Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by Native Americans

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Visiting the Taos Pueblo (“an ancient community continuously inhabited for 100 years”) on San Geronimo Day, I was frightened by the Sacred Clowns (Koshares). The list of rules for visitors explained that these fit young men roving about in traditional dress— painted torsos and masks—could take things from you, intimidate you, and even push you into a small stream. They represented ancestors, reminding us that we were standing (eating, taking photos, buying things) on their land. It was best to avoid eye contact.

Unscathed on San Geronimo Day, I discovered later that the tricksters had permanently penetrated my consciousness. A lost key held me captive in a hotel room in New Jersey, until I found it inexplicably in the bathroom wastebasket. In Jemez Springs, New Mexico, I woke during the night to searing headlights, but there was no car. And there’s more.

Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by Native Americans is a reissue of an anthology first published in 1975. Sacred Clowns won’t jump off the pages, but you will be reminded whose land you may be parked on—if you arrived after Columbus, that is.

A poetry anthology invites generalizations. At our best, we seek connections. At our worst, we engage in stereotypes. The poets—14 men and 7 women, representing 21 different tribal affiliations—move me, with a magical, musical blend of experience and craft shared by good poets everywhere. Editor Kenneth Rosen says in his introduction, “in these poems… memory and past experience are somehow holy, sacred, to be handled with care,” which isn’t necessary unique to Native American poetry. In a grander and more inclusive statement which absolutely rings true regarding the poetry in this volume, Michael Ryan, in his essay “Poetry and the Audience” says: “…in this historical moment poetry seems both more anachronistic and more important as a custodian of time, a preserver of bodily memory in its rudimentary sense, the one million years of humanity and four billion years of life of the earth.” And he subsequently quotes Heinrich Zimmer, writing about Native American storytellers, “Each poet adds something of the substance of his own imagination, and the seeds are nourished back to life.” Yes, that’s it. That’s what it feels like to read Voices of the Rainbow, which has as much range as reverence.

Turn to the first poem in the volume, “Winter Burn” by Roberta Hill, of the Wisconsin Oneida tribe. You will sigh as if settling into a warm mineral spring at Ojo Caliente. From the first stanza:

When birds break open the sky, a smell of snow
blossoms on the wind. You sleep, wrapped up
in blue dim light, like a distant leaf of sage.
I drink the shadow under your ear
and rise, clumsy, glazed with cold.
Sun, gleaming in frost, reach me.
Touch through the window this seed that longs
little by little to flare up orange and sing.
Branches turn to threads against the sun.

Leslie Marmon Silko’s (Laguna Pueblo) “Poem for Myself and Mei: Abortion (Chimle to Fort Defiance, April 1973)” says not a word about what took place—but white space equals sorrow, and the poem ends with butterflies—you have to go back to the beginning of the poem to find them. They “die softly/ against the windshield/ and the iridescent wings / flutter and cling/ all the way home.”

In Janet Campbell Hale’s (Coeur D’Alene) bereft and skinny poem, “Desmet, Idaho, March 1969” she writes of hearing the ancient tribal language, as older people at her father’s wake speak to her as if she understands.

“Flock”, Lance Henson (Cheyenne) is a six-line, supremely elegant poem where “snow moves / like an ancient herd.”

There are angry poems, like Anna Walters’s ( Pawnee/ Oto) “A Teacher Taught Me”, “a teacher taught me / more than she knew / patting me on the head / putting words in my hand / –“pretty little Indian girl”, with each stanza ending with “laugh and say – “aye”. Carter Rivard’s (Osage) “Advice From Euterpe” begins: “They hire you for the silk to line their budgets / and give you immortal tenure / among the well-thumbed leaves / until you spin”. Lew Blockcolski’s (Cherokee / Choctaw) “The Urban Experience” Parts One and Two disturb and engage me with their anger as well as sorrow: “so one anxious evening, everso late, / in the cream white of his jail cell / he dreamed the midnight dancers / buried him head down.”

Sorrow and the ghost of Robert Creeley run through “Drunk”, with hungry and tightly woven, meticulously patterned tercets—a complex, eminently human poem by Caroll Arnett (Cherokee).

Harold Littlebird ((Santo Domingo / Laguna Pueblo) won my heart with the title of his poem, “For the Girls ‘Cause They Know”, which begins

good night, my two little cloud ladies
Elima, fat dark rain bearer
you are echoes of summer
the flooding of rivers
the shaping of arroyos
the treads in my eyes
Chamisa, gentle misty lady rain
you bring a joy to the fields

Anita Endrezze-Probst (Yaqui) enchants with “Raven / Moon,” a lush and lovely re-working of a Native American legend: “She tosses the Moon / to her wild-eyed son.”

These are just a few jewels from this book of 200 poems. Don’t be surprised if you have unusual dreams (thank you, tricksters), especially after reading the contributor’s biographical notes. Apparently an editorial decision froze them in the year 1975 which is as mind-bending as some of the poems.

Ellen Miller-Mack has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 5 A.M., Valparaiso Poetry Review, Rattle, Verse Wisconsin and Bookslut. She co-wrote The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press) and is a nurse practitioner/primary care provider at a community health center in Springfield, Massachusetts. More from this author →