Wood squelched against wood, planed from eastern forests, alien to this land, under the burden of two childless pioneers, Ikka and Anders, the clamor of their possessions, Xena, the nanny goat, and a few anonymous hens. The mob of grasses heard the nervous squeal of the eastern wood and mocked the wagon, had done so since they crossed the Missouri, for its rigidity, its helplessness before the wolf tornado or the weeping of the ghost creek women. And though some grasses were bent beneath the heavy wheels, they rolled back out of the dirt like wrestlers so that before her the wagon saw nothing by nettling grasses and behind more of the same and the trees were few and crooked and small and soft and stared uncomprehendingly at the fine tight grain of the hardwood. The grasses said turn back, this land eats fine lumber like you, whether thunderbird, or Waziya cold, or mildew swarms, or the fires that keep we grasses, we perfect grasses, in fine shine and trim, some grandeur will strike you down and you will die here abandoned, shabby and ill-used. For our ancestors were seaweed and kelp; we know ancient secrets and have made treaties with every frightening thing and live in subterranean cities rich beyond compare. Our grub worms are spun of opal and emerald. Even now you can feel the pull of our cities, dragging you under, cell by cell, where you will surrender your singularity–arrogant once-tree–and become the flesh of grasses. The wagon, who can blame her, groaned and shivered, but was not entirely cowed, for she carried within her belly an iron vengeance, wait until you see the plow, bitch grasses, and feel it snap the spires of your root cities, upend and despoil them, for I will die and you will die but the plow and what it brings will not.
WAZIYA, THE WEATHER SPIRIT
Teton (Lakota Sioux)
The giant called Waziya knows when there is to be a change of weather. He is a giant. When he travels, his footprints are large enough for several Indians to stand in abreast. His strides are very far apart; at one step he can go over a hill.
When it is cold, people say, “Waziya has returned.” They used to pray to him, but when they found he paid no attention to him, they ceased to do it.
When warm weather is coming, Waziya wraps himself in a thick robe. But when cold weather is coming, he wears nothing at all. Waziya, the giant god of the north, and Itokaga, the god of the south, are ever battling. Each in turn wins the victory.
THE UNKTOMI (SPIDER), TWO WIDOWS, AND THE RED PLUMS
There once lived, in a remote part of a great forest, two widowed sisters, with their little babies. One day there came to their tent a visitor who was called Unktomi (spider). He had found some nice red plums during his wanderings in the forest, and he said to himself, “I will keep these plums and fool the two widows with them.” After the widows had bidden him be seated, he presented them with the plums.
On seeing them they exclaimed “hi nu, hi nu (an exclamation of surprise), where did you get these fine plums?” Unktomi arose and pointing to a crimson tipped cloud, said: “You see that red cloud? Directly underneath it is a patch of plums. So large is the patch and so red and beautiful are the plums that it is the reflection of them on the cloud that you see.”
“Oh, how we wish some one would take care of our babies, while we go over there and pick some,” said the sisters. “Why, I am not in any particular hurry, so if you want to go I will take care of my little nephews until you return.” (Unktomi always claimed relationship with everyone he met). “Well brother,” said the older widow, “take good care of them and we will be back as soon as possible.”
The two then took a sack in which to gather the plums, and started off towards the cloud with the crimson lining. Scarcely had they gone from Unktomi’s sight when he took the babies out of their swinging hammocks and cut off first one head and then the other. He then took some old blankets and rolled them in the shape of a baby body andlaid one in each hammock. Then he took the heads and put them in place in their different hammocks. The bodies he cut up and threw into a large kettle. This he placed over a rousing fire. Then he mixed Indian turnips and arikara squash with the baby meat and soon had a kettle of soup. Just about the time the soup was ready to serve the widows returned. They were tired and hungry and not a plum had they. Unktomi, hearing the approach of the two, hurriedly dished out the baby soup in two wooden dishes and then seated himself near the door so that he could get out easily. Upon the entrance of the widows, Unktomi exclaimed: “Sisters, I had brought some meat with me and I cooked some turnips and squash with it and made a pot of fine soup. The babies have just fallen asleep, so don’t waken them until you have finished eating, for I know that you are nearly starved.” The two fell to at once and after they had somewhat appeased their appetites, one of them arose and went over to see how her baby was resting. Noting an unnatural color on her baby’s face, she raised him up only to have his head roll off from the bundle of blankets. “‘My son! my son!” she cried out. At once the other hastened to her baby and grabbed it up, only to have the same thing happen. At once they surmised who had done this, and caught up sticks from the fire with which to beat Unktomi to death. He, expecting something like this to happen, lost very little time in getting outside and down into a hole at the roots of a large tree. The two widows not being able to follow Unktomi down into the hole, had to give up trying to get him out, and passed the rest of the day and night crying for their beloved babies. In the meantime Unktomi had gotten out by another opening, and fixing himself up in an entirely different style, and painting his face in a manner that they would not recognize him, he cautiously approached the weeping women and inquired the cause of their tears.
