Orenoque,Wetumka, and Other Poems

by Robert Bensen

Blacksnake at the Iroquois Festival                                    

We set three paper plates in the grass
between the picnic tents and ravine at the wood's edge.
I broke our daughter's fried bread, murmuring thanks.
Steam uncoiled, brushed my hand
and branched along some shifty breeze.
A handful of Mohawk kids scooped polliwogs
in cups from the concession, their family's current stand.
They flocked around a lean, sweat-beaded young man,
who drew a hoop of writhing snake from the reeds,
a red blossom where he'd sliced the head off. 
"You know this snake?" he called across the ravine. 
"Can't say I do," I said.  "But why risk it with them?" 

Past the woods we couldn't see a lumbering freight
shake the trees and hoot some vestige of its victory. 
Our girl asked to touch the snake.  I carried her over.
She smoothed its patches of tweedy, irridescent black. 
"She's more brave than you," the boy in a Barney shirt
needled his brother.  "You were right," I said again,
"not to take a chance.  Not with them." 
But he, astonished at the drive in that headless spine,
roped it over his arm again and again.

The kids packed behind him when he crossed the knoll
to find the museum's naturalist.  He scanned the faces
of milling visitors suddenly hushed at this apparition
from some world where men strode bare-chested out of the wood
wearing snakes on their arms.  He'd hoped the white man
with the curious girl had known something final.

Well, back in the sluice, a deathmask stared
down narrow, trackless halls of reeds, 
while in the tents a woman beaded lightning down my sleeve.
And now, through apple leaves, as dawn pales blue
the hood of the moon's last milky eye,
I'm after sliding an arm around my sleeping girl,
who's of another mind:  she squiggles down,
feet perched on my wrist, poised to chase or be chased
around the circle we make.  Soon must come her dream
of another life she has to run through one more time.

What Lightning Spoke                                          


The island that could have claimed my life refrained,
returned it with a mouthful of dirt and a shirtful of wind.
Later a Rastaman shook his locks at me and my plate of curried goat,
shouting, "One day you will be shot!"  Though I said I thought not,
I caught my breath and leapt from one frame of this life to another. 

Once the Channahon swept me in a hole below a dam. 
I drank the river dry.  Now the river flows inside.

Makoce sica, land that gives back nothing, wanted my bones
to scatter in its red clay, flecked with saurians and Sioux.
I echoed down its caverns till my arms fledged, and I flew.

The Colorado wind that spills down the spine of the continent
tried to kite me into the gutted Glory Hole, but I bent
and took root at the rim, and let the teeth of the wind
comb snakes from the snarls in my hair.

Water, earth, air:  their tendered deaths
caught in me like tinder—beneath this flesh is fire. 


Begin again in silence. 
Out of nowhere, lightning and what lightning spoke;
spike and decay.  Echo.
It curtained the road, a tree of light hung from the root.

The boy I was, was walking with his sack of newsprint blurring in the rain.
The lightning branched and hooked in myriad brilliances streaming,
its rivers and rivulets flooding me with one idea:
in plain air, power makes infinite ways.

I bolted after its afterimage.  I swarmed through its fading cage.
No one home would mind a feverish child's tale,
so I retold it, next blue day, to a lone white feather of a cloud
that bloomed and boiled its furious head over the rooftops.

Maybe it was something I'd said, maybe just weather.
But sure some eminence had graved itself in my eyes' twin caves,
had scorched there the smoking claw of a thundergod.
I close my eyes and sketch, against the curtain of blood,

that first light, its descent, its flickering net of tongues.
At the time, there's only a lightening, a lift
like waking at last, already vaulting toward the zig-zag stars.
And ever after, for the record, its volleys echo

in the ear’s taut drum, down the stunned alleys of the head,
its signature chars the flesh of cloven oaks,
its shaft, drawn through the bow that arcs the valley,
will pierce the heart’s racing chambers it will pace. 

Copyright © Robert Bensen. All rights reserved.

"What Lightning Spoke" was first published in Pivot Magazine, and Blacksnake at the Iroquois Festival was first published in Tamaqua.

Hartwick College Professor of English Robert Bensen has released a new collection of poems titled Orenoque,Wetumka, and Other Poems, in collaboration with Professor of Art Phil Young, whose artwork is featured on the cover. 

The poems in Orenoque, Wetumka, occupy the borderlands between Euro-America and Native America, between now and then, between the seen and unseen. "The space between millennia was thin as water" in the reflection of the mangrove swamp in the opening poem, "Isis at Caroni." The poem invites the reader to get lost in the swamp: "the Indian guide Nanan lost us/with every turn of his wrist down every channel" that leads to the breath-taking, timeless world of the scarlet ibis. The poems negotiate the mazes of natural and human history to reveal the hidden and unknown, as in "What Lightning Spoke:"  "The lightning branched and hooked in myriad brilliances streaming, / its rivers and rivulets flooding me with one idea: / in plain air, power makes infinite ways." "Orenoque" is set in the labyrinthine Orinoco River of Venezuela during the rapacious 16th-Century explorations for El Dorado, and the late 1990s exploring for remnants of that ancient world. "Wetumka" weaves an ancient Zuni migration story with that of a Cherokee artist recovering his family scattered along and long after the Trail of Tears.

Bensen's poems have been collected in five books and published in journals from the U.S., U.K., West Indies, and Asia, as well as in African-American and Native American journals.  His work has earned a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the 1996 Robert Penn Warren Award.  He has written numerous essays on Caribbean and Native American literature, and edited several anthologies of those literatures, most recently Children of the Dragonfly (U. of Arizona Press). His poetry has been shown in eight exhibitions with photographs by Charles Bremer, in galleries that include the Bright Hill Literary Center and the National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs, NY.  He taught writing and literature and directed the writing programs at Hartwick College. 

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