Post-Modernity in Kayenta

By Hershman John b. 1972 Hershman John

after Elizabeth Bishop

for Scott Manning Stevens

The monoliths, sandstone
carvings crest high
in the air, tall like redwoods
with striking wind-eroded,
rain-washed, sunny edges.
Driving from the East,
two lovers from Chicago
discover a new city
made of sand cliffs,
rabbit brush, red soil,
a prairie dog’s echoes,
heavy dark clouds,
sharp yucca. Sheep dot
the valley, nibbling on
wild green shoots.
Monument Valley—
50 miles from Kayenta.
A small Navajo town
holding onto the edges
of the Earth, encircled
by purple mountains,
dry mud washes, jackrabbit
burrows, shifting sand slopes,
coyote tracks, some
small thirsty juniper trees . . .
Four cows walk slowly
away from the sun to
the nearest gas station
looking for shade.
On the AAA map,
the road breaks
into two black veins:
interstate or road?
K-town to San Diego.
With no trendy clubs nearby,
these two hungry men see the neon
hamburger sign: Burger King.
Like walking into a Life magazine
pictorial of the Southwest, the men
walk through the pages of the fast-
food chain. There are four Navajo
families, their grandmothers
wearing glossy crushed velvet
dresses colored with deep splashes
of late-spring orchids, red or purple.
Decorated like royalty with turquoise
and silver bracelets, intricate inlaid
pins and concho belts. Around
their weathered necks are long
strands of white shell, coral or heavy
silver squash blossoms. Their black
hair tied back with white yarn
in a tight figure-eight bun.
On the bright orange walls
are the large black and white photos—
The Navajo Code Talkers,
watching grandfathers dressed
in pollen-yellow uniforms
and apple-red military caps,
with metal stars and stripes
pinned to them. Their eyes
are pieces of charcoal
already burnt-out from seeing war
and sleeping among the dead bodies.
Even the Blessing Way ceremonies
can’t purify their cataracts.
During WWII, they talked in code,
in a language reserved
for the wind. Or bears.
A code the Japanese couldn’t break:
the wind’s whistle or the bear’s growl—
drowning Asian intonations
and clicking grasshoppers.
These grandfathers
saved the country so their
screaming grandchildren
could learn to be Diné and run
around and around holding
half a hamburger and spilling
broken pieces of French fries across
ivory tiles. One little girl,
dark and pretty with high cheek-
bones and messy hair,
smiles at the attractive blond
man waiting to order.
Holding her hand up high
she shows him her kid’s meal toy.
Lewis sees the plastic details:
a perfect smiles, candy-apple red lips,
large breasts, dark eyes, purple eye
shadow, a buckskin dress,
long frozen black hair,
with a rock turquoise necklace.
It’s one of the many Disney
Girls—Pocahontas. He smiles,
imagining this Navajo girl
wanting to be the icon.
In college, he remembers
studying late with a new leaf
moon for a history exam on
Indians and the Early Settlers
of the 1800s.
Pocahontas was an Indian guide
(but he can’t remember from
which tribe). He remembers
that women guides were
often called sleeping dictionaries,
exotic women translating words
and finding less treacherous routes
full of gold nuggets or beaver
pelts for fur trappers,
explorers, white men . . . . These men,
most of the time, slept
with their guides, maybe
like “Lewis and Clark.” Lewis
remembers that his Clark
is waiting for him—overwhelmed
and starved at the table rubbing
his hard abs, still trying
to figure out which road to take:
K-town to San Diego,
interstate or road?
The Disney Girl’s mother
pulls her away from him,
thinking her daughter is bothering
him or maybe she knows about
Lewis and Clark.
She apologizes in broken English,
different from his Chicaga accent.
The sunset is different in this
land without the best architecture
like the Wrigley or the John Hancock
buildings rising taller than the natural
red earth skyscrapers and clouds.
Different without the one lonely
Water Tower he feels kinship with
because it survived the Great Fire.
Lewis wonders all this, in the dying
light of day, as he orders
from another Pocahontas in a
maroon uniform, in Kayenta,
Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation
without the barbed wired fences,
sanctioned by a White government
after the Long Walk—
the forced walk of thousands
of Navajos in the same coldsnap
of a Chicago winter, unforgiving.
Lewis sees the tiny exploitations again,
seemingly harmless toys given
to countless Navajo girls, and knows
they too must walk the Long Walk—
without a map, they walk from
Ft. Defiance to Bosque Redondo
which is their same journey
through life, the corn pollen path
over the reservation and past
every modern man-made city.

After all this,
It’s like imagining
how old, how big
the universe is—
endless,
endless . . . .

Starlight, galaxies, silent
comets. Red maple leaves
spiraling up to the sky
like another great fire swallowing
Chicago under a blinding sandstorm.
In 1864, the Long Walk begins
in cold ice; in 1871 the Great Chicago
Fire ends in white flames . . . .
Clark still tracing his fingernail
along Route 66 to nowhere.
Children figure-eight skating
on ice, circling and circling Chicago.
The empty eyes of the Code Talkers
watching the Japanese war
prisoners, who were kept in war
camps on the reservation and
locked in photograph and on the opposite
side of the wall, black and white stills.
Clark dancing shirtless under strobe—
he’s slick as a black crow’s feathers.
Four cows still resting under
a gas station’s awning—

But all joining in a single thought,
a moment blowing away in Kayenta’s
coming monsoon or on
the sunny beaches of San Diego.

Lewis clears his voice:

“I’ll have four
Whoppers with cheese and
no onions . . . .”

Hershman R. John, “Post-Modernity in Kayenta” from I Swallow Turqoise for Courage. Copyright © 2007 by Hershman R. John. Reprinted by permission of University of Arizona Press.

Source: I Swallow Turqoise for Courage (University of Arizona Press, 2007)

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Poet Hershman John b. 1972

POET’S REGION U.S., Southwestern

Subjects Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Nature, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity, Gender & Sexuality, Popular Culture

Biography

Hershman John was born in California and grew up on the Navajo reservation in Sand Springs, Arizona. He earned an undergraduate degree and an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University. John is the author of the poetry collection I Swallow Turquoise for Courage (2007). His poems have been published in journals and anthologies including Puerto del Sol, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and O Taste and See: Food Poems.
 
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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Nature, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity, Gender & Sexuality, Popular Culture

POET’S REGION U.S., Southwestern

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