Poems by Ralph Salisbury[1]


Sometimes Likely

If you look white

like I do

And work in the South

like I do

and want to go on making a living for

your woman and children

like I do

there are some

of your people you are


likely to forget.


--from Rainbows of Stone

University of Arizona Press, 2000



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Ralph Salisbury (hiding behind hat on left) with hired man, Cliff Bailey, and siblings Ruth (lying on ground), Ray (standing), Rex (seated) and half-brother Robert (Bob) Wessels (seated on right). Photo taken in the fields of the family farm, Arlington, Iowa, 1933.


With the Wind and the Sun

When the squadron I was in

bombed a Navajo hogan, killing,

by mistake, some sheep—

just like that flipped out ancient Greek Ajax did—

and blinded an elderly man,

my white buddies thought it was funny—

all those old kids' war-movies again

against the savages, and,

ironically near where

the atom bit the dust, but


the Jew navigator,

who'd thought World War Two

had been won,

didn't laugh, and I,

hidden under a quite light complexion,

with the wind and the sun waging Indian war

to reconquer my skin

defended myself

with a weak grin.


--from "Going to the Water: Poems of Cherokee Heritage"(Pacific House,1983), reprinted in "Light from a Bullet Hole: poems new and selected 1950-2008" Silverfish Review Press, 2009



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Ralph Salisbury, Eugene, OR, 2006. Photo: Ingrid Wendt.


Swimming in the Morning News


A mother is saved from drowning below a bridge

in U.S.-bombed Baghdad, or,

she is one of my Cherokee ancestors,

forging the un-bridged, then, Mississippi near

present day St. Louis, and crows,

flying above my meditations,

make me remember black hands of old clocks,

which awakened me to cawing

the day I awkwardly swam

and saved two young women from drowning,

today, the somber wings of poetry so many's

sole chance to survive.


--from Like the Sun in Storm, The Habit of Rainy Nights Press, an imprint of Elohi Gadugi, 2012 [Elohi Gadugi is Cherokee for "the world (elohi)""working together in community (gadugi)"





Ralph Salisbury, Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico, 2012. Photo: Julie Bray



A Coastal Temple Ruin, 1992

For Octavio Paz and Cesar Vallejo


Surf echoing Spanish cannon, or Aztec drums

summoning centuries of slain,

victory-regalia-petals proclaim sun

ascendant, while rainbows wing

from nests, to split banana beaks and sing

eons-extinct sea-verge-ecology ancestries,

clouds, roots, fragrance, fruit

offering survivors of war in the genes more

than invaders took

and defenders gave

their lives trying to save.



--from War in the Genes

Cherry Grove Editions, WordTech Editions, 2005





Ralph Salisbury, self-portrait, circa 1946.


For Robert Wessels


My half brother, whose German-American father died,

in the American army, in World War One, was,

in World War Two, captured by Germans, who

flew him from Tunisia to Sicily.


Escaped, he worked on farms,

for a hiding place and food,

while Italian sons were U.S. prisoners of war.


Pick grapes, scythe wheat—

make wine, bake bread,

a little sanity

among millions of the mad.



--from Blind Pumper at the Well

Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2008





Ralph Salisbury, Fresno, California, 1970. Photo: Ingrid Wendt.


Old German Woman, Some Wars


"Help me!" she cries, faltering, reckless or trusting, from tram,

a survivor of bombs, most likely, and, now,

a flesh-and-blood bomb herself,

the only possible target, me.


I'm old, she's older, and I've no time to accuse,

"Coventry's rubble," or her, the name

of a map-coordinate I'd flown to set aflame.


Her hand finds the hand I've offered, her feet meet

the cobblestoned earth, we share

with thousands of the living and with

those billions, who waltz, in petal gowns,

or, snail-shell-helmeted, march,


her thanks an echo of mine,

war ending, my bomber turning away from this city,

my fate to live to write to be

ignored, or read, by all

I would love to save.



--from Blind Pumper at the Well

Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2008



25_Photo 1-42.jpgRalph Salisbury (right) with his half-brother Robert (Bob) Wessels, parents Olive McAllister Salisbury and Charles (Charlie) Salisbury



My Country Again Threatening Aggression

(This time, for oil in Iraq)

The sea, though equally lethal, killing millions, seems sane,

as it destroys our own and nations we call enemies.


More mathematically predictable than Christians,

our crusaders will change ocean to oil

then celebrate, not in cathedral

or temple or mosque but in banks,

the union of women and men –

and children – with earth,

not sensing for even one instant

the sea's awesome eons of giving and taking away.


--from Blind Pumper at the Well

Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2008




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Ralph Salisbury, Milwaukie, Oregon, 2013. Photo: Ingrid Wendt.

An American-Indian Success Story in India


My abandoned grandmother's raising twelve kids—

two years of study all that my father could get,

before racism shut down his school—

six years of university for me, after what

the army had taught—


a Bombay newspaper reporter—

to whom I'd given an interview

after her union's strike had ended

press-censorship—honored my family

as a Native American success story.


