Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Song for your Journey: for Karenne Wood

Dr. Karenne Wood, Monacan poet and scholar, walked on not long ago, taking with her a large piece of my heart. 

When I arrived in Virginia 16 years ago, Karenne welcomed me to her homeland, offering her hospitality with open hands. Over the years we knew one another, Karenne Wood became a necessary and cherished part of my life. She visited my Native American Literature classes at Washington and Lee University (and gave readings) multiple times, was always available to confer with about Indigenous poetry and politics, invited me to read with her (and accepted invitations to read with me at conferences or community gatherings), celebrated our writing accomplishments, and commiserated over our frustrations with academia. We exchanged poem drafts and teaching strategies, dog stories, kid stories, and encouragment for the long haul. Karenne befriended my wife, Margo Solod, and always asked after her when we checked in over email or messaging. Karenne's own health - a 20 year battle against various kinds of cancer - was something she was more reluctant to discuss, but which she took very seriously. She knew how quickly everything could change; how luscious each and every day was, and therefore, how to celebrate life. 

When renowned poet (and now Poet Laureate of the United States) Joy Harjo came to read at my university in February of 2019, of course I asked Karenne to come welcome Joy to Monacan land. Karenne replied that she had been working on a land acknowledgment protocol with U of Virginia, and that "I am happy that people want to hear our language and acknowledge our presence. If you want me to do the prayer before Joy’s talk, I am willing. It’s brief. As for a gift, I thought of a honeysuckle basket with a lid, made by our tribal elder Bertie Branham." I didn't realize until the day of the event that Karenne would be coming from Charlottesville after another radiation treatment, or that speaking was difficult for her. That night, she shone. Her love for Joy Harjo, and a natural gracious, generous energy carried Karenne through the reading, and dinner afterwards. That was Karenne - always a giver.

In short, Karenne was a beautiful human being whose joyful presence in my life eased some of the loneliness I experience as the only Indigenous professor at my university, and taught me much about living in the moment. I will miss her deeply. At her Celebration of Life service, over 200 people came to hear stories about her life from her two daughters, tribal members, and friends. I guarantee you, Karenne was beloved by every single one of them, and many many more who could not attend.

I know I am not alone in my grief, or in feeling blessed by knowing Karenne Wood. In that spirit, I offer this poem, which came to me early this morning.

Song for Your Journey

            - for Karenne Wood

Heart battered as an old tree,
skin stretched to hold each year –
inscribed with the initials
of those who have loved you,
scarred characters too deep to erase:
imperfect letters, perfect.

This tree’s bark knows the iron blows
of despair, but still guards
what’s inside: all the circular years
spreading like ripples
from a pebble thrown into the center
of a lake with no name.

At dawn, mist swathes the lake in long soft breaths.
A Great Blue heron
spears the water, shimmering bass brave
the mysterious air in pursuit
of solace, and somewhere at the core
of this poem your soul

quests like a damselfly, skitters across          
a wide blue absence.
Friend, let the slim glitter of wings
carry you into sunrise where time
spins its spiraled arms, calls you
dear heart, darling, daughter –

and all of your branches burst into leaf,
one shining green prayer

at a time.

Deborah A. Miranda

Karenne's obituary from the Academy of America Poets, where some of her poetry is posted:

Karenne Wood
Karenne Wood was born on May 31, 1960. She received an MFA from George Mason University and a PhD in linguistic anthropology from the University of Virginia.
She was the author of the poetry collections Weaving the Boundary (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Markings on Earth (University of Arizona Press, 2001), winner of the Diane Decorah Award for Poetry from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.
Of her work, the poet Heid E. Erdrich writes, “These poems move us through indigenous history to reveal our presence today—in an act of resistance and revelation and faith.” An enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, Wood directed the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Center for the Humanities. She formerly served as a repatriation director for the Association on American Indian Affairs, the chair of the Virginia Council on Indians, and a member of the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission.
In 2002 Wood was named the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year, and in 2015 she was named one of Virginia’s Women in History by the Library of Virginia. She also received the 2009 Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Programs. Wood died on July 21, 2019.
Some of my favorite pictures with Karenne, at readings or gatherings... 

After Joy Harjo's reading and talk at Washington & Lee University, this past February.

 With Mojave poet Natalie Diaz at Washington & Lee University.

 At the Library of Congress, L to R: Deborah Miranda, Karenne, Eric Gansworth, Louise Erdrich, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Stephen Graham Jones.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Among the Cloud Ancestors

Flying from San Diego to Phoenix this morning, and the cloud ancestors were everywhere! Made me think of this poem that I wrote in 2017. 

She Captures Clouds

Thunderheads float high above her body:
cumulus, cirrus, stratus. Her relations
practice the slow arts of moisture, wind.

