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Color in American History: An Essay

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Did they enjoy this, those honorary ancestors
Of ours, whom we may not speak of as Indians now,
But, rather, as Native Americans? Did they, that is,
Have the opportunity to take in such views?
For there were no roads then, slicing through
The hills, opening vistas like this. Astonishing!
Unless, perhaps, they were upon the Delaware,
A kind of road itself. But, otherwise, would not
The land itself have been an inconvenience,
The changing leaves an oracle of cruelties
To come and not, as for the tourists on a bus,
A postcard to sweep up at a glance and then
Go home to the similar view they own—
One stately maple, or two, intensely orange?
Only the birds, may be, might have known
These colors, the sudden shift of gears from green
To ocher, umber, brightest yellow, deepest red,
The colors of the gleeful dead. For birds can fly
Above the trees and see what we see from a bus.
But is there gladness in their flight? Might it
Not as well be night? And Indians (forgive the word),
Did they delight more than a bird? Were there
Esthetes then as now, before the ax,
The ox, the plow? I must believe there were—
And why? Because they traded all Manhattan
For a handful of ceramic beads. They knew,
As we, that a glint of pure bright blue
Is worth a whole October day, or two.

Source: Poetry

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This poem originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Poetry magazine

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Color in American History: An Essay

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