Although assaulted in their legislature,

India Indian women won freedom for everyone,

and I would honor here those

who honored my American Indian father and




--from Blind Pumper at the Well

Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2008


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Ingrid Wendt and Ralph Salisbury, Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico, 2012. Photo: Julie Bray.


Medicine-Meeting, Hoopa, 1994

for Helen and Chad

Telling the gathering I'm Cherokee –

my skin, like the skins

of many of them, the skin

of soldiers who tore

futures not rightfully theirs

from the genes of defeated populations –


my answers are Father's mother's: "Sassafras tea

for congested lungs; mint leaves

for troubled digestion; willow bark chewed

for pain; tobacco breathed,

into aching ears"–-


and words of love,

to raise the dead


in children's dreams

of living as women and men.


--from War in the Genes

Cherry Grove Editions, WordTech Press, 2005





Ralph Salisbury, Eugene, Oregon, 2012. Photo: Ingrid Wendt.

Respecting Uktena


Columbia River Cherokee glittering monster Uktena, I recall

my sister's husband's plowing from Mississippi loam

a stone ball, proof of our tribe's migrating through

as once was generally believed,

or maybe a jewel pried from Uktena's skull—

luck for our people forever

or curse if you lack respect.


Mt. St. Helens erupting—Trojan nuclear plant

and others built on seismic faults—

Uktena, oh mighty Uktena, forgive us,

yes, we are foolishly greedy, and Trojan's our doom's name.



--from Like the Sun in Storm

Habit of Rainy Nights Press, 2012



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Ralph Salisbury during his U.S. Army Air Force training, 1944.

My Brother's Poem: Vietnamese War, 1969


You tell me you can not write it

yesterday's pretty village      splinters            and in

your aircraft cargo compartment ammunition/rations/med-

icines gone   an American lies wrapped in his raincoat

strapped to the floor of that machine generations struggled

to invent                   and thousands of hours of lives went to create

the boy's belongings    all he could bear

on his back     packaged beside him

sunset     a shimmer like cathedral glass

a memory                             the instrument-panel glow

as low as devotional candles   showing

in plexiglass     monsoon screams past     your face

above the controls   your own American face.



--from Like the Sun in Storm

Habit of Rainy Nights Press, 2012



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Rex Salisbury (left) and Ralph Salisbury playing with dogs on the family farm, Arlington, Iowa, circa 1939. The one-room schoolhouse, which Ralph and his siblings attended, is in the far background.

A Genesis

What happened to sheets of carbon all night

while under moonlit sheets I loved then dreamed?


In dawn my hand switches on, black clouds

shoot lightnings from the wastebasket,

and on my desk are rectangular fields,

black loam that I know

was growth pressed under tons of earth

aeons before Shakespeare—

new growth my own rows of words, this morning seen

as the words of men through the centuries

imprinting themselves, for love or fear,


which other words and sounds not words had stirred,

stirring true lovers and readers and dinosaurs, and


before there were even leaves—

not those of books—stirring nothing until nothing

moving with nothing in nothing

like love created

this poem and

the next.


--from Going to the Water: Poems of a Cherokee Heritage

Pacific House Books, 1983


32_brian as baby with jeff and Ralph.jpgRalph Salisbury with sons Jeff and Brian, 1953. Photo: Joyce Salisbury



Awakened by Cell Phone


Awakening, beneath pines,

where a border of earth

the river dried from

gives thanks to rain,

I hear the lovely and loving chatter

my daughter's year-old daughter sends

through silicon crystals

transmitted into eons of green

metamorphosed into petroleum

reborn as plastic, and, yes, into the centuries

of families which formed my ear.



--from Like the Sun in Storm

Habit of Rainy Nights Press, 2012





Ralph Salisbury and Ingrid Wendt, Fresno, California, 1969, Photo: William Stafford.

Around the Sun, the Alaskan Oil-Spill


Space-capsule-shape globules of oil

re-entering the atmosphere

in the nostrils of terns,


an ocean of air between words'

furthest surges and home,

I say a tern may return,

eons from its final breath,

and smother some other creature—


and I say my cells may return,

eons from poems:


which say each tern is sacred,

its flesh to become new life,

to go on sustaining lives;


which say that oil—

formed from the dead—is sacred,

not to be wasted or used

to gratify greed;


which say, with all the breath a mind can hold,

each moment of life is sacred,

and Timelessness and Death.


--from Rainbows of Stone,

University of Arizona Press, 2000


14_Photo 1-51.jpgRalph's older brother Ray on tractor. Salisbury family farm, Arlington, Iowa, circa 1936.



[1] Poems by Ralph Salisbury used by permission of The Literary Estate of Ralph Salisbury. Copyright © 2020 by The Literary Estate of Ralph Salisbury. All Rights Reserved. No reproduction without permission of the estate.