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Never Gone

by Zettel 

Posted: 13 April 2008
Word Count: 300
Summary: Native American – Indian – spiritual beliefs unlike say the Abrahamic religions, are spatial not temporal; communitarian not individualistic. This does not try to be an ‘Indian’ poem – that would be silly. But it does try to express a deep empathy towards the spirit of these ideas and the culture that struggles in the face of ignorance and injustice to live by them and keep them alive. The recorded history of our, European, contact with these peoples is a lie; and its truth is shameful.

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Never Gone

Know this above all
I am never gone
I am in the breeze
sighing through the trees
I am in the trees
and the trees are me

I am in the sun
drawing growth from earth
in the roots of corn
and I am in
the life reborn
in ripening gold

I am in the whisper
of urgent summer rain
slaking thirsty earth
propagating life
in the embracing sun
I am in re-birth

I am in the sea
shimmering with light
brooding moody bright
from deep-stirred swell
to snarling waves its turbulence
contains a part of me

I am in the ancient stars we see
whence we all once came
and as the sightless moon
lifts and lights the tide to shore
ebbing night to flooding day
there too I will be

I am not in the clocks
not hours or days or years
for I am not in time
with its sequential fears
I am in your heart
not in your ideas

I am ever in this place
in this sacred space
I am not past or gone or lost
not of then or now or soon
I am always here
in sun and sea and moon

I am not in heaven
nor any place but here
for how could I desert
all that I hold dear
your eyes are now my eyes
your ears hear my sounds

When you sense the beauty
the spirit of the world
then I return to you
in your blood in your breath
in your unbroken heartbeat
There I live anew

I am in the great mystery
beckoning to truth
seeking out a way
when you must follow me
around life’s unbroken ring
Spring birth, summer life
Autumn’s solemn solace
Winter’s welcome rest
until the urgent call
of yet another Spring

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Comments by other Members

Ticonderoga at 14:54 on 15 April 2008  Report this post
Honourable, noble, powerful and gentle - totally in keeping, in other words - and genuinely moving. Write on.



James Graham at 19:54 on 16 April 2008  Report this post
Playing catch-up at the moment. Will post a comment soon. At a glance this looks like one of your best.


James Graham at 20:46 on 18 April 2008  Report this post
We can’t write ‘Indian’ or ‘Aboriginal’ poems but empathy goes a long way, and it’s strongly conveyed in this poem. Although I like much else besides, I want to single out these lines -

I am not past or gone or lost
not of then or now or soon
I am always here
in sun and sea and moon

- which seem a distillation of the ideas, or rather state of consciousness, which you articulate in the poem. The pattern of sound and the simple language seem to marry perfectly here. But I like the incantatory, detached manner of the whole poem.

I’m very interested in what is expressed in the poem, and I think I share something of the impulse that led you to write it. It’s a desire to get as close as possible to imagining and expressing the different existential awareness reflected in ‘Indian’ belief. (Or Aborigine, or any people seen by Europeans as ‘Other’.) Even if one fails to get ‘inside’ that belief-system, one can at least acknowledge it, recognise its worth, respect it.

As you say in your note, the truth of European contact with these ‘Other’ peoples is shameful. A portion of the truth is described in the work of Bartolomé de las Casas - the burning of native houses that had first been filled with chained captives; the practice of setting dogs on captives, and feeding live babies to the dogs; orgies of beheading and disembowelling. At the core of all this cruelty is a total absence of any concept that these ‘savages’ were people with their own history and culture, people whose way of life and world-view - however different it might seem from that of Europeans - had developed within the environment in which they found themselves, and therefore was as valid as their own. At the time of Columbus, and long after, virtually no European had any notion of respect for non-European peoples.

All this may seem self-evident, but I think we can also say there has been a real (though far from complete) change in the European view of these things. Las Casas protested at the wanton cruelties committed against the natives, but he still thought they should be converted to Christianity. He could never have entertained the thought that perhaps Christianity would be alien to these people and would do them no good, or that their indigenous beliefs and practices were right for them. But in our time, perhaps since the Enlightenment, we are capable of that leap of imagination.

The special kind of spatial and communitarian belief-systems found among ‘Indians’ and other non-Europeans couldn’t have been articulated with any measure of truth by a 16th or 17th century European poet. Now we can at least try, because (in spite of modern racism) we have a much greater respect and receptivity. Your poem reflects this.

I can’t resist referring to a superb book on the history of European contact with ‘Indians’. This is American Holocaust by David Stannard. Stannard’s recording of European behaviour is uncompromising, and so is his analysis. There’s one incident which I find especially moving. Frobisher, on his second visit to Baffin Island, captured a native man and woman with the intention of taking them back to England as curiosities. The two natives had been captured in different places and didn’t know each other. Frobisher and his crew decided to put the two together, ‘to beholde the manner of their meeting and entertainment’ - as if they were two animals, clearly hoping they would entertain the men by having sex together. Richard Collinson, in his history of Frobisher’s voyages, describes what followed:

At theyr first encountering, they behelde eache other very wistly a good space, withoute speeche or word uttered, with greate change of coloure and countenance, as though it seemed the greefe and disdeyne of their captivity had taken away the use of their tongues and utterance: [then] the woman...turned away and beganne to sing, as though she minded another matter: but being agayne brought together, the man brake up the silence first, and with sterne and stayed countenance beganne to tell a long solemne tale to the woman, whereunto she gave good hearing...[until] being growen into more familiar acquaintance by speech, [they] were turned togither, so that (I think) the one would hardly have lived without the comfort of the other.

