Thursday, December 21, 2006

John Mason Gets Sassacus' Head

Last Friday I opened up the reading at the Center* with a poem that grew out of anger at an old war, the war that dominated the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, the one in Vietnam. I dedicated it to Donald Rumsfeld, whose last day as Secretary of Defense had just passed.

A little background: John Mason was the leader of the colonial force which in May of 1637 burned a Pequot Indian village in what is now Connecticut to the ground, killing four to seven hundred Pequot men, women, and children. This act began, in a practical sense, the genocidal war against indigenous North American people that was a principle feature of the history of these states for two hundred and fifty years. The death toll from that war reached, of course, into the millions.

More: Sassacus was a spiritual leader, or sachem, of the Pequot whom Mason ordered hunted down. A delegation of Mohawk Iroquois presented Sassacus’ head and hands to Mason in August of the same year.

Here's the poem:

John Mason Gets Sassacus’ Head

John Mason dreams
at dusk, as fat flies buzz,
thump the glass pane.
Starved among summer’s feedings
John Mason shuts his eyes …

The bombers lift off
from Connecticut west
stuffed with dark fire
to char wild India at last;
John Mason dreams
“to destroy enemy

He wakes.
The head is brought to him,
eyes quenched
lips silenced with thongs,
the head of Sassacus
and his hands, cut off
lest they reach
out of the unknown
dark waves of blood
into his shadow.
John Mason sleeps

and dreams again …
From his dull eye
empty locusts of iron
fall onto dark bodies
who plow and sow earth
(“only artisanal” …)
till their eyes are broken
by the iron teeth
and fire without light
eats their tongues.

John Mason dreams;
this is “pacification”.
He feels at
gut furnaces
of Texaco crack blood
to gasoline,
maggot ball bearings
rip and eat flesh,
wallow and grow wings;
the bombers land
again and strut to rest.
New markets opening”;
John Mason dreams

he is safe, gorged,
alone, asleep, burrowed
deep in his steel home,
beyond all flies
eyes lights hands
tides of blood,
and he dreams
what he has mastered.

It first appeared in Red Buffalo, a journal published by the American Studies Program at SUNY Buffalo, and was later included in Walter Lowenfels' anthology From the Belly of the Shark. It's not in NatureS, for various reasons; it's tone was so different from that of the other poems that would comprise the book, and its language ... well, I suppose I see it as a transitional piece, somewhere between the work of my student years and what followed. But as the war in Iraq drags on, and promises to become an even larger conflagration, this seems an appropriate moment to resurrect it.

* That would be the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, of course.

Update: minor stylistic revisions and a few more links on January 31,2007.



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