find along the river of time, made of smooth stone

Go to Joy Harjo's profile to read more poems

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Poem Video

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann and Joy Harjo read 'Story Tree' | Fair Trade