[Milton-L] An Osage/Ponca Nativity Ode?

srevard at siue.edu srevard at siue.edu
Sat Dec 21 20:56:30 EST 2013

As List members may have noticed, I rather admire John Milton's poetry and the
man himself, but as Stella knows I am not a Christian, and if asked what my
religion is I tend to say I am Osage.  So here is Exhibit Z in the case.  (I am
posting it while Stella is busy doing something else, and will do penance
later.)--Carter Revard

Doppelgängers:  A Nativity Ode
(If only Columbus had . . . .)

By way of introduction:  It has lately been discovered that, just as the first
stanza of this piece narrates, at a certain time of year hellacious gales of
wind blow from east to west through certain parts of the Sahara (the “Bodélé
Depression”), from which they scoop great quantities of very fine minerals,
sweeping them up into dark roiling clouds that are then driven high across the
Atlantic, over Brazil and up along the Amazon and its tributaries, where the
fine dust eventually settles down into the lush rainforests.  (For scientific
accounts of this, see Deflation in the dustiest place on Earth:  The Bodélé
Depression, Chad, in Geomorphology, Volume 105, Issues 1-2, 1 April 2009, Pages
50-58; and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America, December 8, 2009, vol. 106 no. 49, 20564-20571.)  It is thought
that this Sahara dust constitutes exactly the fertilizing soils and minerals
required to renew those rain forests, which otherwise would deplete the soils
so extensively that eventually the forests would die.  In this way, desert and
jungle are “Doppelgängers,” the orchid (“air-plant,” epiphyte) an apotheosis of
hurricane (Hart Crane’s wonderful poem “The Air Plant” reversed), nectar an
avatar of dust.  If we had the ability of angels to see past and present and
future simultaneously, we might see jungles that used to cover what is now the
Sahara, and perhaps a desert that will cover what are now the rain forests of
Brazil; but for now, I have painted only two brothers, African desert and
Brazilian rainforest, in present time.  Not dust to dust, but dust into nectar,
is the story of Terra Nuova.
For my poem, I have put that story together with another of an infant’s finding
his voice, first in weeping and then in laughing, which are also Doppelgängers,
and have narrated this in terms of the Osage Creation Story’s account of our
people’s having come down into this world from the stars.  So the Infanta
Nuova, made of stardust (though not named Ziggy), asleep in a dark house,
awakes in pre-dawn darkness and cries, is cleansed, sung to, sings along with
the strong-heart song, and is fed, then sees through the window the Morning
Star and the Dawn, and hears a bird sing, at which (s)he laughs, and sings
along with it the new/old song of joy, one of our Osage songs.
In my first year on Earth, my twin sister and I were taken care of for some time
by our Ponca aunt Jewell MacDonald in the village at White Eagle, Oklahoma.  A
lullaby she used to sing us, made by her blind great aunt, is the Strong Heart
Song (sung by the young woman in the poem), made to hearten the warriors in
despair, driven from their homelands in the Dakotas down to White Eagle in
Oklahoma.  The old voice is Aunt Jewell’s mother, who—waked again at dawn by
the child’s voice—rises and (like a Ponca Firebird) fixes sun-golden pancakes
with honey and fresh butter for breakfast—something gold that sticks to the
ribs, a contrafactum to the Frost lyric “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  (Contrafacta
are two or more lyrics sung to the same tune—in medieval times, these might
involve turning a pastourelle about a young girl’s wooing into a lament spoken
by Mary at the Cross; or, in the case of the “Cuckoo Song”—“Sumer is icumen
in”—an Easter hymn.  In my poem, I have reversed Frost’s exquisite brief lyric,
in which his line “So dawn goes down to day” implies a falling-off in beauty; my
contrafactual version is that the ongoing life in the house, now filled with
daylight, is a feasting and not a falling off.)  And I have stuffed into the
final line both Lycidas (in italics) and the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s not exactly a Pentecostal wind, hardly
the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, more
a haboob or maybe simoom, it’s just
a burning desert blast at this time of the year—
down on the southern Sahara swoops a hellish
roiling hurricane-force wind that scoops
a hundred-mile-long rift-full of dusty crystals up
and up and drives them in dark flashing clouds westward
high and higher and out over the coastline of Africa, the grey
haze now streaming across the Atlantic over Brazil
and on up over the Amazon,
high above lush rain-forests until the fine
dust comes delicately down into an orchid’s apotheosis
of hurricane where a hummingbird
glittering sends its long tongue into
deep nectar, avatar
of Sahara sand.
—In this dark house I hear the
shimmering of my Doppelgänger’s wings,
but I am crying, the voices say—
some time ago I came down like dust
from the stars into this house where the old voice says
he is crying, give him
some milk, it says,
and the young voice says
I have to change him first,
then hands come down and take me up,
remove the swaddling clothes and dip
me in chilly water, wash me clean,
and I am crying and the young voice sings,
I still myself and listen, I hear the words,
“What are you afraid of?” they say,
“No one can go around death.”
In this dark house there are no
stars but there is song, the hands
have warmed a bottle, there is milk,
but first I sing along, the young voice stops then
and I sing alone,
“What are we afraid of, no one
can go around death.”
My brother hears me and he turns
from the nectar and flies out
into the moonlight, and the stars
are over him.  “This child
is singing,” the young voice says, and then
the old voice says,
“Give him the bottle, let him sleep.”
The milk is sweet and warm.  Now
through silent window
the morning star comes nearer,
then fades away, the east turns russet and my brother
the orchard oriole, wearing the soft
colors of early dawn, begins to sing,
so I laugh and sing,
we sing together
without words his song of joy,
“The stars go home and now
the sun appears,”
then the old voice says,
“I guess I better get up
and fix some breakfast now”—
so dawn goes down to day,
 its light-gold pancakes lifting off a tray
like little suns, butter and honey melting,
black coffee’s bitter perfume rising while
Grandmother gives us, yet once more, our daily lives.

When I was a boy in the Buck Creek Valley on the Reservation, one spring and
summer a pair of orchard orioles nested in the elms beside our home, and I
learned to whistle his challenge-notes and the long cascading series of
mellifluous notes of his song.  Alexander F. Skutch (Orioles, Blackbirds, and
their Kin, University of Arizona Press, 1996), studied them in their winter
migration homes in Central America and says the orchard orioles were “most
songful of all the birds I have heard
.At dawn, young and old sang together in
a many-voiced chorus of whistled notes delightful to hear” (p. 190).  He
reported also that sometimes, while the female was in the nest, she sang a
response to her mate’s song.

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