Doppelgängers: A Nativity Ode

By Carter Revard

(if only Columbus had…)

By way of introduction: It has lately been discovered that, just as the first stanza of this piece narrates, at a certain time of year hellacious gales of wind blow from east to west through certain parts of the Sahara (the “Bodélé Depression”), from which they scoop great quantities of very fine minerals, sweeping them up into dark roiling clouds that are then driven high across the Atlantic, over Brazil and up along the Amazon and its tributaries, where the fine dust eventually settles down into the lush rainforests. (For scientific accounts of this, see Deflation in the dustiest place on Earth: The Bodélé Depression, Chad, in Geomorphology, Volume 105, Issues 1-2, 1 April 2009, Pages 50-58; and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, December 8, 2009, vol. 106 no. 49, 20564-20571.) It is thought that this Sahara dust constitutes exactly the fertilizing soils and minerals required to renew those rain forests, which otherwise would deplete the soils so extensively that eventually the forests would die. In this way, desert and jungle are “Doppelgängers,” orchid (“air-plant,” epiphyte) an apotheosis of hurricane (Hart Crane’s wonderful poem “The Air Plant” reversed), nectar an avatar of dust. If we had the ability of angels to see past and present and future simultaneously, we might see jungles that used to cover what is now the Sahara, and perhaps a desert that will cover what are now the rain forests of Brazil; but for now, I have painted only two brothers, African desert and Brazilian rainforest, in present time. Not dust to dust, but dust into nectar, is the story of Terra Nuova.

For my poem, I have put that story together with another of an infant’s finding his voice, first in weeping and then in laughing, which are also Doppelgängers, and have narrated this in terms of the Osage Creation Story’s account of our people’s having come down into this world from the stars. So the Infanta Nuova, made of stardust (though not named Ziggy), asleep in a dark house, awakes in pre-dawn darkness and cries, is cleansed, sung to, sings along with the strong-heart song, and is fed, then sees through the window the Morning Star and the Dawn, and hears a bird sing, at which (s)he laughs, and sings along with it the new/old song of joy, one of our Osage songs.

In my first year on Earth, my twin sister and I were taken care of for some time
by our Ponca aunt Jewell MacDonald in the village at White Eagle, Oklahoma. A lullaby she used to sing us, made by her blind great aunt, is the Strong Heart Song she sings in the poem, made to hearten the warriors in despair, driven from their homelands in the Dakotas down to White Eagle in Oklahoma. The old voice is Aunt Jewell’s mother, who waked again at dawn by the child’s voice rises and (like a Ponca Firebird) fixes sun-golden pancakes with honey and fresh butter for breakfast—something gold that sticks to the ribs, a contrafactum to the Frost lyric “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” (Contrafacta are lyrics sung to the same tune—in medieval times, maybe a pastourelle about a young girl’s wooing alongside a lament spoken by Mary at the Cross; or, in the case of the “Cuckoo Song”—“Sumer is icumen in”—an Easter hymn. In my poem, I have reversed Frost’s exquisite brief lyric, in which his line “So dawn goes down to day” implies a falling-off in beauty; my contrafactual version is that the ongoing life in the house, now filled with daylight, is a feasting and not a falling off.) And I have stuffed into the final line both Lycidas (in italics) and the Lord’s Prayer.

1.

It’s not exactly a Pentecostal wind or
Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, it’s
more a haboob or maybe simoom, truly
a burning desert blast at this time of the year—
down on the southern Sahara swoops a hellish
roiling hurricane-force wind that scoops
a hundred-mile-long rift-full of dusty crystals up
and up and drives them in dark flashing clouds westward
high and higher and out over the coastline of Africa, the grey
haze now streaming across the Atlantic over Brazil
and on up over the Amazon,
high above lush rain-forests until the fine
dust comes delicately down into an orchid’s apotheosis
of hurricane where a hummingbird
glittering sends its long tongue into
deep nectar, avatar
of Sahara sand.

