by Louise Erdrich (b. 1954)
Ray’s third new car in half as many years.
Full cooler in the trunk, Ray sogging the beer
as I solemnly chauffeur us through the bush
and up the backroads, hardly cowpaths and hub-deep in mud.
All day the sky lowers, clears, lowers again. 5
Somewhere in the bush near Saint John* [*predominantly Indian town near Turtle Mountain Reservation, North Dakota]
there are uncles, a family, one mysterious brother
who stayed on the land when Ray left for the cities.
One week Ray is crocked. We’ve been through this before.
Even, as a little girl, hands in my dress, 10
Ah punka, you’s my Debby, come and ki me.
Then the road ends in a yard full of dogs.
Them’s Indian dogs, Ray says, lookit how they know me.
And they do seem to know him, like I do. His odor—
rank beef of fierce turtle pulled dripping from Metagoshe*, 15 [*Lake Metagoshe, North Dakota]
and the inflammable mansmell: hair tonic, ashes, alcohol.
Ray dances an old woman up in his arms.
Fiddles reel in the phonograph and I sink apart
in a corner, start knocking the Blue Ribbons* down. [*low-cost beer]
Four generations of people live here. 20
No one remembers Raymond Twobears.
So what. The walls shiver, the old house caulked with mud
sails back into the middle of Metagoshe*. [*Lake Metagoshe, North Dakota]
A three-foot-long snapper is hooked on a fishline,
so mean that we do not dare wrestle him in 25
but tow him to shore, heavy as an old engine.
Then somehow Ray pries the beak open and shoves
down a cherry bomb*. Lights the string tongue. [*explosive firework]
Headless and clenched in its armor, the snapper* [*turtle]
is lugged home in the trunk for tomorrow’s soup. 30
Ray rolls it beneath a bush in the backyard and goes in
to sleep his own head off. Tomorrow I find
that the animal has dragged itself off.
I follow torn tracks up a slight hill and over
into a small stream that deepens and widens into a marsh. 35
Ray finds his way back through the room into his arms.
When the phonograph stops, he slumps hard in his hands
and the boys and their old man fold him into the car
where he curls around his bad heart, hearing how it knocks
and rattles at the bars of his ribs to break out. 40
Somehow we find our way back. Uncle Ray
sings an old song to the body that pulls him
toward home. The gray fins that his hands have become
screw their bones in the dashboard. His face
has the odd, calm patience of a child who has always 45
let bad wounds alone, or a creature that has lived
for a long time underwater. And the angels come
lowering their slings and litters*. [*beds for carrying sick or wounded; see below]
Source: Original Fire: Selected and New Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2003)
copied from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171825