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"Artist's Cairn" by Nancy Avery Dafoe


I have written about rocks before—

our subconscious desire to return

to our mineral state—

but a recent confrontation with what appeared

to be an artist’s cairn before me in a museum

whispered something else entirely.


Contrivance of “Funeral Cairn” made not

from minerals crushed and heat-formed

over millions or billions of years

but an arrangement out of something

entirely ethereal, through artifice of artist

weaving wet felted wool into stone shapes,

then covering ruse with silk to color and layer

texture over surface, piling one creation

atop another in the way ancients

and American Indians piled rocks to signal

boundaries, to guide, to navigate rivers

by balancing sandstone and granite

along a stream bed, on a natural outcrop,

on an island at the heart of a river or to point

to land trails, and to mark their dead,

as the Narragansetts did to memorialize

their chief Miantonomo, murdered

by Uncas’ brother at the command of Colonials

who later tore down Indian symbolic cairn.


Artists always deconstructing in process

of composing: dyeing wool a yellow hue,

painting blue streaks on white absorbing fibers:

temporal design of mock stone weighed

against eternity—or more precisely,

as eternal as 4 billion years feels

to human life span in this clever trick

of light and substance—

trope of creating then recognizing

signification and altered perception,

trick of light or mind designed

in masterful strokes.



Author/educator Nancy Avery Dafoe has twelve published books through independent presses. She won the William Faulkner/Wisdom award in poetry in 2016. She serves as the NLAPW Letters Chair. Her most recent books include a memoir on grief and love, Unstuck in Time, and a novella on the effect of wars on mother and child separation, titled Naimah and Ajmal on Newton's Mountain.


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