Tal’-s-go Gal’-quo-gi Di-del’-qua-s-do-di Tsa-la-gi Di-go-whe-li/ Beginning Cherokee

By Qwo-Li Driskill b. 1975 Qwo-Li Driskill
I-gv-yi-i Tsa-la-gi Go-whe-lv-i: A-sgo-hni-ho-’i/

FIRST CHEROKEE LESSON: MOURNING

             Find a flint blade
             Use your teeth as a whetstone

             Cut your hair
             Talk to shadows and crows

             Cry your red throat raw

             Learn to translate the words you miss most:
             dust                     love                    poetry

             Learn to say         home

My cracked earth lips
drip words not sung
as lullabies to my infant ears
not laughed over dinner
or choked on in despair
No

They played dead until
the soldiers passed
covered the fields like corpses
and escaped into the mountains
When it’s safe we’ll find you
they promised
But we were already gone
before sunrise

I crawl through a field of
twisted bodies to find them
I do everything Beginning Cherokee
tells me
Train my tongue
to lie still
Keep teeth tight
against lips
Listen to instruction tapes
Study flash cards

How can I greet my ancestors in a language they don’t understand

My tear ducts fill with milk
because what I most love
was lost at birth

My blood roars skin to blisters
weeps haunted calls of owls
bones splinter
jut through skin
until all of me
is wounded
as this tongue


Ta-li-ne-i Tsa-la-gi Go-whe-lv-i: A-ni-s-gi-li/

SECOND CHEROKEE LESSON: GHOSTS

             Leave your hair
             at the foot of your bed

             Scratch your tongue
             with a cricket’s claw to speak again

             Stop the blood with cornmeal

             Your ancestors will surround you as you sleep
             keep away ghosts of generals presidents       priests
             who hunger for your
             rare and tender tongue

             They will keep away ghosts
             so you have strength
             to battle the living

Stories float through lives
with an owl’s sudden swooping
I knew some Cherokee
when I was little
My cousins taught me
My mother watches it all happen again
sees ghosts rush at our throats
with talons drawn like bayonets
When I came home speaking
your grandmother told me
I forbid you to speak that language
in my house
Learn something useful

We sit at the kitchen table
As she drinks iced tea
in the middle of winter
I teach her to say u-ga-lo-ga-go-tlv-tv-nv/ tea
across plastic buckets of generic peanut butter
wonder bread diet coke
Try to teach her something useful

I am haunted by loss
My stomach is a knot of serpents
and my hair grows out
as owl feathers


Tso-i-ne-i Tsa-la-gi Go-whe-lv-i: A-nv-da-di-s-di/

THIRD CHEROKEE LESSON: MEMORY

             Raid archeologists’ camps
             and steal shovels
             to rebury the dead

             Gather stories like harvest
             and sing honor songs

             Save the seeds
             to carry you through the winter

             Bury them deep in your flesh

             Weep into your palms
             until stories take root
             in your bones
             split skin
             blossom

There are stories caught
in my mother’s hair
I can’t bear the weight of

Could you give me a braid
straight down the middle
of my back just the way I like
So I part her black-going-silver hair
into three strands
thick as our history
radiant as crow wings

             This is what it means to be Indian
Begging for stories in a living room
stacked high with newspapers magazines baby toys

Mama story me

She remembers
             Great Grandmother Nancy Harmon
             who heard white women
             call her uppity Indian during
             a quilting bee
             and climbed down their chimney with
             a knife between her teeth

She remembers
             flour sack dresses
             tar paper shacks
             dust storms         blood       escape

She carries fire on her back
My fingers work swiftly as spiders
and the words that beat in my throat
are dragonflies

She passes stories down to me
I pass words up to her
Braid her hair

It’s what she doesn’t say
that could destroy me
what she can’t say
She weeps milk


Nv-gi-ne-i Tsa-la-gi Go-whe-lv-i: U-de-nv/

FOURTH CHEROKEE LESSON: BIRTH

             Gather riverbank clay
             to make a bowl

             Fill it with hot tears

             Strap it to your back
             with spider silk

             Keep your flint knife close
             to ward off death
             and slice through umbilical cords

             Be prepared for blood

Born without a womb
I wait for the crown of fire
the point where further stretching is impossible
This birth could split me
I nudge each syllable into movement
Memorize their smells
Listen to their strange sleepy sounds
They shriek with hunger and loss
I hold them to my chest and weep milk
My breasts are filled with tears

I wrap my hair around their small bodies
a river of owl feathers

See they whisper We found you
We made a promise

This time we’ll be more careful
Not lose each other in
the chaos of slaughter

We are together at sunrise
from dust we sprout love and poetry
We are home
Greeting our ancestors
with rare and tender tongues

Qwo-Li Driskill, “Tal’-s-go Gal’-quo-gi Di-del’-qua-s-do-di Tsa-la-gi Di-go-whe-li/ Beginning Cherokee” from Walking with Ghosts. Copyright © 2005 by Qwo-Li Driskill. Reprinted by permission of Salt Publishing.

Source: Walking with Ghosts (Salt Publishing, 2005)

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Poet Qwo-Li Driskill b. 1975

POET’S REGION U.S., Southwestern

Subjects Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Activities, School & Learning, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Cherokee poet, scholar, and activist Qwo-Li Driskill was raised in rural Colorado. Driskill earned a BA from the University of Northern Colorado, an MA from Antioch University Seattle, and a PhD from Michigan State University.
 
Driskill’s poetry engages themes of inheritance and healing, and is rooted in personal Cherokee Two-Spirit, queer, and mixed-race experience. Walking with Ghosts (2005), Driskill’s first poetry . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Activities, School & Learning, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Southwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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