Funny how life is. Just an hour before logging on and learning of Jim Welch's death I had told the story of celebrating Jim's birthday in Amsterdam in 1980 during the One World Poetry Festival to a co-writer who had just discovered Welch's novel Fool's Crow and was asking me about him. How long had it been since I had seen Jim or remembered that story? I didn't know he had been stricken with lung cancer or anything of that struggle. Like others, I anticipated his next book, and wondered when we'd see each other, which conference, which city? I always smile when asked about Jim. In my catalogue of memories he's always leaning into that enigmatic grin,with some humorous comment, some angle of vision that made a grease so we could slide through the pain in this world a little easier. His celebrated Winter in the Blood, was like that, though the critics often found it too morose and depressing. Beneath the eternal winters of human suffering and relentless cold, there angled that sideways vision. I knew Jim mostly from others stories at first. Simon Ortiz urged me to read this fantastic young poet, then novelist from Montana when I began writing in Albuquerque in the early seventies. Riding the Earthboy 40, his only book of poetry was influential for many of us. Still one of the classics of American Indian poetry.
Simon told me about the time he and Jim performed at a university in Buffalo, New York with a known Jewish writer who "translated" indigenous songs though he didn't know tribal languages. He sang and chanted his performance, even shook rattles and drummed, while Jim and Simon read without fanfare in their pressed slacks and button down shirts. After the reading the Jewish man was inundated by attention from audience members who loved the performance of real Indian poetry, while Jim and Simon, the real Indians, stood virtuallly ignored to the side. We laughed about it. I can hear Jim telling telling the story,too, in a pub in upstate New York, with his finely tuned self-deprecatory style, adding to the tale. Once Jim and I convinced the sponsor of a writers conference in Fargo, North Dakota-- a wonderful host whose name I forget--that it was an old Indian custom for the host to swallow the worm in a bottle of mescale. He did so, much to our amusement. It was after this conference, as I flew back to the southwest over the Dakotas and Iowa that I wrote the poem, Grace. It was originally dedicated to him, inspired by how Jim found a way to move with grace through all the wounds that lingered beneath the surface.
You never know when it will be the last time you see someone on this earth. Earth time goes by very very quickly, even through there are drag points made by suffering. I don't know when it was I last saw Jim. I do know that I will never forget our irreverent interview to the press as guests at the One World Poetry Festival in 1980 in Amsterdam, Holland. We knew that they didn't really see us as exemplary Indians. We didn't appear or speak Hollywood or AIMster style. Jim looked like a ruffled college student and I looked of questionable origins; neither of us wore buckskin and feathers. We'd already disappointed them, so we became comedians, or thought we did. I'm sure we failed miserably.
Jim quietly informed me afterward that it was his birthday, so after dinner with Allen Ginsberg and his hipster entourage, we took off for a tour of the canals and the red-light district to celebrate. All night we walked the streets of that lively city until 4 in the morning. We'd wandered far in the labyrinth. We talked about home. I'm sure I had some kind of romantic soap opera going on that I felt free to unload. And then we didn't talk. Just walked and observed the human traffic. Jim has left an incredible literary legacy that has survived him and will continue to influence those who are still here. We can know him in those pages. I still see Jim on a dank early morning in Amsterdam, so far away from home together. We hailed several taxis for the return to the hotel, but none would stop because we looked too Indian and too dangerous. We had to laugh and kept walking. He gave companionship, and always friendship, through it all, wherever we were in the world. In the end, that's what matters, what survives us.
August 11, 2003
for James Welch
I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose
and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk
about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed
horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated
broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn't stand it
one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked
through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into
a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.
Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned
our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow
that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one
morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us
with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway So,
we found grace.
1 could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white
buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise
of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring
was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.
1 would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked
into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse. You went
home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and 1 went south. And, Wind,
1 am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory
of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.