Death Artist

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Writer's Block
Second Place, January 2011
Judged by Kwame Dawes

Six foot five Kiowa
with one leg,
Sada stretched across a booth
in the cowboy
and oil worker’s bar
like he’d conquered a country.

He sketched with carpenter’s
pencil in a Big Chief notebook.
Nobody bothered him,
except to buy him a drink
from a distance
as if to settle a debt.

He lost his leg in Nam,
wore a long green Army coat,
medal pinned to the lapel,
tall black cowboy hat,
eagle feather
stuck in the beaded band.

He painted murals
of ghost dancers and totems
in acrylics–faster drying
than oils, not as fast,
not as permanent
as bullets.
Brush had replaced gun–
medicine against wolf
prowling inside him.

The poem is a character sketch. The efficiency here must not be overlooked. In four stanzas the poet offers us a way to see a man who is of course fascinating even if a bit of a cliché. But he is what he is and sometimes people are clichés. What the poet is able to do is find some very fetching images to turn this cliché into a poignant poem. First there is the simile of the man stretched across a booth “like he’d conquered a country”—fitting for a soldier returned from a war where that is exactly what did not happen. In the second stanza we find another simile of people buying him a drink from a distance, “as if to settle a debt”. Again, the lines are densely packed with ironies and yet accurate to the moment. Finally, the image that ends the poem: “medicine against wolf/ prowling inside him” brings us to elegant and haunting closure. These are carefully constructed images and they work well. The character sketch is superficial. We don’t know the man any better, but what we do have is a powerful portrait from the outside barely looking in. --Kwame Dawes