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|About Paul Dueweke||Priona||Lamb of God||Rocking Horse West|
A poet lives in anyone who has loved. I learned this simple theorem when I first fell in love.
I reach for that singular collection of poems on the shelf above my desk. Though I have other verse, only this book, and this poet, deliver me from the present. The book on my lap leaves a tiny vacancy among the technical books of my trade. They barely seem to notice.
I open my rust-colored volume to a random page and let the lyrics stroke me. Memories pour into my suburban Detroit home — the smell of piñon as it turns to smoke and mixes with the ancient air of New Mexico mountains, a muffled half-moon softening the adobe walls of the Jemez Pueblo, the frayed staccato of the Towa tongue, the taste of my oboe, even then, even there.
Priona and I met forty years ago, in 1959. I was seventeen years old. She was sixteen. That’s when I first learned about poetry and love, and the dividing waters of race.
The train moved with courtly sways as we cut our way eastward through the green rolling hills of Illinois. The trip from St. Louis to Cincinnati would take only a few hours, but I couldn’t stay in my seat. A girl sat alone in another car. I kept walking past her. And it wasn’t just her beauty. It was something else. Mystery surrounded her, like she should be wearing a silken veil and seated on a jewel-studded elephant. That would fit the long, black hair that flowed over her chestnut skin and her regal appearance. But what about the green tee shirt and faded jeans?
My conscience reminded me I couldn’t be interested in girls, not as girls anyway. I’d made a vow. Well, not really a vow, more like a promise. But what would it hurt to just talk to her? My body responded to the girl, not the vow. But my feet responded to a different emotion — cowardice. Each time I got close, they just kept walking. A three-way battle raged in me — guilt, desire, and fear.
A few minutes later, I was back on my feet. Nothing had changed. She stared out at the farms as they stepped past in time with the click of steel wheels on rails. Her left hand rested on the seat. Those bronze fingers looked delicate, yet whispered of hard work.
Can’t keep doing this, I thought. People are staring. I stopped and stood beside her seat, but she didn’t move. Suddenly our eyes met in the accidental mirror of that train window. I felt taller than my five nine as the window cut off my reflection way short of my blonde hair.
This time my feet didn’t budge. She turned her head and invited me with a lyrical hand gesture to sit. The concept terrified me. But I sat.
As soon as I saw her eyes, I realized the mystery I’d sensed in reflection had been just a hint of what enchanted me in their actual presence. Her dark eyes froze every word I tried to force out. Those eyes seemed at first to invite me, but the next moment, they just overwhelmed me. I couldn’t figure her out, and she gave me no hints.
I had to be cool, to reach her standard of reserve. I was trying to compose something when she said, “Wouldn’t it be ambrosial to fly out these windows and soar among the clouds?”
I just looked at her. We soared past a new Buick, top down. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“Where the rails carry me. I am an indigent.” She breathed the line, as if on a stage.
A necklace with green and red stones hovered between an ordinary collar and a lovely olive throat. “An indigent?”
“I’m on a journey to my origins.” Her hand moved theatrically toward some origins.
I smiled for the first time. “I never met anybody with such a … mission.”
“I have quit my pueblo in search of fame and fortune.”
“My name is Priona,” she said, offering her hand.
“I’m Benjamin. Everybody calls me Ben.”
“Ben is quite an auspicious appellation.”
“Yes — it is.” I tried to think of where I’d heard appellation before.
“What would you do if you were liberated from these bonds?” Priona said with another dramatic gesture.
I followed her gesture, then returned to her eyes. “Bonds? Never thought of it quite like that. I’m just on my way home. That’s Detroit.”
“I’ve read about Detroit. You must be very pleased knowing whence your roots are drawn.”
“You don’t know where your home is?”
“People of the earth have no home, yet everywhere is our home.”
“Huh. Sounds very poetic, but --”
“You really think I sound like a poet?” A smile broke through her sophistication.
“Yeah, sure, kind of mysterious, and maybe… passionate.”
