Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods

by Brian Barker

Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch.
 Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
                 —Milan Kundera

                                         [ * ]

Those six bears in the pit behind the moccasin shop
pad all summer on a narrow path of shade,
panting, swaying,
                         stopping occasionally to stand tall on two legs and bellow

at the god-faces bobbing in the heat beyond the iron rail,

featureless puckers of milky light
that cluck and whistle and holler, flaunting
candy apples, funnel cakes,
saltwater taffy in twisted wax wrappers—

anything that might mingle desire and curiosity—

though the bears know neither,
know only the pacing that links their days
in a tether of sliding fat,

and the stillness of the pit at night
when the gods step back into darkness,
when the shellacked stones swallow the sun

and they collapse beneath their own weight at last . . .

Already the wheezing warrior has swept up
the day’s garbage,
                         and vanished up the boulevard

toward the neon rigging, the kiss of cold air
behind the glass at Harrah’s.

Already the stars have wheeled into place
over the teenagers huddled behind the stripmall,
smoking beneath the peeling billboard

where de Soto sits his horse above the town,
squinting through a spyglass,
the mountains in the background
brushed with the gauzy-blue mist of dusk.

                                         [ * ]

Discover the Wonders of Cherokee, the billboard read,

and another hand-painted sign, roadside:
Have your photo taken with Dragging Canoe—
Fierce Warrior, Bear Tamer.

We posed in front of a yellow sheetmetal teepee.
I was six. I grinned sheepishly in an oversized baseball cap,
his left hand on my shoulder, the right
pressing a hatchet flat against his chest.

A faded headdress swung down his back,
and he squinted,
staring past the camera,
past the souvenir stands, the miniature
golf courses and bingo parlors,
past the pit to our left where the gods clucked

and the bears bellowed
beneath sporadic showers of sugar and grease.

In that moment, when the flash flared,
when the camera cradled us in its plastic eye
                                                        before blinking us back—

        [My striped tube socks drawn to my knees; his belly bulging, a brown moon, and a pack
        of Marlboros snug in the elastic band of the shorts he wore beneath deerskin pants]

in that moment, even then,
the bears’ teeth were rotting, their brittle claws
were splintering on the hot cement;
their muzzles were grizzling, the whites of their eyes
pooled with bilirubin; blood was seeping
from their gums, their lungs funneled phlegm;
globules of blubber multiplied, orbiting their livers,
sheathing their hearts, buttery nuggets
sucking the sheen out of their glossy coats.

                                         [ * ]

I held the Polaroid—

I held a stuffed bear—

I held a yellow mug full of Mamaw Mulligan’s World Famous Fudge—

I ate the fudge and then the mug held seven plastic arrowheads and a penny—

I held the penny—
        [I placed it, carefully, on the silver tongue and fed it to the machine. The gears turned on
        their greased axles. Each tooth met its mate.]

I held my mother’s hand—
        [The machine whirred. It was magic, or progress, and my father kept saying, Would you
        look at that? Would you just look at that?

I held the penny, transformed, polished and oblong, stamped with a family of bears—

I held cotton candy and rock candy—
        [My fingers were sugar. I wanted to touch the bears’ pink lips.]

I held a leather belt, my name stitched in miniature turquoise beads—
        [Someone could spell me. I existed.]

I held the village floating in a glass globe—
        [It was quiet. It was empty and filling with snow.]

I held the Polaroid—
        [Until the teepee melted and the boy’s face sloshed like milk from beneath his cap.]

                                         [ * ]

Being’s a vagabond—
                               It shows itself in its absence—

It steps out into the snow
billowing over the Long Island of the Holston,

the snow tracing its thousand shapes,

spiraling, drifting into the ancient
branches of the pines that separate them
and sweep them clean.

Being coughs and curls up next to the river clogged with ice.
It slips into gaudy costumes to stay warm
and walks the streets, rinsed in benzene, muttering abstractions . . .

To become something you can’t touch,
a curiosity, something

theatrical, not quite bear, not quite man,
parading in circles around the abandoned cul-de-sac
of history, as the ice cries out beneath your steps
like fingerbones,

                        as the branches snicker together
and the bayonet blades point the way deeper
into what’s already sunk in winter:

toy animals and toy tomahawks
asleep, floating in the dark that blots

the shop windows, the snow like famine
touching the casino’s stained awning,

touching the eyelashes of those who lost,

touching the chainlink mouths and the dim
half-forgotten meals spilling from a dumpster . . .

To be nobody. To be a whole clan or nation.
To be, in the end, both at once.

                                         [ * ]

If you heard crying on the wind,
it wasn’t me but the warrior in the men’s room stall,

his moccasins framed
in the sour rectangle of light
beneath the door.

How far did I follow him with my penny
in my fist, watching him wind through the crowd,
his shoulders sobbing?