Thus they answered him: “Unktomi came here and fooled us about some plums, and while we were absent killed our babies and made soup out of their bodies. Then he gave us the soup to eat, which we did, and when we found out what he had done we tried to kill him, but he crawled down into that hole and we could not get him out.”
“I will get him out,” said the mock stranger, and with that he crawled down into the hole and scratched his own face all over to make the widows believe he had been fighting with Unktomi. “I have killed him, and that you may see him I have enlarged the hole so you can crawl in and see for yourselves, also to take some revenge on his dead body.” The two foolish widows, believing him, crawled into the hole, only to be blocked up by Unktomi, who at once gathered great piles of wood and stuffing it into the hole, set it on fire, and thus ended the last of the family who were foolish enough to let Unktomi tempt them with a few red plums.
Poetry, or what has existed for centuries under that name, attaches to earth, with faith, through the dust that everything is; like huge buildings, whose serious shadow augments their substructure, connects and blends with it. This call of the stone coalesces, as it ascends toward the sky, into interrupted columns and arches having an audacious spurt in prayer; but, finally, a certain immobility. I am waiting, as for a dazzling bat and a breeze of gravity, for him to escape, suddenly, with an autochtonous wing sweep, the insane, adamantine, angry, whirling genius, striking the ruin and flying away, the personification of flight, which he alone is.
(trans. Barbara Johnson)
Sometimes I rewrite translations. I don’t retranslate. I rewrite. It’s completely unethical. Ethics have no place in poetry.
The third of three love songs from Samuel HaNagid:
“Enough! I love the gazelle
taking roses from your garden.
Scorn me, but–
If you once gazed at my lover as I do
your lovers would take up arrows and end you.
He said: I want the honey from your hive.
I answered: return it to me on your tongue.
He raged: should we sin against the living God?
I replied: let your sin, sweet master, be with me.
From the first draft of chapter two of Hunger the Giant. This bit of writing is so dense that the revised extension of the ideas and imagery will likely span twenty pages.
In the high lonesome grasslands Ikka and Anders fed mostly on joy. What else did they have? Writ of deed. Money on credit. Deer at the flesh of an aborted orchard. Soil turned against their seed. Early frost, late frost, hail. Neighbors more distant than clouds with hearts hard as red winter wheat.
The settlers swarmed the plains possessed by a greed they had come to call hope. Any man cut away from his homeland is by necessity an opportunist and a thief. Anders’ people had worked their thin Nordic valley for more than a thousand years; Ikka’s lineage ranged far older still. Every corner of that world was filled with stories; in that earth lay all the bones of their ancestors. In Hunger’s inconsolable hours, when Ikka looked at Anders with the panicked eyes of a snake-bit mare and Anders stared back with the blue exhaustion of ice-melt, where were his grandmother’s practiced hands, the mellowing smoke of his grandfather’s pipe, or the rough camaraderie of his cousins? Gone as never was. Revenants. Memories. The continent was conquered thus. The southlands humid with the blood of flayed slaves, the northlands choking on the acrid kindling smoke of its workers, and all of them asking the tribes to choose between swindle and massacre before giving them both. The westland settlers were flung from that horror like spittle on a madman’s chin. Anders was among the best of this lot: a romantic and a fool. When, in the enormous ignorance he explained as bad luck, the north wind took Anders’ hay or the chickens got opossumed, he hoped for an Indian raid. Let my scalp fly from my head and arrows tie me to my fields. Let them carry off Ikka and raise the boy red. But then he’d slide hangdog into the dugout at dusk and lay eyes on mother and child naked in their nest of beaver fur, cotton, and silk. For three more visions like that Anders figured he’d fight to live forever and began to wonder like everyone else where the railroad would run. Ikka’d see these thoughts on his leaf-broad features, tell him to throw more sod and chips in the cracked iron stove and, when he’d undressed, set Hunger square on his chest. And so Ikka and Anders fed mostly on joy. It felt like redemption but it wasn’t. These debts would be paid down through the generations.
Hunger fed mostly on milk.