“Great! I’ve still got it! I played Walt Whitman in school last year. My teacher said I acted just like a poet.”
“Huh,” I said, relaxing a little. “But Whitman was a man.”
“Yeah, but all the boys were afraid to play a poet.”
“We read one of his poems in lit,” I said. “It was okay. Don’t remember it, though.”
“But Whitman was more than a great American poet, he was a philosopher too. Ever since I played that part, I wanted to be a great poet and philosopher for the Native Americans.” As she spoke, she turned one of the stones of her necklace in her fingers.
I glanced at the necklace. Now I could tell that it looked sort of Indian. She, too, looked Indian, like her necklace. The only picture of an Indian girl I could recall was the beautiful Pocahontas in our history book two years ago. But she wore buckskin clothes with fringes and had a headband with beads in it and, of course, moccasins. Without even glancing at Priona’s feet, I knew she wore Keds, probably white. With a change of clothes, Priona could be Pocahontas. “Where do you go to school?”
“Just our pueblo school — Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe School.”
We turned our heads for a second, startled by a westbound train flashing past, nearly grazing us. We laughed about it. “What’s your favorite class?” I said.
“English,” she said without hesitation, her smile surging. “I love our English teacher. At least she used to be our English teacher.” Her smile faded. “Got a job in Albuquerque. More money, I guess.” Priona turned away from me and gazed at a maverick cloud. I waited for her to turn back to me, but that cloud held her.
“You’re not going to be that Whitman guy again, are you? I like you better when you’re just an Indian.”
She squeezed her necklace as she looked directly at me and said, “I ran away because I couldn’t stand the thought of going back to Guadalupe next year. And I hate being ‘just an Indian’ when we go into town.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way, Priona.” Those charcoal eyes had the genius to starve me as fast as they’d charmed me. “I just meant compared to Walt Whitman. That’s all.” I forced a smile. “I know how much you think of him.”
“I thought if I got far enough away from the pueblo, people would see me like a girl, a person, not an Indian.”
We passed a truck with Great West Freight Lines printed over a bright orange sun. “Where’s your pueblo?”
“Near a little town called San Ysidro in northern New Mexico.”
“I’ve never been way out west. All I know about New Mexico is the Santa Fe Trail and, of course, Trinity Site.”
“I hitchhiked to St. Louis. Trying to save money. I’ll need a place to stay in New York until I can make some money as a poet.”
I imagined her great adventure, pictured her sneaking away from her pueblo under a full moon, hitchhiking along a dusty road through tall cactus and rolling sand dunes, standing on a wooden platform waiting for the iron horse to whisk her away. “Bet your parents are worried about you.”
“I’m sure Mama is. I want to call her — when I get up enough nerve. Mailed her a letter in St. Louis. My father’s dead.”
The train swept around a curve as I tried to imagine an Indian father, tracking a deer with an arrow notched to his bowstring, a tomahawk in his belt. Or do they just buy hamburger at the store like we do? As the train straightened out, I said, “Have any poems with you?”
“A ton. Want to read one?” She reached into her backpack as I nodded.
I looked at the poem and said, “Maybe the poet should read it.”
Priona straightened herself and lifted her chin.
“But read it like Priona, not Walt Whitman.”
“Okay,” she grinned. “Here goes.”
I saw a hint of a place, and something more. I wasn’t sure what. “It tells a piece of a story, but I … Would you read it again? Please?”
She read the poem again, this time slower and with pauses and glances at me. I watched each word fall from her lips, then merge into a fuzzy sketch of a place farther from Michigan than I ever expected to go. She lowered her notebook as if trying to read my eyes.
“Would you read another one?” I said.
She flipped backward through her notebook, then read out loud. This time the smell of chicken roasting over a piñon fire mixed with the delicate aroma of prickly pears after a summer rain. The picture, imprisoned too long inside the impatient artist, streamed out in a torrent, anxious to please, to initiate a newfound apostle.
“Which one is your real home?” I said. “The first described a prison, almost. And the second was like heaven.”
