Sunday, February 12, 2012

Poetic meditations on Ishi


"Ishi," writes Scott Ezell, "moved from hunting and gathering to a modern industrial existence when in 1911 he emerged alone, the last of his tribe, from the westward drainages of Mount Lassen. ..." Now, a century later, Ezell has gathered a series of poems inspired by Ishi as he recalls "Karl Kroeber's assertion about Ishi's ability to live without self-pity or a sense of victimhood: 'I do not see how we can speak of his life as anything but tragic, yet I have come to feel that he himself did not so regard it.'"

"Songs From A Yahi Bow: A Series Of Poems On Ishi" ($13.95 in paperback from Pleasure Boat Studio; also available in Amazon Kindle e-book format) brings together the work of Ezell, whose cover painting is called "Two Worlds," Yusef Komunyakaa and Mike O'Connor. Throughout the book paintings by Seattle-based artist Jeff Hengst remind this reader of a window slowly being opened, a shadowy figure just discernible. Ezell includes a short essay on Ishi by Trappist monk Thomas Merton, reflections on genocide written during the Vietnam conflict.

In "Quatrains For Ishi," Komunyakaa writes: "When they swoop on you hobbled there / almost naked, encircled by barking dogs / at daybreak beside a slaughterhouse / in Oroville, outside Paradise, // California, draped in a canvas scrap / matted with dung & grass seed, slack-jawed men aim rifles / at your groin. Wild Man // hums through telegraph wires, / as women from miles around / try to tame your tongue / by cooking family recipes. ..."

Ezell, a California native who lives in Seattle and Hanoi, invokes Ishi's spirit amidst the harsh industrial-sexual realities of the poet's two worlds: "photographic visions / washed in a stop bath of departure, // die at home wherever you may be."

O'Connor, in "Down from the Hills," takes Ishi's voice: "Long ago I left off hiding. / Twelve of us were a nation; / five of us were a nation-- / I alone am nothing left." The poet imagines "Ishi and the Braves": "The multimillionaire slugger / pulls a high fastball screaming / toward the left-field stands / right at Ishi, / and the hunter-gatherer of Yuna Creek, / surprised, shoots up his arm / and nails it on the fly."

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