Tag Archives: Zuni Mountain poets

Genius: Mildred and Bill

by Thomas Davis

To Mildred Hart Shaw and Paul Pletka

A sherry in her hand, surrounded by
the books that filled the room from floor to ceiling,
she watched the young man, self-absorbed, apply
a tiny brush to lead-framed glass, a feeling
of richness emanating from a scene
of large-eared rabbits sitting in the snow
beside a gully, mountains rising white, pristine,
into a winter sky that almost glowed.

The glass had traveled west a hundred years ago
strapped in a wagon pulled by two huge horses.
“That’s good,” she said. “It has a Christmas glow.
No rivers, but it sets the rivers in their courses.”

“A Christmas door,” he said. “It’s here, but then
you’ll wipe it clean to make it just a door again.”

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The Bell

by Ethel Mortenson Davis

I heard
a temple bell
far away—
a deep rich
summoning voice.

a medicine man
came to my bed,
beating the air
around my feet
and head,
beating the cobwebs
of sadness stretched
over me.

A dream.
I know because
the dog did not stir.

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Henry David Thoreau and John Boehner’s Stone Face Sitting Behind President Obama

Watching Speaker Boehner’s stone face during most of President Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress on job creation Thursday night, I began to think of Henry David Thoreau and the beginning of his masterpiece, Walden. Thoreau believed he could find the universe in a few acres near the cabin he built for himself by Walden Pond. He thought that most activities pursued by the farmers and shopkeepers in and around Concord, Massachusetts missed the entire purpose of life. From his standpoint too many people lived to labor and complained about the difficulties of their lives. He believed in a businesslike approach to life, but also thought that one good line of poetry, or an understanding of why a common plant that others overlooked was beautiful, was more important in the long range of human and geologic history. “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote. “But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Looking at Congressman Boehner on the seat above the President and the well of the Congress, beside the Vice President, I thought that maybe he should heed Thoreau’s words: “Most of the luxuries of life, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” and realize that the job creators are not after the good of the common man, but after their own good. It is highly unlikely that their good will lead to either the elevation of mankind or even the U.S. economy’s stabilization.

I do not choose to go to the woods and live like Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, carefully keeping accounts of pennies I have spent on seed and materials while making a partnership with the land that feeds me well enough to let me apply myself to thoughts about universal truths and poetry. Although his attitude attracts me like nectar attracts a honeybee, I cannot, for the life of me, throw myself into poetry, philosophy, and science and ignore the daily news. I cannot even discover the wisdom that tells me how to avoid the desperation that surrounds us in these troubled times. Thursday night, driving home after work from Crownpoint through the canyon to Thoreau to Continental Divide, I listened to President Obama on radio and hoped he would get what he was eloquently pleading for even though I am afraid that an even bolder plan may be needed if I and Ethel are going to be able to retire with even a meager comfort.

Later, when I saw Boehner’s face after I got home and watched CNN and the blathering class blathering, I, along with the rest of the world, knew. The Republicans were not going to embrace the President’s proposals and try to rescue the country from its malaise, but were going to parse, give faint praise, and talk about consensus because the disaster they created for themselves out of the debt ceiling fight made them wary of going the way of the charging rhino into the market square again. They are going to dance the macabre dance of middle class destruction while singing as if they and the uber rich are going to make all right with the world again.

One of the questions that plagues me is this, how do we live in a world that seems to be going downhill without falling into a despair so black that we cannot see the horizon even if it exists? While the uber rich enrich themselves while increasing already too high piles of hindrances to the elevation of humankind, how can we, as individuals, smile when we see a field of wild sunflowers shining yellow in a late afternoon sun or laugh for joy when our grandchild hands us a strawberry he has just picked and looks puckishly at us to see if we get that this is his gift even though we are standing inside acres of fields of strawberries? How do we keep the quiet desperation of the mass of common men at bay long enough to live the lives that we could live if Boehner did not look so stone faced while sitting behind the President?

As far as I know I have written poetry since I was twelve years old, and I married an artist and a poet who still amazes me even after forty-three wondrous years of marriage. When Kevin, our son died so young of cancer, about the only solace I had was to sit in his sickroom and try to think through life by writing sonnets. The good lines of poetry Thoreau valued are hard to come by, but when they do come, there is a moment when peace slips through despair and allows us to understand, if only for a moment, the promises in every moment we take a breath.

In the end, in spite of the difficulties of life, John Boehner, and those that are hindrances to the good of humankind, I am a positive rather than a negative human being. I work everyday as an educator, trying my best to touch lives in positive, rather than negative ways. I look at my wife and marvel that she deigned to marry someone as unpromising as an unpublished poet. I write poetry and sing songs that search for emotions and truth that go to the center of what is good, rather than negative, about human beings. I try to keep my ego in check and realize that every time I honor someone that I know or who crosses my path I create a rhythm that pools outward and helps to make this day a slightly better day.

