Monday, January 7, 2013

Monday's Poetry: "Evolution" and "Buffalo Dusk"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

1936 was the year that American black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, causing no end of personal consternation and embarrassment to the new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, and his evolving theories of Aryan superiority.  It was also the year that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected to the American presidency, defeating Alf Landon (the governor of Kansas) who managed to carry only two states:  Maine and Vermont.  Governor Landon’s drubbing in the election of 1936 led to the rewording of the old political axiom:  “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” to a more succinct and politically accurate:  “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

It was in 1936 that Edward VIII became King of England and, a few months later, also in 1936, abdicated the throne.    Joe DiMaggio played his first major league baseball game in 1936 and came away from that experience with three hits.  On the literary scene, Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel, Gone with the Wind, was published in 1936, and that was the year the Life Magazine first hit the newsstands. 

It was quite a year.

1936 was also the year that the buffalo nickel which I received in change this morning at the local McDonald’s drive-thru was minted in the city of Philadelphia.  The last time I received a buffalo nickel in change had to have been at least twenty-five years ago, and I suspect that this will be the last one that I encounter while engaged in the daily commerce of life.

The buffalo actually adorns the obverse (tail) of the five-cent piece that was minted in the United States from 1913 through 1937.   The front (head) of the coin is an engraved depiction of a classic American Indian.   Now all three symbols of our proud heritage (the old nickel, the buffalo, and the Indian) have slipped into relative obscurity.  (The nickels have been hoarded by collectors, the buffalo are restricted to a relatively few public and private herds, and the noble Red Man has been marginalized onto reservations and into deep poverty.)  If there is any one coin that encapsulates the essence of the western frontier in the United States, it would be the buffalo nickel, a coin which turns a century old this year.

To commemorate that special coin, including the one that I came across this morning, I have selected the following two poems for inclusion in today’s post.  In “Evolution,” Indian author and poet Sherman Alexie, provides a disturbing look at the modern American Indian culture.   Poet and biographer Carl Sandburg uses “Buffalo Dusk” to lament the destruction and disappearance of America’s once vast buffalo herds.   Alas, the intentional destruction of our natural resources is an old story.

by Sherman Alexie

Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation
right across the border from the liquor store
and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

and the Indians come running in with jewelry
television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish.  Buffalo Bill

takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it
all catalogued and filed in a storage room.  The Indians
pawn their hands, saving the thumbs for last, they pawn

their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin
and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks

closes the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.

Buffalo Dusk
by Carl Sandburg

The buffaloes are gone.
And those who saw the buffaloes are gone.
Those who saw buffaloes by thousands and how they pawed the prairie sod into dust with their hoofs,
       their great heads down pawing on in a great pageant of dusk,
Those who saw the buffaloes are gone.
And the buffaloes are gone.

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