In 1966, ingrained in 16 years of intentional nomadism, poverty, and writing, besmilr brigham and her husband Roy received a telegram from their daughter, Heloise Wilson, that besmilr’s father had “fallen-out” at the family homestead in Horatio, Arkansas and requested their return. The return would mostly end their nomadism. Three days earlier in Mexico City, editors of the watershed bilingual journal of the Americas, El Corno Emplumada,Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragon, had listened to brigham read a long poem, “Yaqui Deer,” and wanted to publish it.2
To become another time, a renewed
age, a survival life, bent over in the
intimate woods’ animal stance, the stag;
and the white cloth that bound the alert
head, that held secure the second head,
the dead buck’s head, bound him—
tied to draw the face into the other
face, hard to the center ceremony
knot with its tight flare flanges—
(One looked to his shut lids and saw
living the dead stag’s living stare).
Under the heavy carried horns, the man
held—the deer bound to his own continuance.
(Games for an Easter Child 91)
“Yaqui Deer” is brigham’s transmission of the four-day, four-night deer dance of the Yaqui indigenous people of the Sonoran desert. The dance dramatizes and sings the being-hunted “saila maso, little brother deer” (Evers and Molina 7), who at ceremony’s end is killed as sacrifice for its brother’s – the people, Yoemem – continuance. The deer is embodied by a man whose face, above the eyes, is wrapped in white cloth. Upon his head sits the head of an antlered deer. The poem is emblematic of much of her work in verse; the transmission of an encounter, in what feels like an immense, diverse time condensed, through an innate, painful, geologic yet corporeal process. By the end of such poems the reader feels something is either dead or newly born. Translated without the grammatical or epistemological faith of a Cartesian self, and definitely bound to a mortal environment, the poem converses in vernacular tongue, very close to the reader’s face; intrusive, erroneous, temporary. As in the ceremony – wherein the deer dancer must sacrifice his human consciousness in order to become deer consciousness, so that this sacred theater might induce a cosmological ethos that enables human sustenance – brigham’s verse is a survivance-oriented act of sacrifice. Her readership is certainly human, yet sacrifices human customs in order to speak from the innate, connective space between self, myth and earth. For “perhaps it is that as man lives on earth he also lives in myth” (Their Place in the Heat 19). Such sacrificial speaking possibly binds humanity to ecological truths, and therefore, biotic survivance.
brigham had never published before and declined Randall and Mondragon’s offer, until returning to Arkansas. By that time, she had written at least two book-length poems, two collections of poetry, and one 700-page novel. She and Roy raised Heloise mostly on the road, driving, camping on the earth, in abandoned shacks, missions, everywhere between the Arctic and Nicaragua. They washed in rivers and cooked beans on an old World War II one-burner stove. Manuscripts, leather notebooks, and typewriters were kept in the trunk. They didn’t drink, were respected by the rural and indigenous peoples they befriended and lived among. All three read voraciously. brigham was cultivating a resilient, nomadic, yet essentially “site-specific” poetics that Arkansas poet, C.D. Wright, forty years later reverently called, “autochthonous, primally so” (n. pag.).
More recently, young poet and scholar, Emily Carr, informed by Wright’s recuperation of brigham’s verse in Run Through Rock: Selected short poems of Besmilr Brigham,miraculously extracted “four ecological survival techniques” meant to “call on the imagination in a truly re-creational capacity, as an active force that reorganizes the ecology of mind and remaps the relations of our individual (human) minds with the larger (natural) minds” (62). In nourishing and validating Wright’s reverence, she asserts the virility of brigham’s introduction into 20th and 21st century U.S. literature, “Both her life and her work achieve a ferocity and a humility that is rarely achieved – by writers of her generation or writers of ours. Her poems . . . ask us, in other words, to begin again. Ethically, empathetically, generously, hopefully, and humbly” (64).