Henry David Thoreau was right. If we can plant a garden and tend it with our own labor and study the colors of sunset reflected off a small pond as the sun sinks in the west, then the day’s news is not as important as it seems. If we can spend a little bit of time working on moments that can make a difference for ourselves, our families, and those in our lives, then the stone faces of the world are not as important even if they are remembered fifty or a hundred years from now for their foolish arrogance. Let them fume, fuss, gather their loot, and place it in the tombs of their vaults. They cannot truly appreciate a single good line of poetry from any poet worth his or her salt.

Let us give them hell and try to limit the damage they are doing, but let us also remember that they are not the substance or the meaning of our lives.

Tomorrow, with any luck, Ethel and I will get up early, work on poems, and drive to Inscription Rock Trading Post for the every Sunday meeting of the Zuni Poets. We’ll forget, for awhile, about President Obama’s speech, John Boehner’s stone face, and the slow, unconscionable withering away of the middle class, and sit on the outdoor patio where the wind chimes sometimes make it hard to hear as we would like to hear as the other poets read their poems. We’ll store up eternity inside who we are as it is unleashed by poems as good as any being written in the world today, and the demons will snarl their deprecations of sanity away from where we are, and we will feel good as we drive around a bend and see the glory of Mount Taylor towering blue in the distance above the slopes of the Zuni Mountains.


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My One True Love And the Meaning of Moments

by Thomas Davis

She stands inside the garden’s blooming, still
As long green stalks that reach toward the sun.
Above her head the Arcosanti bell,
A gift brought to her by her lovely son,
Waits wind to stir its deep, pure voice to song.
Her graying hair shines in the early morning light:
A silent testament to births and how
Her son died in a place she did not understand
And how her daughters have a boundless grace
And how granddaughters gleam and grandsons spark,
One caught inside autism’s draining clinch—
A binding to the yellows, blues, and pinks
Of blooms she planted in the early spring

Then, whirring, one bold calliope bees
Up to the bright red feeder near her eyes
And slips its slender beak into the hole
Where nectar made inside her kitchen sink
Transmutes into an iridescent energy.
A moment more and clouds of hummingbirds
Kaleidoscope around her head; her eyes
And spirit swirled into a halo born
Of flowers, bell, the hummingbirds, the light
Of early morning, all the life she’s lived.


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New Mexico Poets

a poem by Thomas Davis

Mexican red wolves stalk him.
The old man stops, listens to silence, sniffs air,
then turns, a great rack of horns growing suddenly out of dark hair,
his body thickening, elongating, black hooves where his feet were.
Wolves come into the sun struck meadow,
eyes alive with the hunt, tongues lolling out of open mouths as they run.
The old bull elk starts, crashes into aspen trees surrounding the meadow,
slams mountain earth with hooves, puffs of smoke
wisping behind enormous bounds as he flies uphill
toward the mountain peak’s dark rock and white snow.
As the elk flees the wolves run even lower to the ground,
blue and brown eyes riveted to the elk’s trail,
breaths deep and full as they run after their prey.

For hours the chase goes on.
The afternoon sun climbs to its zenith and blazes.
The elk moves from aspen to pine and spruce
into matted falls of timber in forests untouched by humans.
The wolves run in silence, intent on their hunt, howls held back
until the moment when they can leap on the great elk’s back
and bring it staggering violently toward the ground and death.

Then the elk, within sight of the tree-line and its stunted pines,
leaps into a circle of pine, spruce, and aspen
past rock ovens made with piled stones.
He jumps up on a massive sandstone platform built in the circle’s center.
Bluebirds, a golden eagle, sparrows, a great horned owl fly
out of the elk’s brown fur, the dark fur on its chest.
Jack rabbit hind legs thumping ground breaks silence.
Wind swirls inside the tree circle and sets aspen leaves,
deep grasses beside the sandstone platform, singing.
The great elk rises to its hind legs.
The wolf pack stops outside the circle of trees and glares fire
at the shrinking of the huge elk into an old man
with white hair and a back bent from hard years of living.

The wolf pack’s female leader steps hesitantly
toward the old man into the trees’ circle.
Inside the trees the wind swirls faster as the old man watches her.
Wolf hair transforms into human skin.
A young woman steps out of wolf shape
and stands with her slender right hand on one of the rock ovens.
Wolves outside the circle begin to howl;
their voices ring down mountain slopes,
shivering fear into mountain air, rock, and the snowy peak.
Clouds grow from sunlight into towering billows
that soar into late afternoon, blocking off the sun
and sending wind inside the trees
down and around the mountain and out into the world.

Roots start to grow out of the old man’s feet
into the barren density of sandstone.
Within seconds he stands as a ponderosa pine,
branches snaking out in different directions from the red trunk,
top branches so high they scrape the dark bottoms of thunderheads.

The young woman watches the old man becoming a tree.
Her face is as calm and serene
as a lake surface when the universe stops
and no ripple mars the water’s sky-mirror perfection.
She turns from the ponderosa pine
and turns toward the pack grown silent and watchful.

