Photograph by Sue Reynolds
Sue Reynolds: 'Blurring Drum Beats Circled,' Montana (detail)

Kicking Off National Poetry Month: 'Drum,' by Alex Jacobs

Alex Jacobs
4/1/13

April is National Poetry Month, and all month long we'll be bringing you a selection of works by poets, both established and new, from Indian country. Today we're kicking things off with an apt poem by Mohawk poet Alex Jacobs, a frequent contributor of poetry and reportage to ICTMN. Called "Drum," it's a tribute to the instrument central to so many Native ceremonies, and the rhythm-keepers who help tell the stories of Native people everywhere. Jacobs dedicates this poem to all Haudenosaunee drummers, singers and dancers. The image above is by photographer Sue Reynolds, known for extensively documenting pow wows in Montana.

We consider it an invocation, a call to listen to the Native voices from all over Indian country that we'll be featuring for National Poetry month.

DRUM

The beating of the drum is only for so long
How many heartbeats to circle the center?
The rhythm ends, the stick held aloft
Quivering like a feather at the tail of a song
It ends, there’s a silence, a hush,
And then a rustle of footsteps
Like leaves skittering across the floor
To rest under the bench
Upon which you and your clan sit,
And a swell of many voices
Like the tide come in
The warm breath of many smells
The warm breath of many places
Visited and tasted.

The Drum rests in the center
And contemplates the next song
Even as the singers think they decide.
The Drum is forever, yet
Sometime and always to be replaced
But the space that says “Drum”
Upon an elders lap
The hollow that says “Drum”
Within knowing aged hands
This Drum, these songs,
Our voices held fast by these
Keepers of Long Memory
Of thick winter patience
Of light touches with calloused fingers
That sooth it in response to the quick grasp
Of eager young hands
Those also young in teeth
And large of smiles that show them well
Shining toward those young girls there
The shy tips of songs poking through
Their young girl smiles
Like early spring buds,
So startling in colour
They laugh like birds, these girls,
Shaking all the leaves

But now the singer,
He grows old and strong,
Then just old
Yet the songs remain
To grow even stronger.
The song-maker is even
Less remembered
Than the carved hollow
Or the wooden hoop,
The wetted leather, this drum
His brightest day is that time
He creates the song
And lets it linger like a trip
Upon liquid sunshine
And it becomes,
We all become, one
The Drum, the song, canoe
River and journey
We paddle expertly, gliding,
Long movements from mere motions
Nodding our heads at marks along the river
To cranes, herons, geese, ducks, snipes,
Osprey, beaver, muskrat, turtle,
To cattails, reeds, willows,
All this measured in heartbeats,
Heartbeats.

Then reciting this journey,
Looking back in pride,
The song-maker makes the gift
And it becomes all the peoples.
It becomes all the storytellers,
The long winters, the fires,
Children laughing,
It becomes the actor, the clown,
The hunter, the healer, the traveler,
The fruit passed around in winter
Grown last summer,
And while at home,
An old-timer describes a journey
From the past, with his notched stick
Marking time, he cuts another notch,
As if painting upon a skin, a story,
A clan, a memory, a landscape.

The young singer with flashing teeth
Shakes his rattle like shells along the shore,
Like seagulls squawking flying inland
For just this one song, this one shining memory,
They beat their wings in time to the rattle,
The youth is the wave reaching for the boat
Tugging at this long remembered ride
And singing high those youthful swells,
Seeing into the distance upon the peak
Then settling low into the trough
And gathering, gathering
Always stretching the ride,
Lifting the song,
Surrounded always by the
Feathered peoples and their music

The Song-maker remains the memory,
Frail yet renewed, weak in body
Yet strong in spirit
He is the sunlit journey of creation
His hands carved by life as if from wood
In turn, his tongue and hand
Have carved the ride
From the current of life
From sweet smelling wood,
From dark sweet marrow
From white bone memory
His heart guides a Nation
From dark to light
All others follow his trail,
In each telling
Some little extra is added
And it rises above them
From outstretched hands
Along breaths and shouts,
Like hawks whirling
In the wind of migration
Up to the Sky Fathers
Who hold high the clouds
Up to the Grandfather Winds
And Grandmother Moon

Drummer and Drum Keeper,
Singer and dancer, actor and storyteller
Remember me somewhere
When a new hoop is formed
When hollow carved and leather wetted,
Stretched and tested with thumb,
And rising above murmurs,
The heartbeat returns, the beat so familiar
Even with my own added touches
These years I have traveled upon a crooked road,
Remember in that song, no matter how sung,
The me, the you, them that follow,
The ride we shared this passing summer
The current always in forward movement
The heat since passed but the warmth remains
The beat, the beat, the beat…
Drum.

-Alex Jacobs (Karoniaktahke)

Akwesasne, 1982
Dedicated to all Haudenosaunee drummers, singers and dancers

 

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