The Mound Builders
The trees stand like great dead reefs against the sky,
which is blinding-clear and stretches so far
you begin to understand why once we thought it a painted dome,
and from a moraine over Lake Koshkonong I watch ducks
settling among just-green shoots.
It is spring in Wisconsin. The snowdrifts have receded.
They seep through the slowly thawing soil, and the men
who’ve invited me out for the first round of golf
I’ve played in three dimensions are shouting for me, but I,
still trying to find a ball in the dense brush, can’t hear
for the basso profundo of eighteen-wheelers
shuddering through the oaks, the bell-chime of drivers
making contact, each sound shipwrecked on the wind.
At first, the mounds here are nearly imperceptible,
long, low, linear rises that now, after so many hundreds of years
of erosion, blend into a field of eskers, drumlins, kames—
all our names for a pile of loose gravel—left
by the long-gone last glacier’s retreat. It wasn’t just the ice sheet
that carried all this earth. The Ojibwe suggest the builders
came from far north, beyond the sturgeons’ waters,
down the ragged coast of Lake Michigan, that they vanished
long before any other Indians made those prairies home.
When I catch up with the men, Gene points off
toward the ninth hole, says “That’s it, the great chicken,”
before slicing and cursing down the fairway. I study the
wooded rise in the distance, trying to make out a claw,
or wattle—but see nothing. A ball rolls off the fairway, cupped
in a fallen nest—another plunges into a shallow hazard, whistling
in the dry reeds; each stroke keening out of sight.
And I don’t know what to make of it. I’m no good at white people sports,
I tell Gene. The beer girls pull up in their cart pink-skinned,
blonde as daylight, and when Gene calls me a nigger and laughs,
shouldering his driver, neither flinches, not even a little.
As a boy I stayed a week on a Potawatomi rez.
We danced to MC Hammer in the church most nights.
I met a stone who named me lost-at-sea. I told no one.
I cried myself to sleep from homesickness,
and the boy whose room I shared stayed silent; a kindness.
And here that selfsame feeling of loss bubbles up, a blood-hot spring
in my gut. Some hundred and twenty years ago, when my family
still had money, was still Dutch, they built a dry goods
store in Racine Junction on money they’d made fishing the Zuiderzee.
Wisconsin was frontier still, anarchic. The papers say
the woods were full of lawless men, white men,
who one day took that town by force, who, quote,
ran things to suit themselves, one farm, one depot at a time.
In farmer Sheldon’s barn there was a terrible snow;
chickens scattering, working to avoid the men’s long,
tobacco burnt claws, then scattering again, headless,
pumping their frantic valves into the torchlight.
The ragged band of Swedes and Hessians, the Wettrau’s
and Andersson’s, hauled all that flesh to some deep, fire-lit,
fat-slicked oaken hollow. Generations later, they shovel sand
in to furnace-mouths. Heft sacks of feed from open-backed trucks.
Sing their tractor-trailers down highway 12. The Mound Builders
were joined by emigrants from Cahokia, began to plant corn,
built palisades, pyramids which molder now in the silt-darkened waters.
& old Sheldon was likely bad off for the robbery, though,
who knows—those vagabonds bobbed off in their filthy clothes,
into a forest from which they never emerged, while around them
the young died, the old died—of syphilis or strychnine, of hanging
or starvation, typhus or croup, and they were propped up
in their caskets for the newspapermen, they were set down with the dead
all around them, with the great totems—eagles and turtles,
the shape of a man—wailing their secret hymns;
and the sportsmen at Koshkonong were just as easy then,
firing shot at the fowl, pulling bass from the clear sheet,
the waters the Ojibwe once lived in and upon,
where, presently, I swing my rented club into the wild abscess of sky.
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