Oh for the voice of a soaring sky in register high
with bass as clear as rolling thunder rocking
the prairie lit only by electric light
shot through the rising dust of the herds.
“You wish so hard you’re scaring me.”
Realize an older time deep in dream, beasts
dreaming dreamily of some perfect past
sensible only as great beasts can be.
The rulers dream relentlessly
elegiac in their insistence upon
ruthless prairies of proud imagination.
Imagine a continent roamed across and beyond
by wiser ones than we, and they
above and below our hopelessly helpless kind.
But prairie song is so awful, she complained after a few bars.
It goes on and on and there never is
an end to the hearing of it.
But what about Red Cloud? I thought too late to reply.
What about Crazy Horse & the Great Bull?
So, she returns, Am I your prairie Beatrice
come to show the true horizon from which
to view how many hundred bloodstained years?
Find your own saucy Beatrice!
I’m on to you fella, you and your kind
You and your junk mail!
I’ve had enough! I am so out of here!
These prairies ruined by you and yours and
ruinous of my kind. See you in Osawatomie.
By the time we got to Osawatomie
she had changed her name to Veronica.
I thought we might be getting somewhere
although it was a little hard
to know exactly where that was.
The lyrics rolled like prairie thunder
with the lightning of the Lord God screaming
(or was it the the Great Spirit singing?)
“So this is where Old Yellow Hair’s Ghost Dance Begins.”
But it was only Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Go to the Little Big Horn O questing pilgrim
& see with your own eyes
& see with your own eyes
The innocent ridge above the high prairie plain
Where the last Sioux masses camped
Somewhere only the imperial blind might not see them.
I dreamed I saw Fort Laramie last night.
I dreamed I beheld the the wakpamni
and enjoyed the hell out of it, even if
it was only a great distribution of bribes.
I dreamed I enjoyed the great feast of boiled dog
With Belgian Jesuit Fr. De Smet, who baptized
894 Indians and 61 half-bloods
and that we drank a flagon of great Belgian ale.
I dreamed we danced together, Fr. De Smet and me,
to the mystic chords of memory
played by Red Cloud’s Bad Face Band.
Belgian ale? I don’t think so! she sassed me back.
More likely mini waken, the “water that makes men crazy”
a shuddering mixture of diluted grain alcohol, molasses,
tobacco juice, and crushed red pepper, and
if not that, maybe Taos Lightening, surely
you’ve had your Taos Lightening, pilgrim!
I let it go at that . . .
I dreamed I danced on Fetterman’s grave at
the Little Big Horn. Which was not where he fell.
But is where he is buried, she patiently explained.
There may be something to your dreams after all.
I dreamed I saw the Chickahominy River and that
I drank from the bloody Lakota aquifer,
watched as my elimination polluted the Oglala, dreamed
of Nebraskas before Nebraska and Wyomings before Wyoming, dreamed
it got played on Morning Music on Wyoming Public Radio,
dreamed that Veronica and I wept tears bitter and joyous
beneath the monument to Crazy Horse
and shot Mt. Rushmore full of holes.
It was a great and joyous dream.
We dug deep for the place names.
Chivington’s slaughter at Sand Creek in the Colorado
where innocents perished in the snow.
Oh for the spirit of Black Kettle to rise and testify
such testimony as would draw tears even from
Rushmore let alone Crazy Horse at his monument
if they ever get it done.
This is not my doing, I protest, but
it is the reason I am here.
Veronica has her own version: Not me, not me, I have nothing to
do with it! I am from another world let alone dimension!
Go back and be Beatrice, then! I sternly reply.
This is either our country or not. Still on board,
she shrugs her shoulders in reply, hoping, I can only hope,
to reassure my all but flagging purpose.
So we went to the Greasy Grass, Veronica and me.
So how, I think to ask, I have to wonder,
did you get to be Veronica all suddenly like that?
Read your Dante lately? She wants to know.
In fact . . . I had . . . if only by coincidence
just before she came on the scene . . .
if in perhaps dubious translation. Remind me,
I ask as kindly as I can. Canto 31
she tells me as kindly as she can: The part
about the Croatian pilgrim mopping the brow of the Christ.