How far did I follow him?
Past the artificial waterfalls and ramshackle motels
blistering with bright paint?

Past the casino like a ship of glass
marooned in the mountains?

He shed his feathers, his deerskin pants.
He chucked his hatchet into the kudzu.

He walked the shoulder of the road
like a tightrope, into the long-leaf pines,
where the pearly scent of wild onions
floats above the river
                                and clings to the locust-light,
to a basket of black hair swimming with silt.

                                         [ * ]

(The Chiefs Remember)

They shuffled words—

They shuffled cups, bottomless cups—
        [Rum roiled like a gluttonous river.]

They shuffled time—
        [Day swung from their gold chains. Night was swaddled in their wool pockets.]

They shuffled us—
        [We were marked cards smuggled up their sleeves.]

They shuffled their faces—
        [One touched his mustache and laughed. Darkness fluttered out of his pocket like a
        moth. It flit on the tip of a candle flame.]

They shuffled the treaty of a treaty of a treaty—
        [Birds darted into their secret rooms. Trees shuddered and turned white.]

They shuffled Xs—
        [We were Xs. We were blown musketsmoke.]

They shuffled him—
        [But he was young. He rose and stomped the ground. His anger was a furious wind
        dismantling the dark.]

They shuffled smiles—
        [They put on their hats and strolled off into the forest, into their forest. They forgot it all
        and emptied into streets, strolled past leather shops and candy shops, past the casino.]

They shuffled his breath—
        [He was chainsmoking at the slots, a cup of quarters cradled between his knees. Each
        time he pulled the lever he held his breath, waiting for what hung in the air behind it to
        come clattering down.]

They shuffled his flesh—
        [There was so much of him now, it spilled over the waistband of his sweatpants. How did
        we know him? He wore a softball jersey with his name silk-screened on the back.]

They shuffled their feet over sidewalks—
        [There were too many to count. They clucked. Their faces were featureless. A young one
        said, Where are all the Indians? The father said, Look, and pointed. Two bears were
        standing on their heads in a dumpster.]

They shuffled the wind—
        [There was no wind, only silence buried in the putty his body had become. Only feathers
        of sweat fanning from beneath his arms.]

They shuffled us—
        [We were so far away. We were falling through his breath.]

They shuffled beauty—
        [He uncrumpled a twenty and Andrew Jackson glared back. Smug and regal, lantern-
        jawed, a bit bemused. His hair swept back off his forehead. Like waves of fire. Like a
        fashion model’s.]

                                         [ * ]

Bear touched back to salt—

                        Bear on the wind—

Bear beneath the river
                                 in the shoal-swirl & turtle-oar—

Coughing Bear
                        suffocating at the end of summer,

when the trees fold their green tents
and the hides are stretched, hung up dripping—

Bear of Polymer—
                                 Bear of the Gone Gall-Bladder & the Halo of Flies—

                Bear of Sugar, eating its own lips—

Bear of Gunmetal & Glue—

Bear of Air
                        Bear of the Ten Tongues bellowing in the air,

tangled in a rope ladder, swaying

                                 in the middle of the pit,

a palsied pendulum, a hiccup in the sky,

the cement twenty-feet below, a jar of peanut butter
ten-feet above, tied to the clapper of a bell—

        Come down to me
        [Bear of Memory, Bear of Hurt]
        carry me crying into the cattails
        where they’ve slept, untouched,
        for thousands of nights.

        Come down to me,
        with your warm hug and your fur
        I could bury my face in, a pelt of sleep,
        an old suitcase of smells—
        something I could curl into,
                                 and pull the lid down, my cheeks burning . . .

                                         [ * ]

        So long Old Hickory, you sharp-knifed son-of-a-bitch,

Dragging Canoe thinks, descending deeper

        into the ravine behind his breath, through a neon mist,

through tear gas and acid rain

        gnawing at the edges of the mountain ridges as he poses

with one child, then another,

        cataleptic, the visions unspooling beyond it all

spun by the carousel of buzzards

        above the dry pines, above the mock-mock-mock of a bayonet

dragged across the stockade slats,

        where a woman kneels to pick corn kernels from the dirt,

her baby slung snug against her, its cries

        splitting her breasts in rhythm with the blade

she’d like to drive through the soldier’s chest,

        although he means nothing by it, is just a kid, is just in love

with himself and bored of standing

        guard, of watching the wide swaths of smoke rise

over the mountains, carrying the houses and barns

        and fields on fire, carrying the offices of The Phoenix burning down—

So long ghost-hand, he thinks, as it flutters, as it fans behind his eyes, the blankets