For four years I have intermittently visited brigham’s aging daughter to hear the stories myself, and aid her in documenting and organizing the mostly unread archive of five decades of ceaseless work. In that time I have also studied the manuscripts and letters, incrementally, trying to understand the poet’s evolution, homes, tropes, intimacy, pedagogies, and culture of resilience. I find her legacy to have thus far been embraced, guarded and sown by immense innovative courage of the three above mentioned women. I hope most to continue that effort here. Yet, more than my predecessors were able to, I am working towards contextualizing and uncovering the site of brigham’s poetics according to the vast old growth forest of materials I have sought and help preserve. I transition from Carr’s ecological survival techniques to a parallel poetics of resilience forged from brigham’s lifetime concern with the American earth and its indigenous peoples’ biocultural cosmologies,
America, to me, is from certainly the edge of the Arctic circle ...all the way down to the (well, whatever it is) Patagonia! to the tip of Chile, jutting out into the sea. an old old world before anything like US came upon or into it. It is the great land mass.
(Letter from besmilr brigham to Claudine Caulk)
brigham is a poet of America; America in the deeply violating sense of that name. Like young indigenous poets existentially reclaiming and re-stewarding lands, tongues, collective experience – Craig Santos Perez, Sherwin Bitsui, dg nanouk okpik – she is a toughly rooted behavior in the biotic body of “the great land mass.” I think of the little, yellow-flowering Creosote Bush in Death Valley, being more reliably in-place through flash floods or wind storms than formidable boulders; whose leaves harness a potential cancer cure. Perez, Bitsui and okpik write books that are epistemologically radical which guard, nourish, and revitalize their threatened cultures. Their work intimately reaches beyond an Avant-garde readership, into the youth and living activist dialogues of their people. Bitsui teaches a bilingual poetry of English and Diné to the youth of his place where “new ways of seeing emerge . . . from years of silence” (35) while the centralization of his own poetics upon the verb embodies Diné biocultural perception. These are a poetics of subsistence, of resilience. As in the Yaqui deer dance, a sacrifice is necessary for human survivance. Yet this sacrifice is minimalist, and occurs in a cycle of honor. The people’s existence is not dependent on genocide and desertification. It keeps in mind millennia. A poetics of resilience is the conscious choosing to subsist, to live and work outside of U.S. American “freedom.” It is a drop into fundamental biotic rhythms of the great land mass, which are cultural, linguistic, spiritual, and induce ecological survivance.
brigham’s subsistence is parallel to these young indigenous poets. Not born into the Choctaw Nation, she fought to reclaim that as part of her identity, being the extension of a “white” Southern, Baptist family ashamed of its indigenous lines. Her identification broke down ancestral and national rhetorical barriers that were equilateral to an ideological, anthropocentric economy. She and Roy dropped out of the postwar economic boom and the chance to, being from poor agrarian households, live a middle-class income and identity. They entered a somatically rational, adventurous freedom, choosing nomadic poverty to perceptually and economically take part in the biotic rhythms of the great land mass. The great land mass would be her library, mother, and reader. It was her life’s work to help carry the isolate, traumatized post-Colombian human languages and their corollary behaviors back to their biological systems.
...the storm is
not outside us
what do we fear
losing the things a man loves
if the roof falls babies crying
once in rare time the rage the blood-rage, there
is something to meet it: we are not alone—
comes in to meet the spirit of a body
and the body to let it wash clean-over
I will sit in the house of my heart and receive him
(Open Structures: Of Saints and Grace 46)
In our time of normalized agoraphobia, xenophobia, war, and global degradation of the natural commons, she stands a teacher of presence. I see brigham’s place in U.S. American poetry to be less of a concern than many might suppose. I do not feel it is the work’s priority – like it is not Perez, okpik, or Bitsui’s –to take its place only there. As Carr very specifically excavates, the work is a work of survival. Contrary to W.H. Auden, it makes something happen because it survives.3 The poems are not “an ecological imperative in American poetry” (Rasula); they are ecological survivors and to read her work is kin to helping your friend plant garlic or teaching a child how to stand up for her own life. Although, brigham loved literature, and would have claimed to have raised herself by it, brigham’s life and work did not necessitate a context limited to literary movements or what the “first” world considers culture. Reading her letters, I have discovered her most prized readership included the local post office worker in Horatio, a small business owner she met on Lake Cristobal in Guatemala, her parents, and a drugged man in Albuquerque,
someone (for a prank) brought a strange little man to the reading, who wanted to touch me. the room was dark; they had put me at a table with a light—. i think the man was under the influence of narcotics; at last he squatted (half fell) on the floor, his eyes look at me across the table. just his eyes—. . .
