The Squaw Trade

By G. E. Murray

According to local belief, Squaw Island—which
is situated in the midst of the Niagara River
near Buffalo, New York—was home for a band
of prostitutes who serviced workers from the
Erie Canal, circa 1840. Today, Squaw Island is
a municipal refuse dump for the city of Buffalo.


Slime burlap on timbers riverside, yea
More captive berths to consider: boundaries   
Set by familar propositions
Of comfort and flatbottom mud. We men   
Haul up some miracle of a ditch
To what’s called Squaw Island.
And such remains the canalman’s trade   
At last. Harsh ways, we tell you,   
Woman, your eyes and rapture averted   
To the long boats pulled in tandem   
To your door. How could we see then   
How it was always us alone—
Unknown stations in need of poor launch?


If they could sing or even listen
A little, we’d be lost deep in the pitch   
And rumble of real lives, primed   
To unload a pledge or two of return.   
One day, under the shadow of hawks,   
We locked in the long grass
As if slugs. The aftermath was quick   
Parting, forever maybe, then back   
To our stories of the packet boat   
Whacking through tangle reeds
And the stoop-backed Irish turning mythic   
In this, a speechless country,
Almost mysterious as perfume itself.


Captivated at Little Falls, gone clean   
By Weedsport, pressing toward
Those vainglorious times up in Lowertown   
Where we’d stroll the day, liquor   
In hand, waiting a turn at the Locks.   
It should be allowed as how girls   
Were not forgotten, either. Sure   
In any faint light setting off-island,   
You see the hair’s worn from their legs   
By woolen trousers. Odd why   
Such standard gossip keeps us   
Huddled around cigar smoke and fun,   
Ever shuffling, ready again to move soon.


After miles of stumps and clear-cut skies,   
More stumps. And the deadly matter
Of building country in the calm of summer   
Burdens like a search for much worse.   
Thinking through a warm afternoon rain,   
Thinking of getting there, downwater   
Toward neglect for glory’s sake
And other never-lasting bounty,
A blessing, it seems, becomes this—
All passages so unworldly hot
As to be bitter, our own massive bones   
Sweating. O Motherly touch and need,   
What have we to do with thee?


Just nervous, and the skirtless brides   
Seem just the same. At the taking   
Of shore, there’s care for the prize   
Portraiture of a girl at sixteen in your vest,   
Driving you mad, and on. It’s a gravity   
In the blood, unchangeable as the waif   
You are, a dwarf among dwarfs, no force.   
They tell you they understand. So half   
The time so drunk as to see, you wear   
Your life like a bandanna. That’s all   
Nobody’s business. That’s all the secret   
There is. But to any woman’s edges,   
Rubbed soft as landscape, you are less.


Kissing that last sure drop of sweat   
From a heavy lip, tongues wag easy   
In this good composted land
Amid mire and flesh, a threat of snow.   
We rise from a hut born
To game and holiday, knowing barely   
Ourselves. None of us escape
The terrible progress we make
Suffering yet another pleasure.
Sad, say, the ways we loved like stones—
No courting dance, no feathers
Or gesture. But then nobody asked   
For more than favors or strange luck.


They watch for clouds. Any muster   
Could ruin business, however damp   
Already the shining caves that bristle
Like pearl in moonlight. Beneath their belts   
The sources of circumstance and invention   
Turn nightfall to a wash. Lacking   
A westerly push toward Erie, the hide   
Tingles for a pressure, a sign,
If only the whine of a full day’s water   
Lost to Niagara. In fair time,
The swell might thicken and warm   
As soup in the casual hands
Of a visitor aging to unwelcome weathers.


So it’s Buffalo: gutspill and sideshow,   
Crusade of rascals swaggering
Up Front Street. Lovey, it all passes forth—
The heart’s infirmities, our grinding
Labors .... Who hasn’t spent a life
Making civilization right and not
Gone wrong? Soon there’ll be other empires,   
Then farther west, further refinements   
Of the breed. We conclude here,
A rainy frontier, end of a pity. What’s more?   
Ah, dreaming, we’d scheme of strangers   
Above our sorry place, wise builders erecting   
Able love some hundred years hence!


Like a hatch of horseflies streaming
Into gray light, we’ve grown free to cross   
The flushing river on abundant piping   
Of sludge. Where’s the barrelhouse,
The waste of laughter and bile that releases?   
Instead there’s a world piled on bedrock,   
A history failing its horizons,
Properties of muck increased by modern   
Wealth. We’re where the lost bodies   
Of unshared spheres intertwine   
As a distant rescue from style and form,   
From tales left squalid in the telling:
Now just a vigilance, faith’s fallen banner ....

G. E. Murray, “The Squaw Trade” from Arts of a Cold Sun. Copyright © 2003 by G. E. Murray. Used with the permission of the poet and the University of Illinois Press.

Source: Walking the Blind Dog (University of Illinois Press, 1992)

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Poet G. E. Murray

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Jobs & Working, Relationships, Nature, Activities, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Men & Women

Poetic Terms Dramatic Monologue

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