Sunday, June 12, 2016

On Becoming A River (poem)

just days ago
I drove through Squamish Mountains
with a Haida boy and a young Cree girl,
the youthful travellers and me
bound for ceremony in Stat-lee-um woods

glancing at the young ones
I was for a moment fearful of what lay before them,
not the ceremony but the hostile world, the merciless world,
of course only people are foolish enough to concern themselves with things yet to be
I am still learning

think like a river, I said out loud to them
the words once given to me by an old Ojibway woman,
when I was younger

think like a river and it may be so, she said
her words lingered in the air and my mind drifted into holy memory
my own place of sacred things
here, I return again and again
to a tranquil spot at a slight curve on the South Thomspon,
amid the lush breast of *Secwepemc Territory
long amber rays of warm and dusky sunlight in the early October evening -
it is the Moon of Falling Leaves

managing to find myself alone
I sit in silence among the sandy banks,
in clear view of the gravel shallows near me where the river is but a trickle
here can be heard the din of insects, all winged and buzzing things
flitting and darting above the abundant deposits of fresh bear scat,
the cackle of distracted crows and their lunatic agenda
a pair of eagles, one disheveled, if not slightly ragged,
the other regal, its feathers smooth and nearly black with age,
clearly a couple, they are feasting undisturbed on carrion the far side of the bend

dispersed everywhere in places farther and closer to me
are the sacrificial smelt and decaying forms of spent salmon
the sentient beings somehow still dignified, still important
as evidenced by the whole host of life teeming at their scattered and bountiful remains
nutrient bodies feeding and caring for all who live here
there is nothing worldly here, just peace and murmuring stillness
serenity lulls me into warm thoughts of drifting away, perhaps forever
with the soothing currents in the middle deeper waters
I breathe in the same particles of air that rushed through throats and filled the lungs
of tribes-people in my Grandmother's, Grandmother's time
air that has passed continuously through life on earth, endlessly, infinitely...

and the calm is shattered by a flash,
I am startled by the sun-splashed, silver-streaked flash
of an immaculate fish lifting itself into the air, into a somersault -
upside down and backwards
as if desperate to cry out: I am here!
its thrash - a glorious display, definitive and remarkable
then a spattering commotion and downward return to life to below the surface
the split-second event a defiant response to forces
that would deter the relentless quest for home
the reserves of stamina steadfast
in the mission, even the pilgrimage,
perhaps it's very reason for being
not predators, currents or the fearsome march of time
will keep them from going home

in that instant I was touched, changed –
became connected to ones vying for that place just a little further on
our kinship rooted in obedience to an epic if not solitary pursuit
we are both orphans of a type
coming into the world seemingly at the expense of our parent's lives
like the young smolt and fry, my folks gave their lives to bring me here
and I have made this entire journey without them
a drama composed for me by unknown hands
I cannot speak for the salmon
but mine has always been a longing to be defined by something other than absence
so I exalt in remembering that ordinary day emptying into twilight,
sitting there thinking wild thoughts before joining the night and stars

since then,
I remain susceptible to such wild thoughts
and to thinking of myself as that river
dark, deep and sometimes shallow
but with its clear origins at the feet of venerable mountains,
like the bloodlines to ancestors,
this may well be where I emerged out of spirit into being...
forever enchanted by you and a moment in time,
actually changed in that moment
now always the memory of that moment
and this, my own momentous cry that I was here

sometimes the reasons for things in life cannot be named
where once I was a boy with the worship solely of buffalo in my blood
now, these many miles and years later I come endowed
with reverence for salmon and for the lifelong voyage home in my wandering soul

it is a blessing to be Indian, more so to be Cree
and though now a man, I may be more like the salmon these days
more a creature at once resilient and fragile,
manipulated and wild,
at times I think it sinful of me to envy this majestic but unassuming creature,
wrong of me to wish to unlock the secrets of the great ocean pasture that only they know
while observing their stark refusal to be anything but what they are
their graceful singularity of purpose
I am contented in believing the songs of these places
do not end at the banks and tree-lines of territories everywhere
but are alive and singing in the hearts of those who love them

I am no elder
but I know that people protect what they love,
I know this much

so for now I remain willingly chained to my life as a freedom fighter in the false-hearted city
witnessing and sometimes helping establish small freedoms,
occasional escapes by those Indians with some place to go
I hurl myself ever upstream through the urban wilderness,
inventing ceremony and ways of manifesting cracks
because like Uncle Leonard said, THAT's how the light gets in
still navigating the roiling waters, where I have been shown by salmon
that even without mom and dad to help them along
even tiny *roe, on their own,
still somehow manage to find fire for life in the cold stone of a river bed

it seems to me now that I may have been called to the edge of that water
a response to my yearning to be kept in the heart of things
if not in the ones that I love
as when salmon quit the sea and the river calls them home
to fertilize the alpine womb

but I am fed, warmed and infused with the spirit and memory of that place
there are many ways to salvation and one of them is a river
so I am thinking like a river
because inside me is a nameless salmon
a salmon leaping - leaping for life - into the eternal and transcendent moment
where all beings merge into one
hearing an ancient song only the heart understands
the sound and vision clutched and held onto by one dazed and love-sick Cree
all dissolving into distance and oblivion

*(Secwepemc: Shuswap)
*roe: unfertilized Salmon eggs

© 2016 Champsteen Publishing


  1. I love the way you have weaved your personal journey into the river and the wild and resilient life cycle of wild salmon. It is very powerful and full of rich metaphors and descriptions.

    Like the wild salmon, you are resilient and intelligent in the way you are following your soul in your writing and life in the community.

    So much gratitude to know you and walk beside you in this beautiful story!

  2. Yes, I did read this, more than once. Because, yes, I knew I would see something new or varied with each reading. There are so many passages I really like; it's hard to choose one to start. ..."mine has always been a longing to be defined by something other than absence"... Gorgeous sentiment. ..."when salmon quit the sea and the river calls them home to fertilize the alpine womb"... Just a beautiful descriptive. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that shout out to the Crees. Hiy hiy!

    I’ll be back…

  3. You are a wonderful soul and great person! Over the years, it is a pleasure to continue to read your work, as I know, that is who you are and where your heart is. Looking forward to reading many more from you.