Today's poetry for today's world

Ralph Salisbury



Ralph Salisbury's three books of short fiction and eleven books of poems evoke his Cherokee-Shawnee-Irish-English-American heritage.  His poem "In the Children's Museum in Nashville" was published in the New Yorker, in 1960, and has attracted some attention as a precursor to the contemporary Native American literary movement.  In selecting his book Rainbows of Stone (2000) as an Oregon Book Award finalist, Maxine Kumin wrote: "Nature in Ralph Salisbury's conception is a Presence to be addressed . . .  His book deserves a broad audience."  Salisbury's newest book is Like the Sun in Storm by The Habit of Rainy Nights Press, 2012.  He published three books in 2009: Blind Pumper at the Well, Salt Press, Cambridge, UK; The Indian Who Bombed Berlin, fiction, Michigan State University Press and Light from a Bullet Hole, poems new and selected 1950 - 2008, Silverfish Review Press, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.







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Awakened by my mom,

sixteen, I’d clutch Dad’s gun,

because he’d be on his way to where my granny’d got sick,

and the army’d got my brother,

and maybe it would be our hens

squawking in the clutch of black-marketeers

or I’d smell our tractor’s gasoline, pouring into cans,

to be sold to the big city owners of big cars.


I’d shoot, and footfalls would flee,

leaving whatever was too heavy to carry rapidly away.


War and deaths of some friends

and everything too heavy two years ahead,

for a few moments of a few terrifying nights I tried to be

all that I needed to be to stay alive.


Published in Like the Sun in Storm by Habits of Rainy Nights Press, 2012.










You tell me   you can not write it

yesterday's pretty village   splinters   and in

your aircraft cargo compartment   ammunition/rations/med-

icines gone   an American lies   wrapped in his raincoat

strapped to the floor of that machine generations struggled

to invent   and thousands of hours of lives went to create

the boy's belongings   all he could bear

on his back   packaged beside him

sunset   a shimmer like cathedral glass

a memory   the instrument-panel glow

as low as devotional candles   showing

in plexiglass   monsoon screams past   your face

above the controls   your own American face




Published in Going to the Water, Pacific House Books 1983

and in Light from a Bullet Hole, Poems New and Selected 1950 - 2008,

Silverfish Review Press (2009)












She tells you I am her baby, twisting on shattered glass,

wind ghost-moaning in, turning my screams to steam,


turning the wall's bullet hole's light into an icicle,                   

witched into yellow pencil, with which I write

what she can not tell,

that I am her baby no longer,

our family's enemy's shot, which was meant

for somebody older, now striking someone so old

the world itself is his child, twisting in broken breath


It is a human death the telephone wires tell my ear,

half deafened by bomber motors, but still able to hear

the pleading of those who were burning, and milk

from my mother's nipple is light

from a bullet hole,

as I twist, again and again,

in diapers frozen to shattered ice

and offer, while blizzard-robed seraphim sing: "Mother, take,

from a thorn of light, the flesh

that was torn from you and wear it, warm in the night."




Published in Light from a Bullet Hole, Poems New and Selected 1950 - 2008,

Silverfish Review Press (2009)












In the Children's Museum in Nashville, rattlesnakes coil,

protected by glass and by placards warning that if teased

they might just dash their brains against apparent air.

Negroes are advised that, if notified in advance,

the Children's Museum in Nashville will take care of them

on certain days. On an uncertain day, to regulate

my sons by Mother Nature's whims, I make it quite clear

that some skulls are less substantial than apparent air,

as, evidently, one empty cage verifies.

More durable are the heads of bison, eland

(from Africa), and other exhibits: a purple parrot,

who eventually condescends to demonstrate

by winking that, far from dead, he of his own free will

dreams over caged snakes in his own cage; blades

from China's dynasties and Malayan tribes;

some shrunken Jivaro noggins and a diminished Nashville;

and, most awesome, a bird and a squirrel

reborn at intervals from blacked-out flesh as white

skeletons.  On Sundays, children are allowed a look

at electric stars. Seen every day is an Indian

child–cured by chance, the signs say

in a dry, airless place–still possessed

of parchment skin, thought eyeless, and still dressed

in ceremonial regalia

that celebrates his remove to a better world.





published in New Yorker, Modern Poetry of Western America, Brigham Young University Press, and Going to the Water, Poems of a Cherokee Heritage, Pacific House Books 83 and Light from a Bullet Hole, Poems New and Selected 1950 - 2008,

Silverfish Review Press (2009)





Writer's Tip: Write out of impassioned love or impassioned hate, and, if some understanding comes through, so much the better.

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