2.
--In this dark house I hear the
shimmering of my Doppelgänger’s wings,
but I am crying, the voices say—
some time ago I came down like dust
from the stars into this house where the old voice says
he is crying, give him
some milk, it says,
and the young voice says
I have to change him first,
then hands come down and take me up,
remove the swaddling clothes and dip
me in chilly water, wash me clean,
and I am crying and the young voice sings,
I still myself and listen, I hear the words,
“What are you afraid of?” they say,
“No one can go around death.”
In this dark house there are no
stars but there is song, the hands
have warmed a bottle, there is milk,
but first I sing along, the young voice stops then
and I sing alone,
“What are we afraid of, no one
can go around death.”
My brother hears me and he turns
from the nectar and flies out
into the moonlight, and the stars
are over him. “This child
is singing,” the young voice says, and then
the old voice says,
“Give him the bottle, let him sleep.”
The milk is sweet and warm. Now
through silent window
the morning star comes nearer,
then fades away, the east turns russet and my brother
the orchard oriole, wearing the soft
colors of early dawn, begins to sing,
so I laugh and sing,
we sing together
without words his song of joy,
“The stars go home and now
the sun appears,”
then the old voice says,
“I guess I better get up
and fix some breakfast now”—
so dawn goes down to day,
its light-gold pancakes lifting off a tray
like little suns, butter and honey spreading,
black coffee’s bitter perfume rising while
Grandmother gives us (yet once more) our daily lives.

When I was a boy in the Buck Creek Valley on the Reservation, one spring and summer a pair of orchard orioles nested in the elms beside our home, and I learned to whistle their challenge-notes and the long cascading series of mellifluous notes of their song. Alexander F. Skutch (Orioles, Blackbirds, and their Kin, University of Arizona Press, 1996), studied them in their winter migration homes in Central America and says the orchard orioles were “most songful of all the birds I have heard….At dawn, young and old sang together in a many-voiced chorus of whistled notes delightful to hear” (p. 190).

As a final comment: I think it likely that creatures sang and danced before they spoke, and that communities were first made of song and dance: metronymic mouth, hands, feet, bodies. Birds do it, bees do it, octopodes and people do it. And I suspect singing began from weeping and from laughing, turned into choral tragedy and comedy, kept time with rhythms and rhymes of tropical sunlight and starlight, temperate blossom and snowfall. Without song, no nesting. Home, as the Frost poem says, is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, and it turns out our relatives are everywhere. So the tropical paradise in New Guinea with snow around it, in the crater of a long-extinct volcano called Mount Bosavi, a place where new forms of life have evolved in isolation (including a Bird of Paradise, arising from that extinct volcano like a Phoenix), rhymes well with the Osage Agency town where I was born, Pawhuska, which means “White Hair.” Now that song has put on feathers and become speech, we dance, sing, and speak with each other in Pawhuska, at the June solstice, to keep the Osage Nation alive. Our dances begin and end with spoken prayers. We hear Adam and Eve as Milton gives them to us, every dawn, if we are lucky enough to have birds as neighbors: for them at sunrise, I believe, the Paradise within is happier far.

Copyright © Carter Revard. All rights reserved.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carter Revard, Osage on his father's side, was born in the Osage Agency town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma and grew up on the Osage Reservation there. He attended a one-room school in the Buck Creek rural community, won a radio quiz scholarship to the University of Tulsa, and was given his Osage name in 1952, the year he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. After taking his B.A. there, he earned a Ph.D. at Yale and taught medieval literature, linguistics, and American Indian literature at Amherst College, Washington University St. Louis, and elsewhere. He retired in 1997 but continues to write and publish poems and scholarly essays. His books of poetry include Ponca War Dancers (1980), Cowboys and Indians, Christmas Shopping (1992), An Eagle Nation (1993), and How The Songs Come Down (2005). A collection of essays published in 1998, Family Matters, Tribal Affairs, was followed by Winning The Dust Bowl (memoirs and poems) in 2001. Some recent poems, including "Deer Mice Singing Up Parnassus," will appear in AHANI: Poems of the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Hedge Coke, forthcoming from The University of Arizona Press.

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