Five Poems

These poems first appeared in Horsefly Dress, published by the University of Arizona Press in 2020, and are presented here as part of Poetry Northwest’s Native Poets Torchlight Series.



Arrow-leaved balsamroot bones
cover the hillside. Their dried foliage
rustles, brittle leaves rub one on another
mimicking a rattlesnake warning
that shakes me back to the trail
and my four-year old son hiking in front.
I hear him say, “Mom, pretend we are lions,”
then I pause as he repeats what I whisper
to him each night as he shifts into sleep:
We are brave and we are safe.


How to describe energy without matter,
without dimension or gods. A holiness
filled the hospital room the moment
of his birth. He was born still and then
held in tight familial embrace. We felt
the slight weight of his body, the largeness
of his being, an incorporeal force
filling the room like light, or scent,
uncontainable, a pervasive medium
that all-encompassed us in knowing.


The most difficult death is forgiveness,
a basket woven from reeds of resentment
and sorrow reworked into useful form.
It is the act of re-striking the delicate
balance between grievance and absolution
from perceived wrong actions or events,
those ephemeral instances that impart
lasting impacts. May I realize this most
difficult death as a catalyst for life.

(Scƛ’lil is the Salish word for death)


May I be worthy

++++.,+of my most embattled moments.

++++++++++.,+May I find a way        to render meaning

++++.,+from the blood-marbled memories

++++++++++.,+cached inside

++++.,+the carcass of the past.

A Movement of Memory in Two Parts


Begin as you drive past Ninepipes,
past blue herons knee-deep
in marshy water, past the delicate tracks
left in shoreline mud by the air-boned
bodies of killdeers.  Start there;
try remembering your most fleeting moments. 
Reach back through the narrow fingers
of memory.

++++++.,+I remember sitting with my siblings
++++++.,+in the sunny backseat of a car.  I remember
++++++.,+looking at the seams in the tan vinyl seats.
++++++.,+We were going to Charlo, driving
++++++.,+past Ninepipes, on our way to visit
++++++.,+our grandparents.  Nothing about this trip
++++++.,+stands out to make it unusual, yet
++++++.,+the memory is there. 


Fallen snowberries sprinkle the dark ground
recreating a night sky of found memories.
With eyes closed I move through them
intending to sever the blood-brittle ties
between us.  I replay each memory slowly,
pausing inside rooms that hold so many
different depths of darkness.  I am here,
an omniscient viewer.  Quiet, I peer into corners
and closets, run my fingers over the pink
and red rose wallpaper, corners arching away
from the ceiling. 

We are the series of moments we can remember.

Rilke, Screech Owl and Night Loons


If all art is the result
of one’s having been in danger
what is created when a girl walks
beaten and burned for four miles
before collapsing
into stillness.

Across the shadow-blue river
from hunting camp near Perma
a screech owl brings nightfall
as she alights on a nearby
lightning-struck snag burnt ash
black from inside out.  She trains
her blazoned eyes on me
and calls through darkness.

We stare at each other as she calls
and calls then departs into the night. 
Follow me she seems to urge
and for a moment I almost do—
but I know this omen of endings.

Shortly she returns, closer this time,
and calls out again and again and I
wonder what death will strike.


A screech owl brings a curious death
under a mother-of-pearl moon and I begin
to see the disembodied in gas stations
and convenience stores, human
carcasses all, hollowed by unearned
battering or priggish arrogance. 

Within this violent tug-of-war
of mortality circumstance preys upon
so many, bleeds holes in the assertion
of any ultimate equalizing factor.
Head and eyes drawn down begins
the pattern followed by curl of body,
cervical to sacral, until each one
has reassumed their first
their fetal      shape.

Horsefly Dress tries to believe
there are no casualties.  She lifts
her head and scans the October night
air, wet dark blue, for something
that cuts the white noise of living. 

A pair of loons calls out from the
dark heavens
punctured        by pinholes of light.

The Hawk Who Wears an Owl’s Face

Chance turns my eyes to her perch

+++++,+where she flashes between beings

or bodies.  She splits in two as she lifts into flight

I see     she is a northern harrier          

the hawk

who wears an owl’s face.       

The owl           I thought she was remains

bark-bound dissipates

+++++,+slowly subsumed by the warm wing

+++++++++++,+.song murmurs

of bald-faced hornets,            

their large kidney-shaped eyes           

onyx and glossy.

Heather Cahoon is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and is the author of the 2020 poetry collection, Horsefly Dress, published by University of Arizona Press. Her poetry has been most recently anthologized in Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry (2021),and When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (2020). Her chapbook, Elk Thirst, received a Merriam-Frontier Award from the University of Montana’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2005, and in 2015, she received a Montana Arts Council Artist’s Innovation Award. Heather received her MFA from the University of Montana in 2001, where she was a Richard Hugo Scholar, and an interdisciplinary PhD in history, anthropology, and Native American Studies. She is Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and Director of the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute at the University of Montana, and works as a state-tribal policy analyst for the Montana Budget and Policy Center. She lives in Missoula.