She looked at the seat in front of us for a moment and then said, “Both are true. Both are my home. Does that seem possible?”
“Maybe,” I said. “I guess so. Home’s a pretty changeable place, all right.” A brick house with a refrigerator-box castle in the front yard rushed by. “You don’t use rhymes very much, do you?”
“Sometimes, but I feel more a part of the free verse. Walt Whitman wrote free verse poems.”
“Never read anything but rhyming poems in lit.”
“Ever read any poems outside school — I mean just for fun?”
“Never thought of poems as fun. Before now.”
I studied my left shoe for a moment. “Even though I’ve never been to your pueblo, you kind of put me there. And you aren’t just a name in a book. You’re real, and right here. Probably doesn’t make much sense, does it?”
“I’ve never heard a clearer statement of why someone likes a poem.”
“And I’ve never had such an enthusiastic audience as you — not even Tulea. She’s my older sister. She likes my poems too, but she doesn’t get as excited about them as you do. And sometimes I wonder if she likes them just because she’s my sister.”
“How about the kids at school? Some of them must like your poetry.”
“Ha,” she said as she turned her attention to the window again.
“Well, they must not be too smart then.” She caught me studying her profile when she turned to accept the compliment. “Maybe you have one more poem?”
Priona laughed as she thumbed through her book. “Here’s one more, and then I’ll quit.”
A kiva sleeps.
“Did you understand it?”
“Well … I guess, except for the part about that thing that’s sleeping.”
Priona smiled. “When I was little, we lived in an adobe hut with my grandmother. We used to sleep around the kiva in the winter, and I hated it because it was so drafty and cold. The kiva is where we built fires, and it has this huge chimney opening to the sky. It wasn’t a real kiva. There are only two of those in our pueblo. When my father built it, he called it our little kiva because it was sort of like a ceremonial kiva. Now we live in a house with real bedrooms, and when I think back about those nights around the kiva, they don’t seem quite so bad. Sometimes the old ways seem …” She fingered her necklace. “And then sometimes I hate everything about the old ways — and a lot of the new ways. Doesn’t that seem weird? I mean, to not even know what I like, and what I hate?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “But sometimes that’s how I feel about my family. One minute my brother seems really cool, and then he’ll be a total jerk.”
Priona looked at me for a while, like she was gauging what I’d just said.
“What kind of necklace is that? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Heishe, turquoise and corral. A couple jewelers in our pueblo make heishe, and other stuff.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “The colors are perfect for you.”
“Thanks,” she said, holding it up and looking at it around her neck.
“But your pueblo will someday be known for something else.” I paused as Priona looked at me with a question. “Poetry.”
She laughed. “Wonder if anybody in New York will feel that way.”
“Ever been to New York?” I asked.
“Never been outside New Mexico.”
“What you going to do when you get there?”
Priona turned back to the window. The sky was as clear as the snap of a piñon log in a kiva fire.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of. You already did something lots braver than I’d ever do.”
“The farther I go, the more I wonder, you know, how smart it is to go to New York. I’ve seen pictures of it. And sometimes they make my heart soar. Then I think about being alone there and no money because maybe I won’t be able to sell any poems right away.”
“I think you’re underrating your poetry. New Yorkers will love it. I bet you could sell them on street corners.”
She looked at me with a grin.
“Now wait a minute,” I said. “Listen to this. Know how many people are in New York? Suppose you could get a dime for each poem. If you sold two hundred poems every day, that’d be twenty bucks. Bet you could do that in the morning. And still have afternoons to write more.”
“Have you ever seen anybody selling poems on a street corner?”
“No, but that’s just Detroit,” I said. “New York is totally different.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I think they’re terrific. And I don’t even know anything about poetry.”
We rode in silence for a few minutes. I practiced the words I was going to say before I spoke. “What’s it like at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe School?”
