The burden of becoming human

This entry is part 26 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eighth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

Jacob and the Angel
by Paul Zweig

Like a dried husk, split into a grin,
I stood on the slope of a hill, and listened to
Something rising over the crippled acacia . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-06-05]

* * * *

Hiawatha and Deganawidah

A pine knot exploded, & I checked the stew.
I saw my reflection among the floating bits
of what used to be an enemy
& that false face was yours, my prophetic friend.
You had helped yourself.

I heard everything then: the hissing fatwood,
flames licking the kettle’s greasy lip.
Two or three chickadees scolded through the open door.

I have been caught like that more than once,
among the pines & yellow poplars
in the next breath after some rare animal
has passed, fur rippling, out of sight.
The air seems fully open, like an undiscovered wound.
One hears distant voices of what may or may not be
other, ordinary walkers.

I stagger; you swing down from where
you had hidden yourself
among the rafters of the longhouse
& hold me up, show me how to make peace between
the factions in my body. Heart, spleen,
the insurgent belly – these separate fires all come
from a single ember, I intone on cue.

Then to dispose of the contents of the kettle:
let us dig its grave between the roots, you say,
in the legend that has already replaced my recollection.
There was never a fresh hole at head height
that leaked slow sap in the November sun.
There was never a cannibal feast.
When next we look in the revelatory muck,
you’re already flashing the antlers behind our heads
& I can’t account for the sudden leap in time.

I give you this epic, says the omniscient narrator,
what more do you want?
The shell beads dangle from his outstretched arms.

Based on the Seneca legend recounted by Paul A. W. Wallace in The White Roots of Peace. The epic referred to is not Longfellow’s poem – a mish-mash of Iroquioan and Algonquin traditions – but the Great Peace (or Great Law) of the Iroquois confederacy, also known as the Book of Rites: equal parts epic and constitution.

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