“The earth lives,” the woman says.

She lifts her arms and tips her head toward the cloud roiled sky.
White feathers spread over her body;
a black beak with a yellow bridge running to bird eyes grows out of her face.
She spreads snowy egret wings and folds black legs and yellow feet
behind her as she soars into fierce winds.

The pack howls and runs in mad circles away from the circle of trees,
the egret flying,
the ponderosa growing out of stone.

Originally published in Gallup Journey, January 5, 2011

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Creative fires start small, then build

For most of my life I have been interested in why explosions in creative genius occur. Mostly I have been interested in examples like the Renaissance in Italy in the 1400s, the flowering of Greek art during the classical period, the American Renaissance in New England in the mid 1800s, especially around Concord, and smaller explosions such as that which surrounded the founding of Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the mid 1900s. There are other equally important flowerings, if different in flavor and effect, such as the Silicon Valley technology explosion in California or the development of the Indian Institutes of Technology in India in the 1950s. The question is, why do these explosions of creative work occur? They have an enormous impact on human history, thought, inspiration, and even the rise, fall, and mood of nations, but what causes them to happen?

I have been fortunate in my lifetime to have witnessed three explosions of creativity, if not more. I believe I have witnessed genius brewing if not flowering. The most significant of these has been the formation and growing of the tribal college movement, which started with Navajo Community College in 1968 and is still transforming Indian country from Alaska to Michigan to Kansas and Oklahoma today. I have been privileged to work with people like Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, Lionel Bordeaux, Mike Gross, David Gipp, Carty Monette, Carrie Billy, Carol Davis, Verna Fowler, and so many others whose genius managed to help transform hopelessness on the nation’s American Indian Reservations into hope. In a speech given at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s Spring conference held in Green Bay, Wisconsin a few years back I described the founders of the tribal college movement as “giants that have walked on Mother Earth,” and I will honor them during all of my life.

But what I have been thinking a lot about lately is two different flowerings. One occurred when I was much younger in Shawano, Wisconsin. The other is the Zuni Mountain poets and the flowering around the Old School Gallery near the El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. Ethel and I lived in Shawano, where I helped found both the Menominee Indian School District and College of the Menominee Nation, longer than we have lived anywhere else. This is conservative country, home of the notorious Posse Comitatus, a place where Joseph R. McCarthy’s portrait still hangs in the court chambers of the Shawano Country courthouse.

Still, when the Mielke Theatre was built in Mielke Park in 1976, an arts movement developed in the rural part of Wisconsin that was as active as any in the entire state. The development of the movement was anything but smooth. Fighting over use of the theatre and funding and other issues, mostly inconsequential in the retrospect of years past, marred the short period of time when I was President of the Shawano County Arts Council and most of the years before that, but the point is that artists literally came out of the deep woods surrounding Shawano and began showcasing their work to the local area, inducing other artists of various kinds: Writers, visual artists, photographers, theatre people, and others, to create an atmosphere of intense, if conflicted, excitement.

When Ethel and I became involved in the Zuni Mountain poets, driving from our home in Continental Divide, NM nearly an hour and a half most Sundays, poetry group was already a strongly going concern. Held at Inscription Rock Trading Post and Coffee Company’s outdoor patio in the summer and its loft in winter, the group was already writing poetry that rivaled anything being written by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, a major arts organization that Ethel and I had attended off and on for years. There was a little controversy, in a very minor key, surrounding the Zuni Mountain poets, but Jack Carter North, the unofficial head of the group, allows almost no negative comments about a poet’s work shared during meetings, and the result is astounding. Over the years young and poor poets have joined the group, but over time all of them have improved their work, if they kept coming to the meetings over time, without hearing a negative word during their patio or loft visits. I would be willing to claim that several of the poets writing, including Ethel, have a poetic genius.

My conclusion after seeing these three movements and reading about renaissance after renaissance that has occurred around the world, and visiting places like Taos, New Mexico where the renaissance that included artists like Georgia O’Keefe and the writer D.H. Lawrence, among dozens of others, happened is that renaissance occurs when one, or sometimes two or three, extraordinary presences, an artist or non-artist, creates a spark, often, but not always, with intent. That spark excites others and a renaissance starts building, each artist competing and harmonizing with others, the group building genius out of the desire in individuals to be noticed and to mean something in the world. The spark can have all positive aspects, such as in the Zuni Mountain poets example, or may grow out of competition, or may even grow from one artist trying to get the better of other artists, but the result is the same, creativity becomes a fire, and that fire can change the world.

The trick seems to be, whether in a classroom, a community needing economic development, or in a group of poets or artists, to get the original spark going in one or more individuals, then to build the collaboration/competition by providing an environment where conversation, attention, venture capital, and/or dreams of glory can be obtained. Creative fires start small, then build, irregardless of how rural or small or big a community is, until its light outshines the environs where they were born.

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