In a rush, we used an assigned parking space,
And upon our return, the displaced stranger
Said, “That’s my spot, you jerk.” His rage
Surprised me, but I didn’t sense any danger
Until he took five steps toward us. My wife
And sons were suddenly targets, so I knew
I had to protect them. Maybe he had a knife
Or gun. Maybe he was crazy. But his mood
Changed when I stepped out of the shadows.
I’m a big guy, all shoulders and gut and thighs,
And I was not afraid. I grew up trading blows
With bullies, and the man quickly realized
That I would fight hard. Chastened, he retreated
Back toward his car, and with a softer tone,
Said, “Next time, you better leave me a note.”
My anger bloomed as my fear receded,
So I stepped fast toward him, and reveled
At his sudden meekness. “Just leave it alone,”
I said, possessed by some childhood devil
Who wanted me to snap and burn the man’s bones.
“Stop it,” my wife said. “Just get in the car.”
She and my sons hurried into their seats,
But I thought I would be admitting defeat
If I did the same. I wouldn’t let down my guard
For a moment. I would kill this stranger
And eat his lungs, stomach, heart, thumbs, and eyes.
I became the one in love with danger.
Ashamed, I shouted, “Have a safe Fourth of July!”
And looked at the man for the first time.
He was rude, Napoleonic, and weak.
Just back from work, he didn’t want to fight.
He wanted to sit on his couch and watch TV.
The man gave me the finger, but I just waved
And climbed into our car. Contrite and dazed,
I mumbled an apology to my wife,
“I thought the man was threatening our lives.”
“I know,” she said. “You had to back him off.
And you did that. You proved you were tough.
But then you got mean.” And yes, it was shitty.
I took the man’s space and his dignity.
Is it surprising that I know how to be cruel?
My entire career is based on revenge.
I think of my sons, so tender and new,
And how they’d witnessed me walk to the edge
And nearly begin the long, harrowing drop
Before I heeded their mother’s call to stop.
I know my boys had so many questions
But I failed to give them this lesson:
Sons, what I did to that man was wrong;
There can be that much weakness in being strong.
The sun illuminates only the eye of the man,
But shines into the eye and heart of the child.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
My wife wanted to give my sons the chance
To see my tribe’s powwow with transparent eyes,
And maybe fall in love with the chicken dance,
But I stayed home. They wouldn’t hear my crazy rants
About the powwow bullies who made me cry.
My wife wanted to give my sons the chance
To enjoy themselves. “Listen, I just can’t
Go with you,” I said to my wife, who was unsurprised
By my need to spin a different chicken dance.
“They can hang with their uncles and aunts,”
I said. “And my mother, she’ll be so surprised
That my sons have been given the chance
To powwow.” And so my wife and sons drove, sans
Father, to my rez on a Saturday night
And spent hours watching the chicken dance.
And, yes, I remembered pissing my pants
When I saw the reds of my bullies’ eyes,
But my wife gave my sons an aboriginal chance.
“Your boys saw joy in their uncles and aunts,”
My wife said, “And the pride in your mother’s eyes,
So be thankful I gave your sons this chance
Because they fell in love with the chicken dance.”
I Can’t Get You Out of My Head
“A bird-organ is a small barrel-organ used in teaching birds to sing.”
-John Ogilvie, The Comprehensive English Dictionary, London,
Ah, canary, you chronic mimic,
Do you find any joy in the cover song?
Of course, you must. You’re an echo addict
Who can’t stop himself from singing along
With the bird-organ. It’s an odd machine,
Rather arrogant, in fact. What asshole
Believes a wooden box’s melody
Is more beautiful and original
Than the canary’s indigenous croon?
What kind of blasphemous, hell-bound dickwad
Thinks a man’s hands are more clever than God’s?
Well, I’m a sinner in love with iTunes
And that lovely manmade box, the iPod.
And if that gets me in trouble with God,
Then may God’s lightning fingers choke me dead,
Because I think the Flaming Lips’ cover
Of “I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
Is filled with far more fear, lust, and wonder
Than Kylie Minogue’s worldwide dance hit.
Okay, now, maybe you don’t give a shit,
But my theory (and it’s a betrayal
Of my tribe) is that art is colonial,
And the best art is imperialistic.
I know it’s wildly masochistic
For an Indian to advance this belief,
But I’m also a Picassoesque thief,
A carnivorous and scavenging bird
Who’ll echo, borrow, and steal your words
If given the chance. There is no treaty
I will not bend, bust, ignore, or screw.
But, no, wait, that’s not exactly true.
I don’t write about sacred ceremonies,
And I rarely speak the names of the dead-
Though I’m going to violate those taboos
Right now in this poem. I suspect you knew
That I break promises with each breath,
But trust me when I tell you this story:
Years ago, a white archeologist
Recorded a tribal ceremony
On my rez. The tape crackles and hisses,
But one can clearly hear my grandmother
Singing. O, her voice comes from some other,
Alien place in her body. That song
Died with my grandmother, or so you’d think,
But whenever I want to hear her sing,
I just press play on my boom box. It’s wrong,
I suppose, to worship a duplicate,
But I think, “Screw you, it’s decades too late
To save the original.” I’ll worship
My grandmother’s voice and the Flaming Lips,
Live or recorded. I guess, near the end,
I am arguing against nostalgia.
I will not believe “it was better then.”
After all, each of us is a replica,
And I think God gave us these music toys
So we can create and hoard glorious noise.
Sherman Alexie is the author of 21 books of poetry and prose, including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and Face, a book of poetry from Hanging Loose Press. He lives with his family in Seattle.
“When I was seven years old, living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, my family moved into a new house, built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We had been living in an ancient house that didn’t have indoor plumbing so we felt like we were finally joining the twentieth century. However, the front and back porches of our new HUD house were not built when we moved in, so for the first three months, my family had to climb up and down ladders to enter and exit. So for a brief and hilarious period, we salmon-fishing Spokane Indians were transformed into mesa-dwelling Hopi Indians.”