Priona looked at me for a minute with a field of tasseled corn whizzing past behind her. “Nuestra Señora is what’s called a reservation school. It’s near the Jemez Pueblo in the little town of San Ysidro.” She glanced toward the blur of corn before continuing. “Sometimes I think I’m different, not like the other kids in school. None of them like school. I love to learn new things, but I hate our school. Sometimes I seem to be kind of floating over our pueblo, you know, like an angel or something. Like I’m not part of it. At first I thought maybe I was a kachina spirit, but it wasn’t really like that.” She paused, seeming to catch up with her thoughts. “I really love the old traditions … our spiritual heart. But at the same time, I’m kind of an outsider.
“Anyway, for a long time I thought about going some place where I could write poetry and be famous, and still be Indian. I read there’s every kind of people in New York, and they all kind of find their own niche. So I started planning this thing, over a year ago. I saved all the money I could from our business — we bake bread and make ristras and things and sell them to a restaurant nearby.
“Tulea said I was crazy for thinking I could run away to the Anglo world, and survive. Then one day she told me she thought about running away when she was sixteen, but she’d never do it because she wasn’t strong like me. Two weeks before I left, she gave me $25 that she saved. ‘If you’re going to New York to be a poet,’ she told me, ‘just make sure you’re the best poet in New York. And don’t ever be ashamed of where you came from. That’s what makes your poetry so special.’ That’s when I finally decided I had to do it.”
We were both lulled by the rhythm of the train for a while. The world outside, blurred and rushing, seemed opposed to the even flow from Priona.
“What’s your school like?” she said.
“I guess it’s sort of like yours, except I’m not the smartest kid there.” Priona chuckled a little. “The teachers are priests — we call them Jebbies. And there aren’t any girls. That’s another school about a mile away. And it’s in a big city. I guess the big difference is that I like it.”
“That’s kind of a hard question, Pri. Do you mind if I call you that?”
Priona picked up her heishe and turned one of the turquoise stones in her fingers.
“Sorry, Priona. I shouldn’t have just given you a nickname like that.”
She smiled and nodded a little as if weighing something. “No one in the pueblo calls me anything but Priona, or Girl. But I can’t imagine anybody asking me if it’s okay to call me something else. They would just do it if they wanted to. Thing is, it’s just not in the pueblo culture to give nicknames. I guess we’re kind of formal. What I’m trying to say is, I love your new name for me. It sounds very poetic — like Walt sounds more poetic than Walter.”
“How about Ben?”
“Ben’s a great name,” she said. “Makes me think of Ben Franklin. He was a very advanced thinker.”
“You think I’m an advanced thinker?”
“You like my poetry.”
We both laughed at my advanced poetic taste. A pause followed as our laughs dissolved into smiles and then merged with contentment. I found it very easy, very comfortable, to sit beside this exotic girl who had spelled pure anxiety to me just a few minutes ago. She seemed to share that contentment with me.
The only girl I’d ever gotten to know very well was Sharon. But even after years of playing music with her and liking her and her liking me, I couldn’t totally relax with her. And then a few months ago, I told her about my decision and my vow, so I couldn’t be her boyfriend anymore.
And now here was a girl whose name was as beautiful as her charcoal eyes, whose life clung to the opposite pole, whose skill with her adopted tongue made a musical prayer of what I always thought of as just words. I felt comfortable beside her, like a friend, not a boyfriend.
We sat, side by side, swaying as one, coupled by our motion over imperfect tracks. I was smiling to myself when Priona said, “You were going to tell me why you like your school.”
“Okay, I’ll try. Part of the reason is the same as why you don’t like yours. A lot of the kids there like school and really work hard at it. I think it’s exciting to learn something that’s important to the world. I took chemistry last year and now I know about acids and rocket propellant and plastics — and that’s all real world stuff. And next year I’m taking physics and calculus, and I love French and history. Hope I get the same French teacher I had last year, that’s Father Gomez. He said he’s going to spend as much time on French history as he does on the language. But I won’t go on and on about that.”
