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Scalp Song; Monet / Manet

Temple Cone

Scalp Song

 

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.*

 

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*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.