Death at Maiden Rock

(On the High Mississippi)

Like the wake of a weapon,
the biggest rainbow
over Lake Pepin
plunges to drown;

and everything there
goes down.

Death,
told in stone
at Maiden Rock
to calamitous air,
which sucked in shock
like an unseen gorging surge,
goes down;

clasped
by the biggest rainbow’s
shape eclipsed
by a sharp moon stuck
in Red Wing’s throat,
and an arrow in her lover’s.

Too late,
the chicadee.

For what awakened bird
could gain on quivers
of feathers so quick
they were bound to break
rapids before a shriek
shamed god?

And too small,
the great white owl:

Chippewa shadow
to swift White Horse
warlike lover and a curse
to trysting Sioux;
vengeance has its fathers
and daughters have their due.

Who’ll cleanse my kingdom
of this which dishonours me?

What god of the moon
could follow them down;
what wings recover
rock for the lover,
what song for the chicadee?

They flew into a lake
of the kind comets make
with a streaming tail
like an atom’s sail
over Pepin,

slamming the waters
of the python’s den;

and took with them a moon,
and a night undone;
and the lake sucked in
the shrieks that covered them:

o screams of ruin
and slams of air
and my own serpent there:
echoes the god of the river,
gulping at the rapids’
gluttonous fever

till four suns rose,
when the women’s hands
kept inconsolable choir
from the shore

as feathered canoes,
with leaves of maple
and the plumage of the swan,
chained the waters,
for the most crucified of daughters,
with a wild festoon.

Maid and Brave consumed:
leaving behind
the written mind
of a wailing kingdom
and written stone
and verandah song

raising dead centuries
that the living possess
because a rainbow does.

And above the surge,
the refuge:
and the refuge is the song.

Forever in the great
depression of that voice
tuned to the violin
that beggars bow and string,
the woman lays down time
and chimes in.

It is my mother’s voice;
and choirs of verandahs
under a cannibal moon.

“The moon shines tonight
on pretty Red Wing,
the breeze is sighing,
the nightbird’s crying,
for afar ’neath his star
her Brave is sleeping,
while Red Wing’s weeping
her heart away.”

* Maiden Rock: today, part of a village, on the Wisconsin side of the high Mississippi where the river bends and falls from St Paul, Minnesota, to form Lake Pepin.
* Pepin: the upper Mississippi’s largest mainstream lake, a leisure resort. Centuries ago, at the time of this legend, the precipitous Rock fell sheer to the water. Today it does not, having receded enough for a highway to skirt its base.
*. Red Wing, the Princess: The story of this royal Siouan maid and her Chippewa brave, White Horse, has, like all legends, many versions. A plaque set in a cairn not far from the post offfice near Maiden Rock compresses one. A booklength poem by the Mississippi poet Ruth Persons extends another. The version here is a compact of the many. The presence of the river’s spanking tourist yacht, Princess Red Wing, indicates how positively the river people feel about the story.
* Red Wing, the Song: Afer Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”, with its death of Minnehaha, whose memorial grave is at Minneapolis, this story is one of the most tragic in North American folklore. The lovers, whose bodies were never recovered, are romanticised in the song “Red Wing” composed by Mills (music) and Chattaway (lyrics) in 1907. The song travelled the world in sheet music, as far as the farms of Australia where the young girl who was to become my mother used to play it on the family piano. I learned it from her knee, never dreaming I would one day walk the legend’s ground.
* Red Wing, the City: once the world’s largest inland riverport, served by rail and steamboat; situated on the Minnesotan side of the Mississippi, upstream from Maiden Rock, and 3000 kilometres from the Gulf. Now the city is served by nuclear reactors further upstream.
* Red Wing, the Name: By those most loyal to the legend, the city is thought to be named after the Indian maid murdered by her deranged father Chief Red Wing. The name Red Wing is said to have derived from the Indian words for duck-feathers painted red and woven into the headdresses of the kingdom. The name Mississippi derives from the nearest equivalent to what the earliest Indians called Great River.