Song with Dog and Cemetery
But unto Hannah Elkanah gave a worthy portion;
for he loved Hannah; but the Lord had shut up her womb.
—I Samuel 1:5
The dog, wounded, in half light
flees her fear smell through the cemetery,
past cones of plastic roses, past flags and broken stones,
the monument to the Tongan chief
who brought his tribe here a century ago
then died soon after, homesick
for scents of salt and water, heart converted finally
to the air and to the earth.
The dog is bleeding. A gland has puffed and ruptured.
She has torn back the blue-black skin
with her teeth, making a large wound where the small one was,
making blood and lymph run freely,
scalding her back legs, making a stink of pain,
a sure hot flush.
And so between slabs of gray and the grasses dying
in the desert heat, all I see is red, red, red:
every spot before me
a poppy in bloom, every glance a taint
of embarrassment in the cheek.
The dog is mine
so I need to save her,
believing her to be weaker than me, my child
because I will not have one of my own, too late
with desire, too frightened or unsure
what would happen with one so enfolded, raptured.
I will not take anymore,
the way Hannah’s womb would not take,
scorching itself of sperm, turning her witless, so mad
Hannah is the one who says
for the child God would not give her
she appears drunk with grief.
God can turn any pain into song, if only we work
to make beautiful our suffering.
As she sings, her mouth grows dark with wine.
Do you believe her?
It’s an old story
and one I get wrong, too used
to disbelief, not one who wants to be pulled
into the shadow of faith
the way my friend does, sick in the hospital,
breast milk having soured in a lump
in her arm socket, a swelling so violent that at first
it looked like cancer, and so they drained and scraped
and drained again, they radiated her uselessly
until her skin turned wormwood
and they stripped the fragile nodes
like spider webs of bloody light—
Till she turned feverish, raved, her wide mouth
a glassy stain
she could not press upon the new, soft head,
the hot shadow
wheeled back and forth to the flesh
it could not feed from, crying—
We should have comforted her,
those of us without children, watching
medicine’s liquid urge
wreaked inside her as still some part of us stayed
indifferent; some part of us grew, like me, proud,
even envious of her body’s failure—
(that was the bitterness in it, my gloating)—
tell me what I keep without hesitation.
Not my friend, you say. Not even
this dog, who came to me
too late; who arrived and stayed
a duty: every night
I put out food for her, I stroke
the red wedge face, I speak
sometimes sweetly, sometimes so brutally I cannot believe
a human mouth can make such sounds,
telling me she is not my daughter
until I am drunk with anger, swollen
and fierce with it, wrapped in its burning, acid gown.
And here are the cemetery’s statues of angels,
fat flesh chiseled with rain so that the cheeks
appear flagellated, the pert mouths tugged down
in a scowl over youth’s dissolving.
All the settler’s children’s graves are spongy
with age; the foreign names
softened into partial anonymity:
Ephraim and Nephi, Vashti, Tobit, Esdras, Uriel—
who are these stillborn strangers
but tales only the oldest would remember,
the ones who said the prayers and rituals and set stones out
among the grasses
and let the grasses grow in the desert
and let the desert bloom with storefronts,
traffic, playgrounds, making us surround their children,
making us learn to value their dead.
An old story, the dead: how they keep growing.
how they keep needling us, lonely,
wounded to the bone.
How they bleed their long fingers
into our houses, our gardens, into the very hair
of the child I only sometimes wish I had,
that ghost with its blackened mouth
coming to nurse at my breast,
smothered each night by hand.
The song in me has dried out. An old story:
unable to cling to faith, unable to steer with it,
cutting through the dark waters.
After the chief died, it is said
all his tribesmen abandoned his faith; they went back
to their first ways, their real names, forgetting him.
A sad song, though I gloat over it:
what could they go back to?
They stayed in Utah of course,
and so remained caught here
between two possibilities.
Another kind of tragedy. The human one.
What would define them.
What they would believe or pretend to
when desire hurt them,
their made or chosen bodies broken
by what they once called need.
What they would see when they turned back
from the long grasses, the cool stones, back
to the quiet light
disappearing from their houses.
What I myself might see could only I turn to it.
The dog runs. She is wounded. She is bleeding.
She is fingered by the dead whose living shadow we call pain.
Thou shall not seethe a lamb in its mother’s milk, Hannah sings to me.
As she keens, my friend’s breasts grow light with song; they empty
like her heart does, an old story. The human one.
Such are the choices left to us;
we keep what we must. So I follow her
deep into the cemetery. I run.
Edward Curtis’ “Good Lance: Oglala”
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