Poems

Laura Da’: “Mississippi Panorama”

This post continues our series of Pushcart Prize-nominated work from recent issues of Poetry Northwest. This poem from Laura Da’, “Mississippi Panorama,” was originally published in the Winter & Spring 2016 issue of Poetry Northwest.

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“Mississippi Panorama” comes out of a book I have been working on for the past three years or so. The surveying and mapping of America and its impact on my Shawnee and European ancestors are my primary concerns in this work.

I remember exactly when I started this poem. I was peeking into some research during one of my free periods at school and I was struck by an account of how newspaper reporters used to make up lurid accounts of atrocities in the west to sell to eastern papers. This was in the era of slavery and in a time when the indigenous people of America were deep in the flood of genocide. The true atrocities were all around.

By the time I was in the thick of this poem, I had become very ill. My body was failing and it brought me back in touch with other memories of hurt, disaster, and violation. From the vantage of a season, I can see how my own pain and fear played out within the poem’s imagery. I think my own catastrophe inched me closer to the primary thesis of this poem; to see the movement of colonialism from the relative safety of numbers or lines on a map is a betrayal of the true cost exacted in living bodies and souls.

Mississippi Panorama

Grunts of the crew
cordelling upriver
go soft through a sandbar.
Sparse lights clot thicker
in the southway flow where a
Rain +floating
greenhouse of exotic plants
slips between sleeper trees
Rain +and billows the sleek
Rain +hum of chartreuse rot.

Crescent’s survey crew pauses
at a bonfire rendezvous
nestled inside of a horseshoe bend
south of
Rain +36°35’16: N 89°32’9″ W.
They drink
a newspaper man’s proffered anisette
and listen to his lament
for copy. His panorama painter
nods at an assistant
to unload
slender glass flasks
of linseed oil.

These strangers start wary
Rain +spooked by rumors of Yellow Jack
Rain +moving down the riverbank,
Rain +but the drinks soothe their reserve.

Loquacious and loose,
one man allows
that you can buy inoculations
off the Indian Agents
on the other side of the river
that buffer the disease,
though he doesn’t trust such things
Rain +and wouldn’t credit it truly.

The newspaper man confesses
to all who will listen
that he’s bent on fabricating
a story of gruesome atrocity
Rain +in the west—a thicket of corpses
Rain +to sell to the Eastern papers.

The next morning,
they move to the marrow-searing
flask of rye
and the painter
stretches his canvas on a knoll.

Soul drivers unlash
their flatboats from the floating
cities and shrug their vigilance,
as they round the Kentucky Bend
Rain +into the heel of Missouri.

They step to land,
anxious to trade for gulps
of honey brandy
to chase off the milk-sick fly.
Rain +They bring a girl.

By the flat-blue hour,
the painter is dead drunk
raving at them
to drag her out
of his line of sight.

He flicks paint
across cinnamon roots
as he lurches,
digs a filthy fingernail
in frustration
across the bottom of the wet canvas.

As he pulls her away,
Crescent misjudges her lightness
his grip slithers around her ankle:
Rain +her heel is calloused,
Rain +but each toe
Rain +still holds a child’s plump
Rain +curves and neat nails,
Rain Rain +smooth and tidy
Rain Rain +as walleye scales.

Her clothes are stained, she smells
Rain +like metal;
rusty plumes of bog tannin
Rain +leech into the river
Rain +in patches
Rain +all around them.

A preacher tree
bobs up and down
into the water
baptized in loose silt
Rain +of Mississippi relish.

Laura Da’ is a poet and a public school teacher. A lifetime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Da’ studied creative writing at the University of Washington and the Institute of American Indian Arts. Da’ is an enrolled member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Da’ is a recipient of a 2015 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowship. Her first chapbook, The Tecumseh Motel, was published in Effigies II, and the University of Arizona Press published her first full-length manuscript, Tributaries, in 2015.

photo credit: lotus8 Sand Textures via photopin (license)