Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light
My father-in-law’s service this past Monday—just four days ago in this weirdly long week—was a gorgeous tribute to his life, both of all that was said and sung and of all the many who were gathered to speak and listen to the stream of words. It was a river of emotion and action that bore us along, from preparations to the program itself to the family meal following, with turbulent plane travel carrying us to and from, between Texas and South Jersey and back again. A similar eddying, a lapping at the banks, this swirl of metaphor and narrative, of emergence and forgetting, of meaning making and wondering, reached into my visit with my mother this week at her care home, and I am sitting in a place today of both awe and weariness at considering whole lives lived and also essential lives (and memories) lost, crossed over the River Jordan.
You know I grew up in Alaska, in a (very) small town—of 750 year-round residents, total—that had been built on a river delta, a narrow strip of sandy soil between miles-high mountains, at the final reaches of a glacier miles upstream, a deep water port at its southern edge. In the spring, the snow melt swelled the river that ran along the western edge of town, the water stained with the tannins from coniferous needles; in all seasons, the river’s flow was rough and rapid; always, it was cold, the temperature never rising much above freezing. In Dyea, the inlet west of Skagway, where the original 1898 Gold Rush Klondikers had landed to begin their hikes up the Chilkoot Trail, late summer brought salmon runs up its own river, which attracted thousands of bald eagles—and us, as witness to their splendor.
So as I read Joy Harjo’s latest volume of poetry on the plane as I flew away from the limestone and the hills where I live now toward R.’s childhood home and family of origin and father lying in state, and I came across Harjo’s “Eagle Poem” 17 poems into her “50 Poems for 50 Years,” my heart soared above the sorrow and the churn, my head surfaced above the roiling waters, and she carried me along, from her first line, “To pray you open your whole self” to her reference to the titular eagle, “In wind, swept our hearts clean/ With sacred wings,” to the last lines, “In beauty./ In beauty.”