Scalp Song; Monet / Manet
I became intrigued by the increasingly popular suggestion
That the “white man” had taught Indians how to scalp
The ghosts came with glinting knives, wool blankets
That boiled our skin, water that fired unquenchable thirst.
Through the use of scalp bounties, an assertion found
More frequently in polemical than historical contexts.
They hungered for maize, thick-bellied deer, clear streams.
After a while, though, all they wanted were scalps.
I was skeptical that the proposition would hold water.
I suspected that some serious logical slippage was occurring
Braided into a man’s hair is his life, the way a buffalo calf
Is braided into its mother’s womb: sever one, sever both.
Between the correct assertion that European colonial governments
Encouraged friendly Indians to kill and scalp enemy Indians,
The fathers said never to touch a man’s hair in jest,
But only when one was ready to claim a life.
And the conclusion that Europeans taught the Indians how to scalp each other.
When advocates of the Indian case, native or white, engage their opponents
A sharp knife peels the scalp away like rain-soaked cloth.
When the knife is dull, the skin may well tear in pieces.
In court or print, they frequently arm themselves with a new version
Of scalping’s ignoble history. Yet if the Europeans did feel guilty
It takes a sawing motion, ear to ear, and steady upward pulling.
It is harder when the man resists, and he will always resist if alive.
About introducing it, then we are confronted with the implausible spectacle
Of a Caucasian conspiracy of silence and hypocrisy on a universal scale.
The ghosts never spoke of why they wanted this.
The heart of their ways is faith in the unspeakable.*
*The italicized lines come from James Axtell’s The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of
Colonial North America
Monet / Manet
How odd how easily one confuses them:
Monet and Manet! Nothing alike, of course,
differing not just in subject, which seems obvious—
cathedrals at sunset, lilies, and vague faces
in a train terminus on the one hand,
while on the other, crowded Parisian scenes
with whole novels inscribed on every face—
but in the striking ways that those “impressions”
for which they’re famed are simply a matter
of where each locates the haze and motion
of lived life. In Monet’s oils, the viewer’s eye
is always at issue, as if the painter were concentrating
on how we see peripherally, how, at the edges,
sight is both acute and alluringly inexact,
creating an erotic moment that leads the eye
chasing after a world it mistakes for the world
it envisions. Whereas in Manet, the eye sees
with absolute clarity across the ever-present
distance between viewer and subject,
but the life it perceives is itself marginal, blurred,
transient, lost, as if glowing faintly with a fate
one desperately longs to comprehend, but cannot,
thus creating another erotics, not of uncertainty
about all that is seen, followed by desire
to bury oneself within the truth of it, as in Monet,
but an erotics of the certainty that all is illusion
and one must play along. That woman staring out
from behind the bar in Manet’s Folies Bergères,
she sees another woman’s face, fleeting
as one of Monet’s water lilies, and wonders
if this is evidence of the shadowy miles between lives
or of the distance she lives from her own heart.
Temple Cone is the inaugural Poet Laureate for the city of Annapolis and Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Guzzle, from FutureCycle Press.
Learn more at www.templecone.com.