Ralph Salisbury

Writer, Professor

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Rainbows of Stone

from Rainbows of Stone:   “A Rainbow of Stone”   “Hearing the Famous Talk”   “This Is My Death Dream”   “The Only Medicine Sure”   “Burning the Old Garden Fence”   “To My Father’s Mother”


A Rainbow of Stone

Sweat of ascent,
toward Thunder's home,
evaporating in lashes,

a crystalline arc,
erupted aeons ago, glows
like a rainbow,

arc part of a peak,
that's part of a range,
that's part of a world,
that's part of Creation, I climbed
to see more of
more clearly:

factories smoking guns,
a runway a thermometer,
its silver, rising, a bomber,
about to burst into air,
beyond fever, and,
from
horizon to horizon,

my Cherokee people's buffalo, deer,
plantations, even our holy town,
Echota, generations gone.

To crime, monoxide, disease,
and other city uncertainties,

boots pressed to path, blisters to soles, sweat
evaporating off brow,

I must descend,

but,
their stones begotten from fire,
even the arrogant sky-
scrapers will bend,
and,

balled into foetal curl,

the whole earth will be toe-to-toe
rainbows, my own
and Thunder's and your home
again.

        #



Hearing the Famous Talk

of who knew who at Harvard--

silence of snow
descending on months
of snow printed by frost-bitten feet
stalking an animal's trail
from the belly of its mother to
my family's bellies,
shriveled by hunger--
I study hard,
the wrong
things,
always, all
of my life,
the class I'll fail
aeons of miles down a different aisle.

        #



This Is My Death Dream

I'm three. I'm balancing
the family barn
on my thumb, and
I'm thickening inside,

all of my cells
even my brain
thickening.

This is the doctor
who's done all medicine can
and fever will either break or I'll die.

This is my dad,
an ice storm of tears on his windshield.

Though late night roads
are drifted almost closed,
and though there's no money for meat
he makes the dangerous journey to town, for
a treat, I'm
too weak to eat.

Let him leave ice cream by my grave till spring
wilts it,

and let my gratitude bloom by his,

though, drunk, he'll shoot
around my feet, old wood's new white
splinters the thorns of a crown
in the picture above the hallway mirror.

Barn teetering huge on
a crescent moon black
beneath nail, these are the animals, terrified
I’ll drop them
to smash amid kindling.
How can they know
that fever from
the heavens will burn
their home before I'm grown, and
the only way they’ll be saved
is for me to survive
lightning and war
and remember them.

This is the thickening.
It's maybe as if all the days of my life
are crowding like loved ones into a poem
or citizens fleeing
a city about to be bombed
by B-24's I'll fly in for 26 months 300 hours
see 200 die and 27 years later still feel
myself in one
plane named "Flying Barn"
teetering on invisible thumb.

        #



The Only Medicine Sure

      (for Chicabob, my father's mother's mother, and for John and Mary Ax, who ministered to our people)

My dad, did he say anything, did he say,
a prayer so old the words
were ones he
had not ever heard,
his mother's mother's breath
blown from his tongue,
with smoke from tobacco,
the Medicine Hummingbird had suffered--throat
to glow like a lighted pipeful, forever--to win
for us, from selfish or testing Gods--and did I--
my ear-drum almost burst,
from centuries of pain
aeons of evil spirits inflicted on
untold numbers of listeners in human genes--did I hear
Grandmother's parents' parents' prayers,
to be shaped, warmed and sung in my own generation?--

the only medicine sure
whatever we give when we try
to give more
than the Gods alone
seem able to give.

        #



Burning the Old Garden Fence

A ghost of woods Greatgranddad's ax massacred--
his gun one of the ones which felled
my Indian forebears--this post
survived winds stampeded,
from North Pole tethers,
down longitudes' quaking lanes
and survived brute tons of pork-
generations' attempts to invade
the garden, and, although

unable to survive, forever,
persistent termite teeth
of the same rains
which turn the earth
to grain, to milk,
to flesh and bone, in brain,

this teetering survivor may still survive
my saw's methodical mineral-intent,
as fire-place-smoke, as black
as youth's untameable Vanishing American hair's
free-verse tangle.

Other ancestors' gunpowder cloud's
white page combed,
with Shakespearian Sonnet exactitude,

Greatgranddad's trigger-finger aims pen
at my imperialistic, militaristic time's
perpetuation of his,
his wife-wooing, child-comforting hands
sprouting from wrists,
as I hunt for one memory more
of love and try to fence ghosts
in--the only way I know
to try to pray.

        #



To My Father’s Mother

Your pine above

a smoke-stack-forest,
whose poisoned river curves
like a silver dollar sign--
your pine above
a grave among Cherokee graves
your children were
too Christian to bury you in,
as you'd pleaded--
for you,
and for all of our people,

a tree frog sings from

this house whose walls may be
grandchildren of your pine.

        #

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