Patrick White

Rookie (September l5, l948 / Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada)

Painting Native Masks All Day - Poem by Patrick White

Painting native masks all day. Concrete.
Poured into a mould, their supple souls set
into the permafrost like a mammoth's skull.
I don't know what they were the gods of,
two of them. Could be a life or a deathmask.
Possibly Nootka, Salish, Kwakuitl, Chinook, Cowichan
Fossils, their faces, ferocious and threatening
though I doubt I've got the good sense to be scared.
Red for blood. Green for always. Black
for the night they were absorbed back into
like crows a moment in the moonrise, then gone
to some grove where they've driven the squirrels out
of their rookery. There but anyone's guess where.

Terrorist hyperbole, or totems from darker realms,
one, perhaps, more human than the other,
an eagle shaman with a salmon moon in its talons
and the other, bucktoothed, like a nasty beaver,
but almost sacred clowns, as if they were designed
to scare the children like grandfathers
making monstrous faces without meaning
to make anyone cry. And I take it as a sign,
given the inconceivable atrocities of human obscenity
tearing at its own flesh in a high-minded rage of hatred
that threatened our own childhoods since these were made
to protect the innocent from their own nightmares.
Do ut abeas. I give so that you go away. A sign
that the nightmares have grown astronomically catastrophic,
and even though a hundred million people died
in the twentieth century, that's still not enough
to satisfy the hearts of the generals, evicting
entire peoples and nations from the house
they were born into before they were driven
into an exile of violated thresholds and broken taboos.

I imagine them carved in rainproof cedar, red or yellow,
and just as a medicine wheel has to be blessed
by a real healer, so I wonder if the hands of those
who shaped these out of the uncarved block
of their heartwood ringed by halos of rain
were invisibly sanctified by the medium they worked in
as sometimes mine seem when a poem
circles overhead like an osprey for the pure joy of it,
or a painting suddenly breaks into life
in a limestone cave of hunting magic
that enchanted its prey in a trance
of holistic identification with the mystery,
not of how life takes life to survive,
but how life gives itself to itself like a gift
that thrives in the hands of those who do the giving
and multiplies the grazing herds of the stars
and rivers you can walk across like a messiah
on the backs of fish, without overextending
your supply line the way Napoleon and the Nazis did
when they tried to live off the land
by treating the people like retreating buffalo
or realizing, a nemesis too late, you can only keep,
conqueror or not, what you're willing to give away
with an open hand. And the rest is just a map of smoke
on the Road of Ghosts, beaten armies
dragging their weapons behind them
like their mythically-deflated ambitions,
wishing they'd defended their pre-emptive ideas
with tools instead of rifles, a paintbrush or a knife
to fashion their own unlikeness into the divinity
of a lifemask you could wear among the gods
without losing face as a human that you haven't learned by now
when you reach Moscow, this way, self-destruction,
that way the pathless path, the gateless gate
to the old growth totem poles of creation
collaborating imaginatively in their own interpretation.

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Poem Submitted: Thursday, August 30, 2012

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