—and i read to him. The poems affected him; he made the poems. a super-sensuousness.
i felt he was going to be killed on the road
i saw his death in his eyes (actual and literal) and i wanted to hold him and prevent it
(i felt also that he was the only purity there. . .)
(Letter from besmilr brigham to Loree Rackstraw)
brigham teaches us by holistically subverting our generation, who forcibly struggle to live in this isolated, desertifying here. I believe she takes her place primarily among our present biocultural revolutions of resilience. As Carr meticulously proves, her ways-to-language sacralize, transfer, mediate, and protect life. Our biocultural lineage and struggle is the canon in which her work most effectively dwells. It dwells in our hands, forests, homeward journeys, reservoirs, murders, high school drop-outs, injustices, burials, farms, dams, child-rearing, coyote kills, and magic. She is a border crosser, myth-carrier, and an inside-out hemispheric revisionist. This is her existential act, the evolution of survivance within her, where there is no separation between human being and poet, Choctaw and Southerner, mother and nomad. Experiential, not efficient, ancient, adaptive, strange – even ugly because she is too close – her poetics of resilience do not fit any systems but those most fundamental to life. She mediates our agoraphobia now. She tells us to walk. She tells us to write outside, where within the mythic Earth we, having isolated ourselves, are devoid of answers.
though we are in a time of change. and if that change has a terrifying air that is in some cases almost destructive, it is because we don’t have anything to believe in. unless it is what we can do. which isn’t always enough. and there is the kind of haunting possibility that this is because of the death of our myths, or the hanging over of our myths (original myths are near to the earth)
(“There is a Red Bridge Road” 19)
I am reminded of a story. brigham was moved against her desire from the Arkansas homestead to south New Mexico, to live with Heloise and Keith Wilson. Neither she nor Roy could care for themselves or each other. She was deeply embedded in Alzheimer’s. Heloise tells she reacted violently during the migration. Not long after arriving, she had to be moved into a nursing home of hilly desert expanse. I am told she was happy there, stopped cursing, and watched horses roam from a window. She thought she was in Arkansas. This is important, her last poem. It is not an act of denial, rather one of resilient creation. She asserted her death circumstance. Arkansas and the biology of mortality co-created the culture of her death. Those who cared for besmilr in these final years had to stand in Arkansas.
1From the poem, “Hurricane” of the unpublished manuscript, Open Structures: Of Saints and Grace by besmilr brigham (1979)
Return to Reference.
2Any uncited information on brigham I attained through ongoing conversations with Heloise Wilson. Yet, I take full responsibility in the case of any inaccuracies or misrepresentations.
Return to Reference.
3In contrast to W.H. Auden, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.”
Return to Reference.
Bavikatte, Sanjay Kabir. Stewarding the Earth: Rethinking Property and the Emergence of Biocultural Rights. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
brigham, besmilr. Letter from the author to Claudine Caulk. N.d. TS. Collection of Heloise Wilson, Las Cruces.
---. Letter from the author to Loree Rackstraw. 1973. TS. Collection of Heloise Wilson, Las Cruces.
---. “There is a Red Bridge Road.” Their Place in the Heat: Contemporary Poetic Statements. Ed. Doug Flaherty. Oskosh: Road Apple Review, 1971. 19-21. Print.
brigham, besmilr. “Yaqui Deer.” Games for an Easter Child. N.d. TS. Collection of Heloise Wilson, Las Cruces.
---. “The Hurricane.” Open Structures: Of Saints and Grace. 1976. TS. Collection of Heloise Wilson, Las Cruces.
Carr, Emily. “Or to Begin Again: besmilr brigham.” ISLE. Volume 19, Issue 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 62-81. Print
Resula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002. Print.
Williams, Terry Tempest. “In the Shadow of Extinction.” The New York Times, February 2, 2002. Print.
Wright, C. D. “Preface.” Run Through Rock. besmilr brigham. Barrington: Lost Roads, 2000. N. pag. Print.