This prose poem by Laura Da’ juxtaposes the loss of land and Shawnee culture with the birth of the speaker’s son. It deploys flat and journalistic language to describe the violence of colonialism in America. The poem is written primarily in declaratives: The speaker lists medical facts in the first section and cites incorrect facts in the second. The ending simply states that the speaker lacks “Shawnee words” to describe their nation and culture, and that the only language that’s available is the colonial lingo of surveying and measuring. In this way, the diction of the poem mirrors the precise (but historically incorrect) and cold grammar of cartography. Selected by Victoria Chang
Credit…Illustration by R. O. Blechman
By Laura Da’
I am a citizen of two nations: Shawnee and American. I have one son who is
a citizen of three. Before he was born, I learned that, like all infants, he would
need to experience a change of heart at birth in order to survive. When a baby
successfully breathes in through the lungs, the heart changes from parallel flow
to serial flow and the shunt between the right and left atriums closes. Our new
bodies obliterate old frontiers.
North America is mistakenly called nascent. The Shawnee nation is mistak-
enly called moribund. America established a mathematical beginning point
in 1785 in what was then called the Northwest Territory. Before that, it was
known in many languages as the eastern range of the Shawnee, Miami, and
Huron homelands. I do not have the Shawnee words to describe this place;
the notation that is available to me is 40º38’32.61” N 80º31’9.76” W.
Victoria Chang is a poet whose new book of poems is “The Trees Witness Everything” (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). Her fifth book of poems, “Obit” (2020), was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Must-Read. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in Antioch University’s M.F.A. program. Laura Da’ is a poet, a teacher and the author of two books. “Tributaries,” her first, was published by the University of Arizona Press. It won the American Book Award in 2016. “Instruments of the True Measure,” her latest book, is the winner of the Washington State Book Award. Da’ is Eastern Shawnee and lives near Seattle with her family.