        stacked like cards, the sick Queen in the hole, small pox,

whooping cough, dysentery, tongues

        swollen, lips pocked with ulcers. Just last week, a grandmother

with a little tatter of Kleenex in her fist,

        touched his elbow, called him Dear, asked if he spoke

English, and he imagined, for a moment,

        how easily her blue hair, her waxy skin would peel

back from her skull, even with his rubber hatchet,

        even not knowing the technique, how to hold

the bloody thing up to the sun or what scream

        might make the gods human again, their knees gone wobbly,

their hearts jostling in their stomachs as they run—

        But it’s too late, he knows. History’s the gash the bootheel left,

the gash language leaked out of, so that now,

        when the teenagers beneath the billboard pass the pipe

[the chemical ember winking in the glass

        bowl like a cooling star], they pass it in silence, always to the right

in order not to lose their place, pass it

        all through spring and into summer, season of exodus,

the soldiers rising in the glacial light of dawn,

        yawning, scratching their chests, pissing on the campfires

to douse the dying coals—

        So long wind, so long crows, he thinks, as trees buckle,

as roads muscle up through

        dynamite grooves, the Palace of Burgers and the Palace of Cards

strung on a dull constellation of rivets,

        trailers shimmed with cinderblocks above a current of shale,

whole families of bears trampling out

        of rhododendrons to stand roadside, backing the traffic up,

swaying back and forth a bit, their forepaws raised

        for balance, their pink tongues licking their lips.

[The gods cluck and throw in six-packs of beer,

        melted motherboards, bloated road kill; they throw in milky condoms

and rusted out carburetors;

        they throw in shells of televisions, bicycle handlebars, spent

shotgun cartridges, cigarette butts and tattoo needles.]

        So long Dragging Canoe, he thinks, as he squints, or winces,

each thing plummeting inside him

        when he places his hand on the shoulder of the boy and steps

out of himself into his own gaze,

        into an abandoned camp to touch a muddy sandal and a newspaper

crumpled on a pallet, to touch a clump of gray hair

        tangled in a brush, just before the flash flares and the bodies,

are slipped into the river like empty boats.

                                         [ * ]

I held the warrior,
                                until the novelty wore off,

the Polaroid stuffed in my back pocket
where the colors crumbled and the details
sweated out in a wet chemical paste.

Now the boy is a streak of carmine,
the teepee a sulfur smear
along one edge, the warrior floating
in the middle of the frame, a blue
blur of static I lean over tonight and study.

I want to stare at this mist until he’s whole again.
I want to set him in motion for once,

there, on the otherside, where a transistor radio
bleats across the floodlit pit.

He’s slipped out of his costume
and out of his name,
                                humming through his cigarette,

swaying, sidestepping
as he sweeps
so his sweeping becomes a kind of dance.

Flakes of dung and tufts of fur tread the air
as he stomps, as he shuffles around the bears
asleep on the cement, their tongues

hanging half-out, their bodies twitching
in dream and after-dream.

He throws his back into it

                and lifts his left leg high and sets it down—
                and lifts his right leg high and sets it down—

Blood ringing like bells through his swollen ankles,
the bears jerking in time with his steps. . .

Beyond the rock and iron rail, the town is burning down.
He feels it coming apart, spreading in hot eddies

beneath his skin: the casino going up
in a breath of sparks and shattered glass,

the billboard wavering
on its tinder stilts, the scaffolding collapsing,
De Soto breaking away on umbrellas of ash.

But here, now,
                        the air is clear and empty

and holds them, man and bears, as the pit sinks
to blackness beneath their shapes I trace.

If I lean over the edge
                                I can almost touch them.

                They are thin
                        and light as snow now . . .

                Now they are nothing.

Brian Barker’s first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, won the Tupelo Press Editors’ Prize. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Ploughshares, Poetry, Agni, Quarterly West, American Book Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Indiana Review, Blackbird, Sou’wester, and River Styx. He has a B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University, an M.F.A. from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. He is currently an Assistant Professor and Director of Creative Writing at Murray State University in Kentucky.

About “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods,” Brian Barker writes, “Some of this poem’s imagery originates from my childhood memories of visiting the bear pits in Cherokee, North Carolina—homemade attractions created as a source of tourist income by members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. These pits were essentially holding areas where captured ‘problem’ black bears that ventured down out of the mountains to raid dumpsters were placed for viewing. In 1775, the Cherokee agreed to the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, selling a huge portion of their land (now central Kentucky and north central Tennessee) to the Transylvania Land Company. Many believe that the presiding chiefs were coerced or manipulated with rum. At the final feast and signing of the treaty, Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee warrior and son of Chief Little Carpenter, rose in angry protest, vowing to turn the land into a ‘dark and bloody ground.’ He formed the Chickamauga Confederacy—the first indigenous resistance movement—which consisted of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Shawnees, freed Blacks and some 300 British Tories, and led attacks on white settlements in his old homeland for the next 17 years. In 1792, after dancing all night to celebrate an alliance with the Mississippi Choctaw, Dragging Canoe collapsed and died at the age of 54.”