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Joyful Noise (excerpts)

Traditional Pawnee Songs

Let us see, is this real,
This life I am living?
You Holy Ones who dwell everywhere,
Let us see, is this real,
This life I am living?

I am like a Bear.
I hold up my hands.
Waiting for the sun to rise.

I Will Bow and Be Simple

I will bow and be simple
I will bow and be free
I will bow and be humble
Yea, bow like the willow tree

I will bow, this is the token
I will wear the easy yoke
I will bow and be broken
Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock.

–a Skaker Hymn, 1840s

Death’s Self

The thought of death walks ever by my side,
It walks in sunshine, and it walks in shade,
A thing protean, by strange fancies made
Lovely or loathsome, dark or glorified.
But past such fantasies Death’s self must hide,
While his dread hour to smite is still delayed,
Like a masked Presence in a cypress glade,
By all save heaven’s keen vision undescried.
For me what final aspect shalt thou take,
O death? Or shalt thou take no shape at all
But viewless, soundless, on my spirit fall,
Soft as the sleep-balm of a summer’s night,
From which the flower-like soul, new-born, shall wake
In God’s fair gardens on the hills of light?

Paul Hamilton Hayne (b. 1830)


I am tired of work; I am tired of building up
somebody else’s civilization.
Let us take a rest, M’lissy Jane.
I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon
or two of gin, shoot a game or two of dice
and sleep the rest of the night on one of Mike’s barrels.
You will let the old shanty go to rot,
the white people’s clothes turn to dust,
and the Calvary Baptist Church sing to the bottomless pit.
You will spend your days forgetting you married me
and your nights hunting the warm gin Mike serves
the ladies in the rear of the Last Chance Saloon.
Throw the children into the river:
civilization has given us too many.
It is better to die than it is to grow up
and find out that you are colored.
Pluck the stars out of the heavens.
The stars mark out destiny.
The stars marked my destiny.
I am tired of civilization.

– Fenton Johnson (b. 1888)

Prayer Rug

Those intervals
between the day’s
five calls to prayer

the women of the house
pulling thick threads
through vegetables

rosaries of ginger
of rustling peppers
in autumn drying for winter

in those intervals this rug
part of Grandma’s dowry

so the Devil’s shadow
would not desecrate
Mecca scarlet-woven

with minarets of gold
but then the sunset
call to prayer

the servants
their straw mats unrolled
praying or in the garden

in summer on grass
the children wanting
the prayers to end

the women’s foreheads
touching Abraham’s
silk stone of sacrifice

black stone descended
from Heaven
the pilgrims in white circling it

this year my grandmother
also a pilgrim
in Mecca she weeps

as the stone is unveiled
she weeps holding on
to the pillars

(for Begum Zafar Ali)

– Agha Shahid Ali (b. 1949)