Four Poems by Charles Lummis

Lummis never claimed to be a great poet and he wasn’t (see snippet in header, from his poetry collection Bronco Pegasus). But he was devoted to the craft. During his summers in college, he worked as a printer at a resort in New Hampshire, and during one of his summers there, he published Birch Bark Poems, a tiny volume printed on wafer-thin sheets of birch bark, which won acclaim from Life magazine and some of the nation’s leading poets. His verse was certainly heartfelt.

 

"At the Top of the Hill," from Bronco Pegasus, photograph by Majonier, 1921

“At the Top of the Hill,” from Bronco Pegasus, photograph by Majonier, 1921. (Header at top of page, a detail of pages in Bronco Pegasus.)


Lummis wrote the following poem while he was in college at Harvard. He included one stanza in the book he printed on bark and published himself, Birch Bark Poems. It features two of Lummis’s lifelong passions, tobacco and women, and was so widely reprinted that he registered it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

My Cigarette
(1879)

My Cigarette! Can I forget
How Kate and I, in sunny weather,
Sat in the shade the elm-tree made,
And rolled the fragrant weed together?
I, at her side, beatified
To hold and guide her fingers willing:
She, rolling slow the paper’s snow,
Putting my heart in with the filling!

My cigarette! I see her yet,
The white smoke from her lips curling,
Her dreaming eyes, her soft replies,
Her gentle sighs, her laughter purling!
Ah, dainty roll, whose parting soul
Ebbs out in many a snowy billow,
I too would burn, if I might earn
Upon her lips so sweet a pillow!

Ah, cigarette, the gay coquette
Has long forgot the flame she lighted;
And you and I, unthinking by
Alike are thrown, alike are slighted.
The darkness gathers fast without,
A raindrop on my window plashes;
My cigarette and heart are out,
And naught is left me but their ashes!


The following poem captured a moment he insisted he vividly remembered, though he would have just turned two at the time: seeing his mother shortly before she died of tuberculosis.

Page One
(1910)

Memory? What is it?
How should I know –
Who cannot say if yesterday
Was so or so?

Yet by night there visit,
Behind mine eyes,
Such Presences that live again,
Lost scenes and faces, but so plain
I wonder which is true, which lies –
Now, or so long ago….

They all are somewhere in my book
Unpaged, unindexed and forgot –
Yet now and then some consciousness
Of fluttering leaves awakes my look
And there are pictures long agone,
The years that were and now are not;
A day when Someone whispered ‘Yes!’
And the day my boy Went On.

But clearest, dearest of them all,
And oftenest that I know,
The old parlor there across the hall,
And Gran’ma’s faltering little call:
‘Your mama asks for you’ –
New England fifty years ago,
And I just turned two.

White shutters by the whiter bed,
And a whitest face therein;
A strong man pacing still and dread,
And the tall clock ticking, ticking slow
Where little boys must never go –
But now they led me in.

Thin fingers, like as petals, cling
Cold to a baby’s cheeks;
Big eyes so deep I cannot see –
Till stars come up in them for me
The shadow of a breath that speaks;
‘God keep my little boy!’ And then
Slow lids – and – Nothing.
And they bore me out again.


As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Lummis came close to meeting Geronimo. But the Apache warrior eluded capture during the couple of months that Lummis was on the scene covering the Apache War. The following poem is his paean to the famous warrior – and the vanished frontier.  Lummis finished the poem, 32 stanzas in all, in the final months of his life. Here are excerpts.

Man-Who-Yawns
(1928)

The Desert’s mighty Silence;
no fuss of man can spill
A hundred Indians whoop and sing,
And still the Land is still;
But on the city drunk with sound
the whisper is a shout –
‘Apaches on the war-path!
Geronimo is out!’

Brave rode our wiry troopers –
they rode without avail;
Their chase he tweaked it by the nose,
and twisted by the tail;
Around them and around he rode –
A pack-train putters slow,
And ‘horse and man of ours must eat’ –
‘Ahnh!’ said Geronimo.

They never say a hair of him,
but ever and oft they felt –
Each rock and cactus spitting lead
from an Apache belt,
Where never sign of man there was,
nor flicker of a gun –
You cannot fight an empty hill;
you run – if left to run!

"Geronimo at Sixty-Four," from Bronco Pegasus, by Rinehart, 1898

“Geronimo at Sixty-Four,” from Bronco Pegasus, photograph by Rinehart, 1898

A prophet of his people, he,
no War-Chief, but their Priest,
And strong he made his Medicine,
and deep the mark he creased –
The most consummate Warrior
since warfare first began,
The deadliest Fighting Handful
in the calendar of Man.

The Desert Empire that he rode
his trail of blood and fire,
Is pythoned, springs and valleys, with
the strangle-snake of wire.
The Fence has killed the Range and all
for which its freedom stood –
Though countless footsore cowboys mill
in mimic Hollywood.

A Tragedy? What wholesale words
we use in petty ways –
For murder, broken hearts of banks,
and disappointed days!
But here an Epoch petered out,
An Era ended flat;
The Apache was the Last Frontier –
The Tragedy is that!


Charles Lummis photographed by William Keith, from Bronco Pegasus.

Charles Lummis photographed by William Keith, from Bronco Pegasus
.

The following passages are excerpts from a poem Lummis wrote to commemorate the long honeymoon trip on horseback through northwestern New Mexico that he took in 1889 with his second wife, Eve. The two had fallen in love after he moved to Isleta, where she was a schoolteacher, and helped nurse him back to health after an assassination attempt. Eve was a strong and experienced outdoorswoman, and could hold her own with Lummis on a horse.

A Frontier Bridal
(1890)

The endless day is ended,
The long, swift gallop done;
And night’s dear arch is bended –
Our night, my little one!
The pine trees purr and hover
Above our first, first bed;
The moon, that loves a lover,
Bends radiant overhead….

Soft hand in sinewy nested,
And lips that sigh and croon,
And hearts that beat so close, so sweet,
And eyes that drink and swoon;
Far from the human billow
That breaks in white unrest,
Ah, happy is our pillow
On the brown Mother’s breast.

The morrow’s way is weary,
The springs are far between;
Yon bitter plains and dreary
Forget their youth was green.
But not the utter desert
Shall parch our inner June;
And everywhere our hearts shall fare
With the pine trees and the moon!