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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?
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.