Poems from Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York
This collection of persona poems tells the story of the infamous Lewis & Clark expedition from the point of view of Clark's personal slave, York. The poems form a narrative of York's inner and outer journey, before, during and after the expedition — a journey from slavery to freedom, from the plantation to the great northwest, from servant to soul yearning to be free.
Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York (2003)
ISBN 0-8131-9088-6 •� $15.00
“I proceeded on the sandy coast and marked my name on a small pine, the day of the month and year…”
–William Clark, November 19, 1905
If I could make my words dress
they naked selves in blackberry juice
and lay down on a piece a bark, sheep
or onion skin, the way Massa do.
If I could send a story home to my wife
float it in the wind, on wings or water
I’d tell her about Katonka, the buffalo
and all the big wide and high places
this side a the big river.
How his family, numbering three for every
star in the sky, look like a forest when they
graze together, turn into the muddy Mississippi
when they thunder along, faster than any horse,
making the grass lay down
long after the quiet has returned.
How they lead us through the mountain snow
single file, in drifts up to our necks.
How they don’t so much as raise a tail
when I come round with my wooly head
and tobacco skin, like I’m one a them
making the Sioux and Crow think me
“Big Medicine, Katonka who walk like man.”
Today we stood on the edge of all this
and looked out at so much water, the mountains we crossed
to get here seem a little smaller.
As I watched black fish as big as cabins take to the air
and splash back in the water like children playing
I thought about you, us and if we gone ever be free,
then I close my eyes and pray
that I don’t live long enough to see
Massa make this ugly too.
The expedition left Louisville, Kentucky on October 26, 1803
When we first left Kentucke
the trees had commenced to dressing up
the fall harvest and the garden pumpkins
was already bigger than my head.
Massa Clark didn’t ask me to go on no expedition.
He just say “pack” and pointed to the door.
So I gather up what little I got and more than I can carry of his
and head off to a sail-bearing keelboat
where his friend Massa Lewis is waiting.
That boat was so big
you could lay any ten of the sixteen men on board
or eight a me head to toe and still have enough
room for the dog.
We start out on the Ohio, swing up the Big Muddy
til we gets to the mouth of the river they call the M’soura
and set up winter camp a good canoe ride from Saint Louie.
That spring when the rains come we cross the Muddy
and commence to climbing the M’soura
and float right up thru what seem like heaven on earth;
more sky than I ever seen, rocks as pretty as trees
and game so plentiful they come right down to the river bank
and invites they selves to dinner.
Now, I ain’t what you would call
a scripture quoter, but the first time
I seen the water fall at M’soura,
felt a herd of buffalo stampede and looked down from top
a Rock Mountains, it was like church.
Where else but God's house can a body servant
big as me, carry a rifle, hatchet and a bone handle knife
so sharp it can peel the black off a lump a coal
and the white man
still close his eyes and feel safe, at night?