"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