They ride in, flow out, fade away, return;
like love. She turns her luminous face
upward, lets lightning ribbon her cheeks. 

That's peace. That's pain.  Clouds lumber
up from the Gulf of Mexico, push
an inversion over the Great Plains.

Clouds have lives of their own, Ancestors
of their own. They go their own way,
a little fickle, some say, a touch fey.

She is no wounded angel, not hardly—
she’s made of clouds, she’s cloud-struck 
child of clouds. She captures their stories

like sky stones, drinks until her tongue

 translates a transparent language: 

 release, release, release.

Deborah A. Miranda

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Living in Omelas

We are living in Omelas. Do you know the story? The story of a magical, beautiful society in which everything the people have that is good depends on keeping an innocent child caged, abused, neglected? Ursula K. Le Guin writes,

"In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar…The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room.”

Le Guin calls it “a room,” but we soon learn that this is a cage. An enclosure to keep a living thing from obtaining their freedom; an indictment from one in power about the intrinsic value of one lacking empowerment.

“In the room,” she continues, “a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten ... it sits hunched in the corner … and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.”

Who are these people, the ones who come to glance furtively, guiltily, with such repulsion? They are the people of Omelas, who by custom or law, must witness the child’s conditions with their own eyes at least once in their lifetime. Admirable, in its own way, this act – at least citizens are fully informed, required to have knowledge of the horror beneath the surface. Le Guin notes that without exception, these witnesses – usually young people – are horrified, and want to rescue the child. Of course, Le Guin says, “… that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one … The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”

Yes: Omelas is a utopia built on top of the question why, which must never be asked.

Le Guin does not sugar-coat the realities of the caged child’s life. “The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. ‘I will be good,’ it says. ‘Please let me out. I will be good!’ They never answer. The child … is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually."

Ursula K. Le Guin died just 18 months ago, in January 2018. I want to think she was somehow spared the daily news of children's faces inside cages even within the boundaries of her beloved California, verified reports such as this one from the New York Times: “Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants.” I want to think Le Guin was spared these images and reports – but I understand that she saw this story coming years ago, in all its different manifestations. Indeed – Omelas has existed, exists, in so many places, in so many times, that we almost don’t know anything else is possible.


Le Guin’s story reminds us that it is a choice, you see. A choice to know the child in the cage suffers; a choice to allow, by doing nothing, the child's suffering to continue. The child is "it," not a person. That makes the knowing easier for the people of Omelas. That makes it easier to be a citizen of a land dependent on the pain of innocents. I can even imagine kind-hearted Omelasians traveling to other lands on missions of mercy, as saviors for the poor children of other nations – building hospitals and schools for children trapped in poverty, donating clothing to victims of war or famine or natural disaster. That would be allowed. That would not disrupt Omelas itself.

But sometimes … sometimes, Le Guin writes, a person comes to see the child and cannot make peace with this truth. Those people wrestle with their souls. They cannot make the choice to save the caged child – thus shredding the entire fabric of their country - but they also cannot continue to benefit from that child’s torture, either.

Those are the ones, Le Guin says, “who walk away from Omelas.” Instead of going home to comfort, family, job and willed ignorance, “…they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Even though Le Guin warns that what lies beyond Omelas is unimaginable, I’ve tried to imagine it. Even though she tells us each person goes alone, I’ve hoped for a kind of solidarity between individuals who cannot accept the terms of this social contract.  And even though she says the ones who walk away never return to Omelas, I wonder. I wonder what would happen if those who walk away from Omelas return to their country together, pooling all that they have learned on their journey, willing to ask the ‘why’ of it all: Why must even the mere chance of one child’s happiness cause the loss of an entire society’s privileges? Why is this gross imbalance of power misrepresented as balance? Who made up that rule? Who decides that change is destructive, rather than creative? And why does everyone in Omelas believe this "fact," swallow this premise hook, line and sinker?

I imagine, in my wildest dreams, citizens willing to face their darkest fears, willing to accept that change might not result in catastrophe, but something even more valuable: self-respect. Humanity. I imagine citizens willing to pay the price for such a prize.

I imagine that returning to Omelas would destroy Omelas as it currently exists; Omelas would no longer be Omelas. It would be something else. Not utopian, not idyllic. Not the Omelasian Dream. I don’t know what we would name it. I don’t know if it has ever truly existed before - though I must say a few groups, both "civilized" and "primitive" - have made the attempt. I don’t know if Le Guin’s narrative ends on a hopeful or doomed note. Must we invent an entirely new world? Is nothing in this one salvageable?

Yes, I struggle with questions about living in Omelas, about the children in our cages. Do you?

“Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” originally appeared in the short story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. Le Guin, in1975. It has since been reprinted multiple times.

