Walters’ “Sitting Bull in Manhattan”

After finishing Brian Walters’ The Retreat from Moscow I had a hard time deciding whether I should cite “The Rights of Man,” which discusses President Jefferson’s decision to allow Thomas Paine to return to America after writing the widely condemned The Age of Reason or this poem:


Looking at the tall buildings of New York
he longs for the Black Hills, the dawns
and sunsets unimpeded by anything
other than clouds and snow drifts.

But he is here to perform a show for Buffalo Bill.
He’s told the audiences come especially
to see him. The man who killed Custer.

The show is not for hours
and now he wanders the pavements
of this monstrosity. Dodging carriages,
dodging people. Always drawing glances.
The gaping and the curious.

Giving pennies to the beggar-boys
scrounging at his feet, he remembers
couriers sent from the Big Chief in Washington
proclaiming the amenities of civilization.

He remembers too the blue-coats riding
greedily over the prairie, stealing
gold and buffalo and burning
tepees and raping squaws in their wake.

He wonders whether a single white man has ever lived
who was satisfied with merely waking
and walking bare feet across dews.
For the people here all walk
without watching where they step.

It was good Crazy Horse died when he did.

It wasn’t an easy decision because “The Rights of Man” focuses on issues that seem more relevant than ever in today’s political climate, issues I feel strongly about and wish more Americans knew about. However, I decided to discuss this one because it resonated more strongly with me, probably not too surprising considering that this blog focuses on nature and wildlife.

Those who remember my earlier discussion of Bury My Heart at Wound Knee will also remember that I’ve long identified with the plight of the Indians, perhaps more deeply lately because I also share Sitting Bull’s view of large cities, despite my love for fancy restaurants, playhouses, and art museums. I’d much rather spend my vacation in the wilderness than any city.

Charles emailed me after I told him that I’d finally read and commented on his book. He reminded me that he has published two other books , Vinland, and Watie’s Surrender and Other Civil War Narratives


Walter’s The Retreat from Moscow

A few months back Brian Walters emailed me asking if I’d like a copy of his The Retreat from Moscow, and gave me a brief introduction to the book:

It includes a few Jeffers-style long narrative poems (though not as long as his and not psychologically demanding; I adhere to Carver’s principal of writing down what you need to say and then moving on to something else), and shorter poems on a variety of topics.

Since I enjoyed both Jeffers and Carver’s poetry, I said I’d love to receive a copy but would take a little while to get to it. It’s been a little while, and I’ve finally finished reading most of it and will finish the rest tomorrow.

I’ll have to admit I’m not a history buff and had to research online to find the background to some of the poems, particularly the title poem, though I knew the title must refer to Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow. I think I enjoyed the poem more because Napoleon barely appears in the poem. It’s written from the point of view of an enlisted man and captures the horror of that retreat from his viewpoint — not a General’s viewpoint. It grabbed my attention and made me remember how much hate war, just what I’d expect from a good poem.

I’ll have to admit, though, that I’m much more attuned to this poem:


Too often I’ll look at a map of the world
and grow disheartened at dire ideals choking
countries and continents. I’ll sadden at the knowledge
of landmasses being converted into moonfaces
and the fact that stonehard men
can go home at night to make love to their wives
after spending the day crushing the lives of thousands.
I’ll even feel malice towards the many who surrender
to corporate arrogance and carve totems out of lies
because that is all they hear or choose deafness
over alteration.

But on this morning the snow falls
beautifully soft over all horizons, and my daughter and I
mold a snowman-two dried flowerheads for eyes,
a small birch branch for a nose, a twig for lips,
a wreath of arborvitae leaves for a hat.
He smiles newly at the world.
And we smile with him.

Like the narrator, I tend to relate most to history on a personal level and, more often than not, as a contrast to my own life. It’s hard to look at what’s happening in the world and not become “disheartened.” How can it be that this country I love has spent nearly my entire lifetime at war?

Luckily, like the narrator I still cherish the moments I’ve spent playing with my children and grandchildren, indulging in the beauty that the world still offers forth.

And the tragedy of the world is all the more poignant when we manage to hold those two thoughts in our mind at the same moment.