Late rains bring out the low green new grass beneath shorn and golden fields– the wheat-like light on the distant elevator tower, the distant antipodal fields of clouds, and in between, a horizon of river-rim leaf line.
In 1830, after one hundred years of unprecenteded population growth, emigration from Sweden became legal. Frustrated activists, reformers, and free-thinkers painted settling in the American Continent as an opportunity to reassert traditional Swedish values that had been repressed by an imported and unwelcome monarchical society.
Many European emigrants saw America as a place to establish a new and authentic community. Germans, Latvians, Swedes, the Irish– all came to America to establish towns and countrysides full of their fellows. Although co-opted into myths of American individualism, the vast majority of European immigrants sought new freedom to be with their countrymen- to establish new Uppsalas, new Amsterdams, new Counties Clare.
The notion of ‘becoming American’ hardly existed and certainly didn’t have the meaning it has today.
Once the first brave men and women escaped the poverty and oppression of feudal Sweden, they quickly realized they needed a lot more of their countrymen to live as they would like, in their own tongue, according to customs and beliefs specific to their shared history, and eating the dishes that tasted of home. Many were (or became) liars, opportunists, and thieves who knew how best to prey upon their own countrymen, but the communal human need they exploited was real.
Across Sweden a steady rain of leaflets fell, telling of the ideal conditions and perfect freedom migrants had to recreate their homeland away from the parasitical monarchy. Some of the information was true, much of it was lies. Emigration moved memetically.
Once sizable Swedish farming communities had formed on the prairie, the greatest impetus for further peasant migration came through personal contacts. The iconic “America-letter” to relatives and friends at home spoke directly from a position of trust and shared background, carrying immediate conviction. At the height of migration, familial America-letters could lead to chain reactions which would all but depopulate some Swedish parishes, dissolving tightly knit communities which then re-assembled in the Midwest.
The powers that be in Sweden, however, were in a bind. Too little emigration meant civil unrest. Peasants were getting uppity all over Europe and the monarchs were antsy about it. Letting the most agitated loose their energies on the American wilderness was a much needed release valve. Too much emigration, on the other richly ringed hand, would deprive the landowners of their wealth of serfs.
So the government began a propaganda campaign of their own, replacing the idyllic scenes with representations, in many ways more accurate, of frontier terrors such as hungry cougars, hatchet-wielding natives, and hard weather. The local clergy, in their usual collusion with state power, also warned of moral hazards and foreign heathen. Those who left often did so secretly or in the face of public shaming only to arrive in an America vastly different from what was promised and sometimes in indentured servitude to more established families. The Swedish press, in its usual collusion with state power, stated: “No workers are more lazy, immoral and indifferent than those who emigrate to other places.”
This last attack was less directed at the potential migrants, experienced laborers eager to clear a cougar plagued wilderness and so not very lazy, than the mining, railroad, and lumber industry recruiters setting up offices around the countryside. These industries knew, however, that peasants isolated by language and culture would be less likely to resist exploitation– a fact that continues to drive migration today.
Another agent advocating emigration by printing and dispersing sunny pamphlets about the growing free Swedish metropolises was the Shipping Industry. They made out like bandits. The true extent of their influence is still unknown because most of the companies, which still exist today, refuse to open their archives to researchers. For thirty years these companies charged as much as they could to bring wealthier European peasant families to America. Once that resource was exhausted, shipping companies bottomed out the price so that the poorest could climb aboard. But don’t worry, they made up for the profit loss by packing migrants into desperate and choleric piles, charging exorbitant prices for rotten food and water stored in old turpentine barrels and coercing female passengers into prostitution– doing the deed we can imagine, on mattresses stuffed misprinted pamphlets extolling the freedom and ease of America.
Rather than seeing these ‘hardships’ as an unbroken chain of exploitation that led migrants from European serfdom to helpless sea-bound chattel to American wage slavery and ultimately the dismemberment of their communal ideals, our myths portray the journey as a trial by fire that sanctifies their abuse and the country founded upon it.
Are migrants, as a release valve for domestic tensions, easy marks for highway robbers, and then disenfranchised cheap labor, the grease that keeps the whole machinery of modern human cruelty running? Easy to think so if you’re in a Texas border town or in the sweatshops of Bangalore, less so if you’re on the streets of Lindsborg, Kansas, Little Sweden U.S.A. where for at least a little while the communal and egalitarian dream of Swedish immigrants thrived and the traces of it still remain.
(Photo credit: Jeff Cooper from the Salina Journal.)