By now, Priona had turned sideways and put her knee on the seat between us. She gazed at me with an intensity I’d seen only when she talked about becoming a philosopher and poet for the Native Americans. “No, I want to hear more, Ben. You’re the only boy I’ve ever heard talk passionately about school. I mean positive passion. I’ve heard plenty of the other side.”
We smiled at that. “Okay, you asked for it. I’ll tell you about my dilemma. I used to think of growing up to be a musician and playing in a great symphony orchestra.”
“What? You didn’t say you were a musician.”
“Well, I’m not really a musician yet, but I play the oboe in the Detroit Youth Chamber Orchestra — and clarinet in the high school band. But the oboe is what I really love. Anyway, I recently decided to become a priest and serve Our Lord by teaching high school kids. I’m pretty good at science and math, and Fr. Swift said the Jesuits need good teachers, especially science teachers. My dad’s glad about the science and math part, but not so much about the priest part.”
“Is your dad a scientist?”
“No. He drives a bulldozer for the county. Actually, he used to drive a bulldozer. He got fired last winter when he caused a big accident and cost the county a ton of money. But it wasn’t his fault. His boss told him never to help anybody out because that wasn’t his job. But this big front-end loader got stuck in this ditch, and Dad tried to pull him out, and the cable broke, and the other machine rolled over and ended upside down in the bottom of the ditch. The other driver broke his leg. And Dad’s bulldozer ended up on its side in the bottom of another hole. It was a big mess, and Dad got canned for it. And all because he was trying to do somebody a favor, and an old rusty cable broke.”
“Wow. I could see a bunch of poems coming out of that.”
“Anyway, my dad’s very practical, and he thinks I’ll always have a good job if I go into science, but it’ll always be a struggle if I become a musician. When I was in the eighth grade, I told my mom I wanted to be a priest, maybe a musician priest, whatever that means. She thought that was a really great idea, and she started looking into seminaries for me for high school. But my dad wasn’t too keen on it. He said I should go to a regular high school and think about seminary stuff later. So, that’s what I did. And now it’s later.”
“And you still want to become a priest?”
“Well, sure. You don’t just change your mind about something like that, do you?”
Priona hesitated, then nodded.
“But Dad was right about high school. I think my decision is, you know, more mature now. And what he says about starving musicians seems to make sense. Maybe I can be a science teacher and still play the oboe.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a lot of respect for your father,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess I sort of take him for granted.” I brushed some imaginary lint off my jeans. A vision of my father suddenly came to me, but he wasn’t advising me about school. He was talking across a chain link fence to our next-door neighbor, complaining about the Negroes trying to move into our little town, and how they ought to stay in the city where they belong. Our neighbor said something about damn Niggers and how it wouldn’t be safe for his girls to even walk home from school anymore. I winced as my eyes fell to the dark skin on Priona’s arm. Then I raised my gaze back to her beautiful face, her beautiful unwhite face.
I shot a brief smile to her. “I’m, ah, sorry you don’t have your father anymore,” I said with a renewed voice. “You must miss him.”
She stared at me for a while and finally seemed to accept my concern. “I missed him way before he even died.”
I said nothing as a dozen telephone poles flew by.
“He was a great father until about eight years ago. He was a farmer in the summer and a hunter in the winter. Then the state built a highway through our farm and the Federal Government built a bunch of logging roads in the Jemez Mountains. That made it easy for all the Anglos to come up every weekend and slaughter elk and deer for fun. Kind of like the buffalo slaughter in the eighteen hundreds.”
I finally said, “I’m sorry, Priona.” I counted a few telephone poles. “Your people used to hunt buffalo, too?”
“Every winter, they’d ride over to the Pecos Pueblo, and then a big party would go north for the hunt. We still have a buffalo feast — with a make-believe buffalo.”
I felt a tension grow between us, like I personally had built the highway and the forest roads and killed a thousand buffalo and elk. I didn’t even know those things had happened. Maybe I was just a White boy from a White suburb, and I’d grow up to build highways through mountains and chain link fences around towns. I never thought of myself as White before — before Priona.
