Ralph Salisbury

Writer, Professor

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Going to the Water

Poems from Going to the Water:   “Going to the Water”   “An Ancestor’s Tongue”   “A Deliverance”   “Not Yet”   “Winter 1970, Fox River, Illinois”   “Another Waiting"


Going to the Water

(“This is to take oneself to the water    with, to help oneself...)
- Sacred Formula of the Cherokee

Corn-stalk shadow a black sea-horse-
   From soda-straw nose
   to question-mark tail-
this ocean-green house-paint washes against

a shore of air

whose Sunday clarity reaches to
quiet factories, that raise
red-brick priest-fingers, as if they would bless
even us, in the Ghetto.
But police beat us when we march
for justice.   I’ve lost my job.
The garden has shriveled to
one spindly sea-horse
shadow, and, when the rent is up, next week,
it will be time to move on
to where I’m not known.

My wife’s body is the only shelter our baby
will take from here, but, in roof-moss green from
the leaking cooling-unit I climbed to fix one final time
just now, albezia seedlings’
little paired leaves were flared
like wings, small claws dug in as if they would lift
the whole house-making me think of Hummingbird,
the Cherokees’ mystic wrester of medcine from the Gods,

and think of my family, working hard in the fields
but not getting enough to eat,
and still we’d sing the centuries-
old songs, from our Sacred Ground.

Tomorrow, I’ll search again for a job,
which someone more compliant will probably get.

Today, soda-straw nose, question-mark tail-
   and green wings nimbused by sun-have raised
the spirits of a man who must feel like a child again
for his own child’s sake soon and stay
able to fight but ready for play.

        #



An Ancestor’s Tongue

(Sun: “Humans are very ugly; whenever they look up
at me, their faces squint and twist into frowns.”
Moon: “I find humans very pleasing to look upon;
when they look up at me, they never squint
or frown.”    Cherokee myth)

round moon-glints between gleaming waves
rivets in armor
protecting hearts palpitant with chivalric love
   I feel it older
those crests believable ribs
with their crucial gleam of slime
face shadowed foetal among intestinal sinuosities
   I feel it older than swords
though bombers I flew in depended on rivets
and armor’s a fact I could envy still
   I feel the sway
of weeds along a headland
in wind I could not comprehend until
sand blinded me
the time I killed learning agates
sun in their milky crystal
a glow as soft as this moon   cloud-carved
a yellow duck on a black lake
in sky    the warrior   metal-feathered
from breast to greaves
awkward    legs culminating in webs
   I feel it faunal    an ancestor’s tongue through
an animal mask    narwhal   dog seal   or bear
telling all: moon along a beach
of mist   and   then
he growls his love into the blurriest   fur-
thest star’s dark den

        #



A Deliverance

Chin hooked to a fishline,
She’s lifting sugar-cubes the size
of her automatic-washer
between tense thighs
and depositing each
like the egg of an ant
to raise a pyramid.
Her husband’s their latest car,
a grizzly bear growling
between the yelping of pets   and
eating the suburbs
block after block    until a final hill
devours the last   low growl.
The hook, a candy cane, melting, she’s free-
darts after stars, feels the invisible
lines taut between them and knows she is in a net.
It does not matter. She is small,
her body a fingerling rainbow trout, a jewel too tiny to set.
Her husband’s a comet. She
is black sky he halves with his splendor,
zooming away.
The heavens draw together,
a quilt incredibly polka-dotted
with Grandma’s gold beads. She is
the shimmering rainbow trout
the gleam of the tiniest jewel might
spawn-dreams orbiting dreams in
herself.

        #



Not Yet

This pine has lost its brown scabbard   No
This is a picnic    This is not
A battlefield    This is
A mountain   A garden for
Pinyon-pine squirrels   who dine on pinyon-pine nuts
Triangular jewels   which taste like perfume

The world is so damned big you have to bury yourself
In a book to know your home
Is a pea in a mouth so huge a pea’s not worth swallowing

Humility   then   This pine’s a toothpick
The earth a fist   the sun a shoulder socket   and
Upon the invisible wrist   a dot   a hawk’s a tiny timepiece

No   There is no hawk   no sun   no world   There are
These words   and in them a pinyon-pine squirrel
Flaunts a tattered tail    a scruffy flag
In these incredible miles we
On this picnic
No one
Came to
Breathe   and he
The squirrel   becoming a skeleton in
A brain minuscule between huge wings
Speaks to his mate
Their vanishing bodies telling the sky all
That this poem would say

        #


Winter 1970, Fox River, Illinois

Gone south, the ice the size of the oven door
raft for bubbles of maybe dreaming catfish,
mirror for snow clouds, may,
in a day, melt like a meteor reaching the atmosphere.

Over the railroad tie, that used to be
important to a tree, a levee-piling now, berries
crimson as coals in a gust hang,
stems plunged through new snow,
as are my legs, reaching as far
as surfaces-those of their roots, which are their mouths,
and those of strata of clay, and those
of my feet and boots-reaching as far
as surfaces will let them reach
toward the center of an earth said
to be round as a berry or
the bubble of a dreaming catfish.

        #



Another Waiting

I am thinking now of the great sausages of air
a tiger’s nostrils pinch into links
mating or killing
black stripes the spaces between
loud ticks of the clock of my quiet aunt
who was I think my other mother

I think my tears for her were the ice she’d chip
from the pump to fill our family drinking pail

I think how ponderous this is my words
like the stones I helped Dad pry
out of our land’s black gums a glacier fluent enough
those years before
and ready as a tiger to swallow all my words
that glacier a polar-bear
reared tall as a thunder-cloud
a white-haired orator

my home’s black loam furrows
and brown stubble rows
the stripes of a tiger
its nostrils the graves of Father and Mother
its ears those of aunt and brother
another waiting its mouth

        #

Selected Works

To order any of these books, please click on the titles below and, again, below the cover images. To read samples please click on the titles below and scroll down in the center column.
Literary Nonfiction
“Ralph Salisbury’s So Far, So Good will take its place beside Scott Momaday’s The Names and Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave as a major addition to the evergrowing genre of contemporary Native American autobiography.”—Geary Hobson
Poetry
The manifest destiny of these poems is justice and salvation in language for people torn down by blind nationalism, war, greed and racism. As soft as lingerie, as tough as steel pipe, and as fine in phrase and image as our best American poets, Ralph Salisbury sings "Like the Sun in Storm" for a world that can be healed. --Henry Hughes
"The poems of this volume make stunningly clear the ways in which Ralph Salisbury continues to model the traditional and modern (postmodern, if you will) roles of the poet as Cherokee humanist and indigenous cosmopolitan." -- Arnold Krupat
"It’s great to see the energy of an 80-year-old poet at work. Mixing WWII memories with his observations of the peaceful world outside his study windows, these poems celebrate longevity and unflagging concern for peace." -- Diane Wakoski
"Salisbury writes out of the passion, rage, and lyricism that mark the Native American spirit in these blasphemous times."
- Paula Gunn Allen
Finalist, Oregon Book Award. “A magnificent summa from a superb artist.”
-Louis Owens
“The words of Going to the Water: Poems of a Cherokee Heritage ‘do it right’. They hit hard. And they must be heard. Listen.”
-Simon Ortiz
Short Fiction
Salisbury excavates the hearts and minds of his characters, mining them to fuel his stories. And his stories are the richer for it — invariably compelling and continually surprising. (MSU Press)
“...unique in tone and voice, unlike the voice of any other American Indian writer writing today.”
-Gordon Henry