But I don’t believe in that Christ, I protest, not kindly at all,
despising the very notion . . .
But those guys did! She has the nerve to remind me.
And if he didn’t believe it either, Red Cloud
was known to spout bits of Christian doctrine.
So what about Taos Lightening? I had finally to ask.
And she would not explain that,
I only later to learn:
“cheap laudanum-laced wheat liquor.”
 As some Croatian pilgrim who is shown,
In Rome, the Veronica (the handkerchief
That once, when Christ climbed his last hill alone,
A woman used to bring him some relief,
Mopping his brow), will say, within his mind,
“Lord Jesus Christ, true God, was this you? . . .
It was only then that our true journey could begin.
It was clear as a crystal dawn. It was not a pretty picture.
Nor a story of true romance, nor any other, for that matter.
Monroe, Hopedale, any number of place names rolling off how many tongues?
West Point, a name redolent of murderous chivalry
fit to inspire any heart pointed west.
Bull Run? Gettysburg, as far as that goes. Brandie Station. Aldie. Chancellorsville,
and Bull Run. Prophecy of an encounter with another bull of another sort
known more for his sitting than running?
I dreamed I saw the Michigan Brigade last night.
I dreamed I saw the Bozeman Trail. I dreamed
I circled high as Raven above Lewis and Clark. I dreamed I was
Tom Jefferson whose vision would not let him rest
between bouts of intestinal disease
and great sex with Sally Hemmings.
between bouts of intestinal disease
and great sex with Sally Hemmings.
You have a dirty mind. She shot me down.
And besides, how come you never dream about me?
She was high above me
like Raven above all others.
Fat Chance! she scoffed. What would
Laura Ellen think of you?
And what would Red Cloud think of my Veronica? What excuse for her
or any of our relentless need to efface the facts of the matter?
Not guilty your respective honors! Not me! Not my Veronica! We
didn’t punch those doggies! We just wanted to see them get along, along
to where those buffalo roam, or at least used to!
This time I really am out of here! she threatens.
I’m not your Veronica, I’m not anyone’s
I’m not even my own and I want
back to my roots! So get your Buster Brown shoes
and brains out of my way! I am leaving now!
We parted company near the Bison paddock in Golden Gate Park.
She was in a lot better shape than the buffalo there, I in a little worse.
We both missed Laura Ellen but her music still rings in my ears.
Any day now, any way now, we shall all be released.
I dreamed I saw another Veronica, last night, alive
as in any comic book with Archie, Jughead, and Scooby Doo entwined.
Alive as Emily Dickinson in her Amherst redoubt.
Alive as any of those five sisters, forming
a loose aggregation of
who the fuck knows what?
Are we men? No, we are Buddha
& if that isn’t enough for
Jughead the Jarhead then for all
he can hope is a jar into which
he may piss, piss his dreams and
hopes for sacred space on which
the eye might graze and remember
nothing but the whole soaring indelible
blaze of the morning star.
I see we’re back to the Little Big Horn.
The voice came as though from nowhere.
I thought you had left, we tell each other as one.
No, the two of us entwined as his avatar . . .
the avatar of Crazy Horse. Together we dream
the Battle of Red Buttes (aka Bridge Station)
Together we can provoke Red Cloud’s war.
Together, Red Cloud, with our help, can win it.
The rest, sadly, did not go quite so well
despite a promising start . . .
Bare serviceberry trees formed a windbreak
as we slithered through the Saltbrush
like the little snakes the Chippewa called the Sioux
slithering for the briefest of glimpses of
The Heart of Everything that Is.
And finding only fool’s gold.
Touched the pen to our own Horse Creek Treaty
promising peace on the prairie forevermore,
just like Millard Fillmore.
Lay awake on our backs at night
watching the Carrier convey the souls
of the dead to the Road of Spirits.
Listening for even the muted whisper of
any of the four winds born of the goddess Ite
who conspired with the trickster Inktomi
to create the Buffalo Nation and deliver
the people from below through the Wind Cave
choosing for their deliverance (and for ours?)