“I’m sorry, Ben. You must think I’m a whiner. Those are just things that happened, and worse things happen to lots of people. It’s not your fault or anybody’s — except my father’s.”
Then she smiled. “But you were telling me about wanting to be a priest and a scientist and a musician? But I have to admit, I wouldn’t know an oboe if I tripped over one.”
“It’s a woodwind instrument. Wait right here, Pri.”
I was back in one minute with my suitcase. I withdrew a black satin bag and unwrapped its many layers. I slipped the double reed into the mouthpiece, put the horn on the other end, and secured it with a hard tap of my hand. “Voila. L’oboe.”
I handed it to Priona. She took it carefully, afraid she might break something.
“What’s this long thing sticking out here? Is that supposed to go in your mouth?”
“Sure. Try it. Play something.”
She put the reed between her lips and blew, but nothing happened. “Try it with a little more gusto,” I said.
This time she blew it harder and a high-pitched squeak came out. “That’s awful,” she said, handing it to me. “Here, you play it.”
I removed the reed, put it in my mouth, and started sucking on it. “Here’s your problem,” I mumbled. “You have to get the reed nice and moist so it can vibrate properly.” I replaced the reed in the mouthpiece and put it to my lips. I played a couple of scales.
“Now play some real music.”
I looked around at the other passengers. There were only about twenty in the whole car. “Okay, but don’t blame me if we get kicked off the train.” Then I leaned close to her and whispered, “And there’s a lady over there looking in her purse for a tomato.” We both laughed, though mine was forced. I was overwhelmed by her closeness and her beauty and the aroma and warmth of another world just out of reach.
As I withdrew to my sitting position, my eyes surprised me by sweeping past her wonderful breasts and catching a glimpse of her bra. I hoped my silent eruption didn’t show. I could feel a blush arising and put the oboe to my lips to hide behind. I wet the reed once more and began to play.
The notes extruded, one by one at first. But then I closed my eyes and lost myself in the sounds of some other place, but one that seemed so right for me. I played a piece that I’d transcribed from its original form for flute and clarinet and orchestra. But each time I played the piece, it seemed like the first time, like the notes that climbed and plunged imaginary stairs were part of a foreign landscape sweeping through me, daring me to explore. Priona and the tomato lady dissolved as I submerged into coupled notes rising from an eastbound train through Illinois farms. The ending caught me by surprise, and Priona’s applause brought me back to a world a little different for sharing this piece of music one more time.
“That was wonderful, Ben. The notes came from the oboe, but the music came from your heart. You’re a greater poet than I could ever hope to be.”
I savored her words, for they were not the trite encouragement I’d received so often from well-meaning adults. This was another artist praising me as one of her own.
“What is that called?”
“That was the opening of Le Toumbeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel.”
“That was the most beautiful music I ever heard. Is that classical music?”
“Uh huh. Ravel was an impressionist. His music will live forever, like Mozart and Beethoven.”
“I’ve heard of them, but I never heard their music before.”
I put the oboe to my lips again and played the famous first eight notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“Oh, I know that. Play some more of it.”
I played the first dozen or so bars of that most celebrated symphony, lingering longer than I should have on that wonderful sustained note just before the main theme is repeated. Again, I was greeted with applause from Priona and also from a couple of people sharing the car.
“See, everybody recognizes great artistry.”
“That’s what I tried to tell you about your poetry, Pri. It’ll be a big hit in New York. I’m sure of it.”
She fingered her heishe again and looked at me with soft, dark eyes. “What I have doesn’t hold a candle to what you just did, Ben.”
“Your poetry is just a different form of art than music. When you read your poems, they give a glimpse right into your heart, just like I guess my oboe does for me.”
“I hope so, Ben, because the farther I get from home, the more I’m wondering. I’m afraid about what’s going to happen in New York. Every mile takes me closer to my dream — or maybe nightmare.”
She stared at the back of the seat ahead. I felt outside her world, like some wall separated us, an invisible wall that you just knew was there. I reached through that wall, first with my heart and then with my hand.