Names of the Chumash

by Paul Willis

Just when you think the Indians
of the central coast of California
have disappeared out to sea,
their names keep washing up
on the beaches, dunes, and promontories:
Pismo, Nipomo, Jalama.
Hueneme, Mugu, Malibu.
The peaks stand up and word themselves:
Chismahoo, Cachuma, Topatopa.
And the creeks and rivers and waterfalls
keep flowing in their native tongue:
Cuyama, Sisquoc, Nojoqui.
Piru, Sespe, Matilija.
Even our towns speak ancestry:
Lompoc, Ojai, Saticoy.
And the avenues of our cities, they say:
Jonata, “tall oaks,”
Anapamu, “rising place,”
Anacapa, “island mirage.”
And don’t forget our toxic
landfill, sweet forlorn Casmalia.
Even when we try to bury the earth
with garbage, we cannot bury the names.
They haunt us still. They bless us.
They keep us. They keep us,
always, from forgetting,
even when we have forgotten.

 

Paul Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and a former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California.  His most recent collection of poetry is Getting to Gardisky Lake (Stephen F. Austin State University Press).  More at pauljwillis.com.

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