Not many weeks ago, I found one of the most admirable collection of poems I’ve ever read: Frank X. Walker’s Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York. York was a man and a body servant enslaved by William Clark of the William and Clark expedition, and he went with the expedition into the West. In Buffalo Dance, Frank X. Walker gives York a voice: powerful, rich, knowing. We get to see the journey through York’s eyes, and it it extraordinary.
I have stood where the Lewis and Clark expedition truly began in St. Louis, Missouri and where it ended in Seaside, Oregon, and I was never interested in it until I read this book.
I like the way the poet pays attention to water. Take, for instance, the first four lines of the poem, “Her Current.”
Working upstream against the current
be like courting a stubborn woman.
We spend the whole day trying to make a little distance
an her attitude don’t change a bit.
I like the way he imagines the relationship between York and Sacajawea. I like the way he gradually reveals York’s strength — and how he goes from strength to strength — becoming more of who he is, more of a free man made in the image of God. Or, as the poet puts it in “Black Magic”: ” I suspect that something bigger / got they hand in this. / Something familiar as the night sky / an more dependable than the ground under our feet.”
Frank X. Walker has done his research and discovered the most beautiful details of the journey, and he brings them evocatively to life in this collection — always with power, always with the power to emotionally move the heart and mind of the reader and to provoke further thought and reflection. Take the poem “Ornithologists.”
We pick up a few things
watching the Indians track an hunt.
They know the calls an movements
a birds and animals
so much so, they can mock anything
in the woods, even deer
and them don’t hardly speak.
The Captains have us all looking an listening
for birds an beasts and was happy as larks
if we could bring something new with wings
back to camp, mostly whole or breathing.
Capt. Lewis would peer into his eyeglass stick for hours
trying to know a bird that caught his eye
and could scratch out on paper exactly how the thing be.
Shape of the head an beak, markings on the feathers,
toes, feet, and all.
It was like the woodpecker or crow an such
just walk up, make itself small
and lay right down on the page.
This poem resonates on many levels. Without apparent judgment, it highlights a problematic dynamic the Captains of the expedition have in relationship to nature (a dynamic that disappears when native people, York, and Sacajawea move through all of creation like they belong there): a desire to capture things that should be free, to pin down wings that ought to be in flight.
But in another strange and wondrous way, the poet himself is doing what he is writing about: he is making a bird lay down on the page in this poem so that we see it. He sharpens our vision so that we see more and more things for what they are. Dissecting the dynamics of the past.
The poems about York’s love for his wife, from whom he is separated by the journey and slavery, come to fruition in a closing poem when York at last returns. The first four lines from “A Love Supreme”:
On that first night back
me and her moves like turtles
unraveling the old, the news
an each other.
Walker always keeps it real whenever York speaks, whether the speaking is about love or about pain, as in “Ursa Major.” The opening lines:
When I be my best self, I be all buffalo.
Quiet as a mountain, proud, strong, without fear
able to see the good in everything.
But like most God’s creatures
when I can’t find my own light
or the world try to blow it out
there be a darker York.
That statement is understandable in light of (the darkness of) history.
What I love about this story in poems is that it doesn’t let history have more power than the possibilities of truth made manifest in the imagination. Walker notes: “Clark reported that York died alone and miserable in Tennessee though it is rumored that he returned to the west and lived out his days as a chief among the Crow Indians.” For as Walker says in the final poem, “Birth Day”: “What he knowed as York, died making his life easy / an was born again, the other side a Rock Mountains.”