To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jerome Rothenberg: Metamorphoses, & Other Stories

From A Seneca Journal

Some had changed themselves into a dog or turkey -- & one, a woman, had outrun a train. That last was told her by a white train engineer in Salamanca, & she thought it was the same woman who was shot in the form of a dog. They followed her trail & found her changed back to a woman with a big hole in her side.

Fidelia was maybe six years old & her grandma had this awful toothache. The family was sitting on the porch toward evening, when a very large pig came out of the woods & went to the corral. The pig stood on his hind legs like a man & with his front legs tried to push away the log that they were using for a gate against the horses. The men all chased the pig & tried to catch it but it got away. When her grandma went to see an Indian doctor for the toothache, he removed a long pig bristle from her cheek.

He called the really strong masks “doctor masks” & said that if you wore a doctor mask & handled burning coals they felt like ice to you. One time he passed a hot coal to a man who wore a less strong mask, & though it was like ice for Avery, it burnt the other’s hands.

A sick person heard a horse outside his window. They set a trap for it & shot at it with special bullets. The trail of blood led them to someone’s house. A man was found in bed, & blood was dripping down down from underneath his mattress. Before he died he told them that he was a witch.

She was at home with her three children when she suddenly noticed that a nearby hill had become a volcano & was about to erupt. She put the children in a carriage & tried to get to her mother’s house. As she ran across a bridge, she was surrounded by figures coming toward her whom she recognized as dead people. In the meantime the volcano erupted & lava came down & sizzled in the water around her.

I told him that I thought Floyd’s mask was very beautiful, but he said that it wasn’t because it didn’t have real power. His own father had had a mask that did, until there was a fire in his house & it was burnt to ashes. But his father could still see the features of the mask & so, before it crumbled, he hurried out & carved a second mask. And that second mask was like the first in every detail. Only it had no power.

Few people there had goiters but his daughter had one. It bulged under her neck and made her eyes pop like a frog’s. So one day he took her where he had often seen a black snake in the woods. Sure enough it was there & he had her stand still & called it to come near her. It did & she didn’t move at all but let it climb her leg & circle her waist until she could hardly breathe. Then he went up to it & touched it on the tail. He felt its power in his hand & spoke to it. He said if it would help them he would let it go. After it fell from her waist he took his knife & cut it in a circle underneath its head. He loosened up the skin, then dropped his knife & pulled the old skin free. That night the old man made his daughter wear the skin around her neck. When it was dark she felt it tighten like it was squeezing at her throat. But the goiter grew smaller. She went on wearing the skin for several weeks & finally the goiter disappeared. She never lost her fear of snakes.

The day her foot became infected she saw a tack sticking to the bottom of her shoe. He husband treated it with hot compresses, & once Thelma came to visit while he was changing bandages & found the flesh completely rotted at the bottom of the toes, so bad the bone was showing. A doctor in Salamanca tried to X-ray it, but it opened up & blood & pus poured out. They did two medicine dances – a Little Water & a Dark Dance – but nothing changed at first. Then one night, as Art was working on it, he noticed that a thread was hanging from the wound. At first he didn’t remove it because of the pain it caused her, but after a while he pulled out a piece of twine about a foot long with a triangular piece of glass attached & dropped it in a waste basket. When Thelma came by a little later, the twine & glass had disappeared. They didn’t know who had it in for the sick woman, but someone must have.

He was a poor white coal miner from West Virginia, & from the first years of his marriage & stay at the reservation, he felt a terrific impulse to carve. In particular, he said, to carve a mask. One night, after he had done a lot of carving, he fell out of bed (like a piece of wood, his wife said) & managed, though in awful pain, to make his way over to a chair, where he recovered. Albert Jones thought it might have something to do with the mask & told him that should it reoccur they would have to do a False Face ceremony & allow him to become a member. He was never into masks after that, but he made a few odd-looking statues that people said were nice.

At one of the white churches there were witchcraft sessions. His wife once went as a girl, & when she laughed at the visiting preacher’s horns & tail, he stared real hard at her & took her mind. Even now if he himself went into local homes (as he did, often, to install the cable T.V.), he might see a room with the walls painted black & on the floor a painted glowing circle. I said I was surprised to hear it. You’d be surprised, he said.

[NOTE. The stories & the story tellers go back to the years spent on the Seneca Indian Reservation in Western New York State (late 1960s to middle 1970s) & appeared in much this form in A Seneca Journal (New Directions, 1978). In the construction of New Selected Poems (1986), these & other poems were set aside, but can now start to be retrieved. The principal Seneca voices that appear here are those of Thelma (Ledsome) Shane, Art Johnny John, Floyd John, Fidelia Jimerson, Avery Jimerson, & Effie Johnson.]

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