In The Longhouse, Oneida Museum

By Roberta Hill Whiteman b. 1947
House of five fires, you never raised me.   
Those nights when the throat of the furnace   
wheezed and rattled its regular death,   
I wanted your wide door,

your mottled air of bark and working sunlight,
wanted your smokehole with its stars,
and your roof curving its singing mouth above me.   
Here are the tiers once filled with sleepers,

and their low laughter measured harmony or strife.
Here I could wake amazed at winter,   
my breath in the draft a chain of violets.   
The house I left as a child now seems

a shell of sobs. Each year I dream it sinister   
and dig in my heels to keep out the intruder   
banging at the back door. My eyes burn   
from cat urine under the basement stairs

and the hall reveals a nameless hunger,
as if without a history, I should always walk   
the cluttered streets of this hapless continent.   
Thinking it best I be wanderer,

I rode whatever river, ignoring every zigzag,
every spin. I’ve been a fragment, less than my name,   
shaking in a solitary landscape,
like the last burnt leaf on an oak.

What autumn wind told me you’d be waiting?   
House of five fires, they take you for a tomb,   
but I know better. When desolation comes,   
I’ll hide your ridgepole in my spine

and melt into crow call, reminding my children   
that spiders near your door
joined all the reddening blades of grass
without oil, hasp or uranium.

Roberta Hill Whiteman, “In the Longhouse, Oneida Museum” from Star Quilt. Copyright © 1984 by Roberta Hill Whiteman. Used by permission of Holy Cow! Press, www.holycowpress.org.

Source: Star Quilt (Holy Cow! Press, 1984)

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Poet Roberta Hill Whiteman b. 1947

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Living, Activities, Travels & Journeys, Time & Brevity, Home Life, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Roberta Hill Whiteman, a poet of Wisconsin Oneida heritage, is the author of Star Quilt, a poetry collection which integrates her ancestral culture with European-based approaches to verse. Whiteman grew up in Wisconsin among the Oneida community and also in Green Bay; the family moved between the two locales several times. In previous centuries the Oneida were forced to make a series of moves that displaced them from their . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Living, Activities, Travels & Journeys, Time & Brevity, Home Life, Relationships

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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