At the Wood's Edge: Iroquois Funeral Rite

(A translation into verse of "Okayondoghsera Yondennase:
Oghentonh Karighwateghwenh," from the Iroquois' Ancient Rites of
the Condoling Council: Preliminary Ceremony)

My son, I am surprised to hear your voice
come through the forest to this open place.
You come with troubled mind, through obstacles.
You passed, my son, the grounds where fathers met,
whose hands we all depended on. How then
come you in ease? You tread the paths
our forebears cut, you all but see the smoke
from where they passed their pipes. Can you
be calm when you have wept along the way?

Great thanks, therefore, that you arrive unhurt.
Now let us smoke the clay pipe together.
We know that all around us enemies
each think, “We will not let them meet!”
Here, thorny ways that bar — there, falling trees—
in shadowed glades, the beasts that wait to slay.
Either by these you might have perished,
my son. The sudden floods destroy; dark nights
the vengeful hatchet waits outside the house;
invisible disease is always near.
(Each day our mortal foes are wasting us!)

Great thanks, therefore, that you arrive unhurt.
What great lament if any had died there
along the way, and running words had come,
“Yonder lie bodies, of those who were chiefs!”
We, who come to mourn another, would cry,
“What happened, my son? — Why do you not come?”

In time of peace or peril we do this —
ancestors made the custom, demanding:
Here they must kindle a ritual fire,
here, in the light, at the edge of the woods,
condole with each other in chosen words.

--This poem was published in Sensations Magazine, Spring Summer 2009.

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