Paha Sapa, the Heart of Everything That Is.
Next stop, Fort Phil Kearny.
There’s no here here, I found myself in protest.
You just wait! Veronica abjured all such remonstrance.
There was, and there will be. And it’s about
time we get the women’s point of view. Don’t dare
imagine you have any sense of that
just because I keep an eye on you. You don’t
really think you’re in charge here, do you?
You foolish, foolish, simply foolish one.
I dreamed I saw Walks as She Thinks
give birth to Makhpiya-luta
on a brushed deerskin blanket spread
over a bed of sand at Blue Water Creek
beneath a red meteor shower
I dreamed I saw Jim Bridger, old Gabe himself,
marry a Snake
I dreamed I saw Margaret Carrington
alive as you or me or Veronica.
First wife to the proprietor of
Carrington’s Overland Circus
who built Ft. Phil Kearny and put up
signs: Keep Off the Grass
I dreamed I saw the bigamist Grummond
perish, enveloped by warriors,
no one escaped to tell the tale
and the woe of his widow
the beautiful Frances, there within the Fort
disconsolate even with Margaret’s merciful ministrations
I dreamed I danced at Ft. Laramie’s
full dress Christmas Ball of ’66
rudely interrupted by half-dead Portugee Phillip
at the conclusion of his four-day ride
of 236 miles through raging blizzard, with his news
from the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands.
His mount, Carrington’s Kentucky charger,
fallen fully dead on the parade ground.
And then I dreamed I danced at the wedding,
Col Carrington’s marriage to the beautiful Frances,
Margaret herself having succumbed to
the rigors of military life on the lone prairie.
And still have a photograph of the Col. &
the beautiful Frances at the erection
of the memorial to Fetterman and his Fight in 1908
at the sight of burned-to-the-ground by
(guess who?) Ft. Phil K., roughly
the site of present day Cheyenne.
So somebody did get out of there alive.
Including Red Cloud, promised one beautiful
reservation on the Platte as reward for a ceasing of
his warlike labors, sufficiently bribed to
sit out Sitting Bull’s subsequent losing cause.
V. Postscript, South Dakota
Red Cloud eventually (was) traded down to
a second beautiful reserve on the White,
and then reassigned to Pine Ridge.
You can drive through the Rez today
on highway US 18 and if you approach from
Nebraska 87, right before it turns to
SD 407 you could stop to buy beer
in White Clay, and cross that line
to find a grateful recipient, or two . . .
or some vigilante First Nations dude
who thinks you bringing that as wampum
is not such a great idea after all.
You also might not. In that case, drink
it yourself, Pilgrim, it will do you no great harm.
They ran out of mini waken, let alone Taos Lightening
long ago. Or try highway 18, or even old 18, that’s
pretty interesting, or any of those BIA roads:
2, 41, 33, Allen Rd., Hisle Rd.,
SD 2 or 44, something the sentient
need to figure out for their own selves.
You are sentient, right? So you go figure it out.
Understanding you could very well be wrong.
Are in fact likely to be. Lots of wrong got done
in that whole sad Self-Destructive Zone.
I know that song, I told Veronica.
Laura Ellen used to play it, she reminded me.
“They turned what was into something so disgusting
even wild dogs would disregard the bones.”
It was the last time she told me what to do
as far as I recall.
I wouldn’t mind hearing from her
with other orders
some other time.
It might even turn out better
the next time around.
Although I doubt it.
* * *
Prairie Elegy Discography
James McMurtry, It Had to Happen, Sugar Hill Records, 1997
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night, Rounder, 2000
Country Joe McDonald, Thinking of Woody Guthrie, Vanguard, 1969
The Band, Music from Big Pink, Capitol, 1968
Joan Baez, Woodstock Soundtrack, Atlantic, 1970
Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Warner Brothers, 1978
Ian & Sylvia, Four Strong Winds, Vanguard, 1963
Laurie Anderson, United States Live, Warner Brothers, 1984
Johnny Cash, Mean as Hell, Columbia, 1965
Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, 2008