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Grand Canyon

Maxine Kumin

Past the signs that say Stop! Go Back! 
We Are Friendly Indians! past the tables 
of garnet and red rock, of turquoise and silver, 
past horses thin as paper, profiled 
against a treeless horizon, I come 
to where all roads converge, I stand 
at each of a dozen jumping-off places 
with my fellow cripples, my fellow Americans 
peering into our national abyss. 

Outings for wheelchair postulants 
are regular affairs here on the brink 
of this improbable upheaved landscape; 
the clinic for chronic pain my therapists 
back East referred me to is, 
by Western measurements, just down the road. 
The group is quiet. Wind music lobs 
endless songs to would-be suicides 
from the river bottomís Loreleis, 
a redemptive eight-hour hike below us, 
but no oneís leapt this week. Some travel 
both ways on the bony backs of mules, 
slaves forever on this tortuous trail. 

Despite the crowds, despite the kitsch, 
this mesa, this elevated plain 
has always been on my life list. 
Life-list, a compound noun in my 
directory. The fact is, Iím alive. 
The fact is, no conjecture can resolve 
why I survived this broken neck 
known in the trade as the hangmanís fracture, 
this punctured lung, eleven broken ribs, 
a bruised liver, and more. Enslaved 

three months in axial traction, in what they call 
a halo, though stooped, Iím up. Iím vertical. 
How to define chronic pain? 
Maddening, unremitting, 
raying out from my spinal cord 
like the arms of an octopus, squeezing, 
insidious as the tropic anaconda. . . . 
The experts are fond of saying 
spinal cord injuries are like 
snowflakes; no two are ever the same 
but while youíre lying on the table, unfrocked 
óno one tells you thisóthe twists and pummels, 
the stretches and presses are identical. 
One size of therapy fits all. 

Who practices for disaster? Who 
anticipates that the prized horse will bolt, 
that you will die/should have/didnít? 
That a year will pass before 
you can walk the line they ask a drunk to, 
or balance on one foot. Who knew 
the dumb left hand could be retrained 
to cut meat, brush teeth, and yet the day I signed 
my name in loose spaghetti loops beneath 
the intended line, I wept. We joked 
Iíd buy a stamp pad, roll my thumb, 
some day receive outrageous sums 
from Sothebyís for my auctioned print, 
brave banter we all but choked 
on, but better than the cant that says, 
be grateful youíre alive, thank God. 
Implicit in it, youíve had it too good. 

What would the friendly Indians trade 
to break loose from the white man who 
reduced them to servitude? 
What would the suicidal barter for 
deliverance from the Sisyphean boulder 
they daily roll uphill? 
What would I trade to regain 
my life the way it was? 
From pillar to abyss 
the answer echoes still: 
The word is everything.