'Raven in the Stern'

'Raven in the Stern'

If you visit the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., you will be confronted by a blackened bronze sculpture, popularly called “The Black Canoe." It was made by the late Bill Reid, whose mother belonged to the Haida tribe, one of Canada’s First Nations. In the stern is Raven, the poetic focus of the people of the Northwest Coast, who is also a trickster and mischief maker, for which he was turned black forever. Craig Comstock shares a reverie inspired by this piece, which in itself reflects Reid's passion to reveal how the imagination of his ancestors carried their past forward to today.

 

In the spirit canoe I lay down
paddled by drumbeats twice my heart rate,
my helpless head looking toward the stern
where a bird is looking back at me
with eyes as black as the space between stars
and feathers that can whisk me into
nowhere that I’ve ever been before.
I think of a sculpture called 'Black Canoe'
made by Bill Reid of the Haida tribe.
It carries bear, salmon, whale, a human,
and looming over them all, charting
a course in the tricky dark currents
of his mind, is Raven who, as I watch,
grows ever larger by spreading his wings
and by lifting me into the place
where he plays with whatever order
he finds, shifting relative sizes,
shapes, roles, desires, angles of vision,
allowing a new order to arise.
As wings begin to overshadow
my consciousness, Raven takes the stern seat
in his claws and, leaning way forward,
carries me to the northern waters
that I’m haunted by — landing near a bay
on a wild river full of salmon,
with a single bear up to his hips
snatching sock-eye as fast as he can chew.
Behind the bear, on forest floor thick
as a mattress with moss and fiddlebacks,
a place sinking into moist green ease,
I catch a flash of red even brighter
than the salmon — a ring on the ground.
As Raven brings us closer, I see
a yard-wide fairy ring of mushrooms,
bright as neon in the northern mist.
Amanita muscaria — a name
I’ve seen in a book on polar shamans;
a presence no less astonishing
than tiny space ships with each round top
covered with polka dots of puckered white.
As I stand over the ring gazing
into it, I see a fire lambent
in the circle framed by the mushrooms,
and in that flicker there are dancing
all the colors that shimmer so darkly
around each feather on the raven.
I know now that darkness has, inside it,
everything that flies, swims, roots itself, walks,
or surprises us with a fire
that licks reality with tender tongue
like a mother bear bringing newborn cubs
into the world of air, salmon, ravens.

 

 

 

CRAIG K. COMSTOCK worked as a book creation coach and Director of the Ark Foundation, trying to help end the Cold War. Recent books are Gift of Darkness (2015) about a friend who grew up under Nazi occupation in his native Amsterdam, Enlarging Our Comfort Zone (2016), about remarkable people whom Craig met over a decade or so, and Better Ways to Live (2017), about social invention and the need for more of it. He lives in Ashland, Oregon. View Craig's site.

 

 

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Transporting, magical and sincere. This poem by Craig Comstock takes me on a journey and elicits the spirit of the spirit canoe. Thank you!
Zoe Alowan Kauth

An absolutely marvelous, visionary poem that makes me see darkness in a new light. A tribute to Bill Reid's sculpture.
Shoshanah Dubiner