The two kept each other company throughout the voyage, touching each other sometimes for comfort but keeping a sexual distance. Stannard points out that their grace and dignity ought to have put the Europeans to shame. They both died within weeks of arriving in England.

I know this is a whale of a comment, but I’m very much in tune with the spirit of your poem, and it set me thinking again and sent me back to Stannard’s book.


Tina at 08:29 on 19 April 2008  Report this post

Beyond anything else I could say I am struck by the dignity in this poem - some sense of which James has articulated in his Stannard recollections. It brings to my mind the poem which I am sure you know

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle Autumn rain.

this idea which North Americans held that they were part of all living things and vica versa. Have you read any William Stafford? He was a very religious man who spent a lot of time grappling with these ideas too.

There are many interesting lines here and I particularly like the verses with the more internal rhyme and not hard line end rhyming as I think this works better for you as a vehicle in the context of this poem. I enjoyed this verse very much.

I am not in the clocks
not hours or days or years
for I am not in time
with its sequential fears
I am in your heart
not in your ideas


James Graham at 14:54 on 19 April 2008  Report this post
Still another story to tell - of another contact (this time a more civilised one) between Europeans and ‘Indians’. It was about a century ago, I think, when a party of American archaeologists set out to test the truth or otherwise (as they saw it) of a narrative told by Indians of New Mexico. Overlooking their homelands was a high mesa with a broad, flat top. According to their traditional account the tribe had once lived there, but one terrible day while they were all down on the plain tending their crops, a thunderstorm destroyed the wooden scaffold and stairway which had given them access to the summit. Unable to return, they decided to build a new settlement on the plain.

The archaeologists found no trace of settlement on the summit of the mesa; virtually no human traces at all. They realised, though I’m not sure how well they understood, that the story was not history but metaphor. ‘We once lived up there’ meant ‘That rock is the symbol of our sense of belonging in this place; like the rock, this people is established here. It is as if we had once lived there' The concept of linear time blows away in the wind. Today is now, and the story is true now...

for I am not in time
with its sequential fears
I am in your heart...

(There is another mesa in New Mexico which does have a village on top - Acoma Pueblo, a famous site.)



I meant to add - a more civilised contact? Well, not quite. At that time - late 19th, early 20th century - American archaeologists assumed they could excavate Indian sites at will, regardless of whether they were considered sacred places. They also removed artifacts without permission. Nowadays, however, according to an American archaeological website, investigators seek to 'determine the meaning of past events in their own cultural contexts' and 'attempt to reconstruct internal views of ancient symbol systems'. I believe they also have to negotiate with tribal representatives and obtain permission before excavating.

Zettel at 11:44 on 20 April 2008  Report this post
Ti, James, Tina

Thanks for the comments. It is hard to get oneself 'into the head' of another culture. In a sense impossible. But it has to be worth trying - especially as one sees apparent connections and links between different cultures. It is a matter of what you're trying to do I guess. I gather one of the threats to the authenticity of Native American spiritual practices is the number of New Age groups who are adopting them and then introducing an irreducible element of individualism that is totally alien to their communitarian essence. This process involves a kind of sentimentalising nostalgia for someone else's culture. Which is inappropriate on so many levels. We have stolen everything else - we might leave this alone.

The other issue is our 'attitude' to Nature, the 'Environment. It hard to conjure a genuinely spiritual, even ethical sense of relationship to the physical world around us from European religious and philosophical thought. Without this dimension and with our preoccupation with ownership and possession, and attitude of dominance arising from the the technological application of science, it is hard to defend ourselves against the power this generates to exploit the physical world through corporate capitalism.

The relative weakness of opposition to this juggernaut can make much of it seem sentimental and ineffective. We have much in my view to learn from cultures like the Native Americans whose attitude to the physical world is neither exploitative nor sentimental. Spiritually it seems to me our relationship with the natural world is for them a point of departure upon which all else depends, not a destination to reach. I suppose we might say we need to see e.g Global Warming first as an ethical, spiritual issue not a technical, scientific problem before we will feel the moral necessity to reverse it. The difference in perspective is profound: it is the difference seeing the priority as not to change the world, but to change ourselves and our sense of relationship to the world.

On the sentimentality issue I guess the best parallel within our culture I know is this: my mother's family were North Sea fishermen. When I was growing up, many of our neighbours and friends were also fishermen in what I guess is one of the most dangerous seas in the world. The last thing a fisherman, or indeed his wife and loved ones awaiting his return ashore, would be, is sentimental about the sea. Its implacable threat, danger and often appalling conditions to work within make that impossible. Fishing is the most dangerous occupation in Britain (aside from driving a car on the highway) yet few would willingly give it up. They have as we say 'got the sea in their blood'.

Thanks for the fascinating stories and references James - more reading it seems!

Long way from my poem I guess - but provoking thought isn't a bad outcome for a poem.

Thanks again.



tinyclanger at 10:48 on 05 May 2008  Report this post
I am in your heart
not in your ideas

Mmmm, just lovely.

Some fantastic, almost chant-like verses. Think you've caught the 'voice' very well.
Perhaps it could even be pared down even more, made really 'simple' so that the nobiltiy of the words and sentiments is what carries it.

Loved reading it, thanks Z.

Won't comment on the discussion. I read 'Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee' years ago and was just appalled at the way these noble and trusting people were treated.

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