Friday, July 5, 2019

July 4, 2019

Today, I met a man who reminded me so much of my dad. He was sitting on a bench outside of Target. Dark skin, curly gray hair, warm brown eyes squinting in the sun; baseball cap, windbreaker, khaki pants and black sneakers. Silver metal cane. My dad would have had his Seahawks or Mariners windbreaker and cap on, but otherwise, they could have been brothers. 

Robert was the most wonderful storyteller. He'd had quite the day; told me how he'd been stumbling from one roadblock to the next: broken phone, missed bus, broken belt, bought one that was too small, returned it, bought another, tried to buy himself lunch but his EBT card wouldn't work, had to sit down and rest. 

I'm not doing him justice by a long shot - his was a glorious, wry tale of cosmic injustice. An ability to laugh at himself added to the richness of his language. I asked him about the logo on his hat, which led to discussion about homelessness in San Diego. By the time my ride had arrived, we'd exchanged family stories and a few chuckles. When I shook his hand, I slipped him a bill without revealing it, folded up and inconspicuous against his palm, just the way my dad taught me. "Let me buy you lunch?" I asked, and he accepted. My dad said it was good manners not to flash the money; it meant more, he said. Robert told me he would pray for my dad. I told him, "I'll be thinking of you." 

I am.

And then on the ride home, my Lyft driver, Baruti, turned out to be a student from Botswana. He came over after high school to go to college. We talked about his classes. He's gotten A's in all of his English courses and is on his last one, a creative writing class. "That's the most difficult," he said, "but I keep working at it; I'm getting better." I told him, if he could write well, he'd be okay for the rest of college. He asked if I'd written a book, and tapped the title into his cell phone. He didn't know anything about California missions or Indians, but he wanted to. He loves this country. "I'm sorry it's not at its best right now," I sighed. He responded seriously, "This country is changing. It's a hard change. This country has to realize it has 8 million people in it and many of them are different; things will change, but it will all be all right." 

I needed someone to tell me it would all be okay. You just never know who that will be. 

I'm getting ready to fly up to Seattle tomorrow (from my month-long writing residency here in San Diego). The talk that I'll give is for a small (18, I think) group of educators from all over the world. Mexico, Brazil, Togo,  Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey, Portugal, France, Belarus, Finland, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, Nepal, Mongolia, and China. And 3 Europeans. Seattle U is hosting the Study of the U.S. Institute for Scholars (SUSI) on Contemporary American Literature—a Fulbright-related Institute, funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Afterwards, we'll have a gourmet Native American catered dinner from Seattle's Off the Rez food truck. Sounds fancy. These particpants have read Bad Indians, and now ... they get to meet me. 

It's been a rough week. I do not feel I am at my best, but ... I think about the Ancestors, and I think about all I've accomplished, I remember those who've mentored and believed in me; and I think fondly of my former student, Christina Roberts (Gros Ventre and Assiniboine), now a Professor teaching at SU, and who invited me to talk tomorrow. It's been 20 years since she and I survived the first Native American Liturature course I ever taught, just when the Makah resumed their traditional whale hunt and bumperstickers with the words "Save a Whale, Harpoon a Makah" appeared in the University of Washington parking lot. 

I think about the seeds that hide down inside those cracks in the dried earth, receive a cool sip of rain, and surge up out of the gray earth with such bright green sun-reaching leaves, deep gold and purple blossoms - 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Prophetstown, Indiana

      for Danny

we walk a fragment
of old prairie
at the end of May

            walk on ashes
walk on ashes

skeletons of wigwams
reconstructed for tourists
bleach under a sky

heavy with thunder
wide as a long memory
hot as arson

            walk on ashes
walk on ashes

my son picks a little tune
he calls "Tippecanoe Blues"
out of his Ibanez guitar—

"Tecumseh and the Prophets
wrote this one," he says—
a red-winged blackbird

perches on a long stem
of dead grass, listens
like he’s heard that song          

            [walk on ashes
walk on ashes]



Tuesday, May 21, 2019



Honeysuckle and wild roses in May -- the exact scent of longing, the sweet yearning of dawn, the twilight taste of something you can’t name, but almost remember or ache to know. A place or a person who once held you when you cried, or opened her hand to reveal your desire gleaming on her palm like a perfectly matched note of song. Unassuming flowers, delicately formed white and yellow petals, release a scent designed to lure bees and other pollinators from afar; in the human brain, these same ribbons set off complex riffs of unchained melodies, send extra electric pulses to the heart, open those sealed doors like the world’s smoothest safecracker. Your soul can’t resist turning toward the forest where these vines twine and rise above an old deer path. You don’t ask why. You can’t. Your body looks like it’s sitting in a rocker on a faded gray porch above a green river; but the part of you that has never known enough love flies toward that dream you caught once, long ago. Or maybe it's a dream you never caught, but still -- impossibly -- have enough innocence left to chase.