Petroglyphs, Unpublished Poetry,
and the Urge to Leave a Mark
Michael Kramer

I had become just a little enraptured by petroglyphs, those scratchings etched into rock whether deeply or just scarring the varnish rock acquires when exposed to the elements over a period of time. I had seen them on walls and boulders on travels with my family. I had, of course, studied them in conjunction with archaeology and anthropology, two disciplines closely aligned to my stock in trade of history and literature.

But my first trip to Sedona with my wife began to intensify all that. We were staying in a lovely timeshare built to resemble the Hopi pueblos famous east and north of that Arizona destination. Native American ruins and remnants dot the landscape in the Verde Valley. The Southern Sinagua peoples dry farmed this land nine hundred years ago.kokopelli1 During a great drought seven hundred years ago, the Sinagua moved closer to the Salt River. Later, they seem to have abandoned the region and thrown their lot in with the Hopi and the Hohokam peoples. These clans of dirt farmers left intriguing and puzzling designs and figures etched into the rock varnish—petroglyphs—and painted on the walls—pictographs. In a series of drives, hikes, and docent lectures throughout this area over four week-long trips, I learned some basics about this art.

First, no one really knows what any of these figures, squiggles, or designs really represent. The Hopi identify clan signs; the sign of the water clan, the horned toad, shows boldly over one of the buildings at Palatki, a small cliff dwelling that housed forty or fewer people. A spiral, usually circular, sometimes square and labyrinth-like, probably signifies a journey or perhaps the Hopi migration story. Vertical squiggles seem to represent rain. Other figures represent game animals and figures of legend. Archaeologists assume the art is religious in meaning and intent. The animal figures seem not to be sympathetic magic like the cave art in southern Europe (“If we paint them, they will come”). But the reality is, no one knows. All of this is truly prehistoric.

I had flirted with classical and biblical archaeology in college and graduate school, so I hold an appreciation for the disciplines which examine such pictographic work. I had seen other Native American petroglyphs in other parts of the country, and I had seen petroglyphs in Hawaii on the Big Island. At that site, native Hawaiians had deposited umbilical cords on rocks which apparently related some lore of regional families. And I had heard about and seen the designs of other native Hawaiian petroglyphs under the sand on a beach on Kauai. These only show when the tide is out during certain seasons. While some petroglyphs (many in the Mohave for instance) seem to be little more than graffiti by passing travelers, perhaps prayers or records for other travelers, most seem religious in intent. (Those beneath the tidal sands on Kauai only make sense as religious art if the peoples there invented performance or environmental art well before the twentieth century.) And I possess a writer’s imagination which insists on giving story to the pictures often laboriously created (petroglyphs thirty feet up a rock cliff?).

So the second time my wife and I visited the petroglyphs at the V Bar V site, I viewed an ­assemblage of designs all in close proximity; they might be separate, or they might be related. After a short drive from our lodging, we hiked briefly through chaparral to a small dwelling and a wind cave. This had likely been the dwelling of only twenty or thirty people. The petroglyph group included a fine example of the Kokopelli humpbacked flute player figure, a walking man, an obvious female figure, a sign of rain and growing corn, and a wandering spiral. My thoughts flew back eight hundred years to life in the Verde Valley, long before tourists or even the Spanish had shown up. That Kokopelli, somewhat emblematic of the musical and the poetic arts, also held a reputation as something of a wandering male fertility figure; this did not fail to capture my male ego.

A poem came out of this. The initial draft fell rather quickly. Small changes ensued over the next year or so.


V Bar V Site, near Sedona, AZ

I. A Journey

The sun chased the stairsteps up the mesa.
Rising slightly, it casts light differently,
and the stairsteps disappear. Visible or not,
the steps remain, migrations remain, whether
to or from a destination, fleeing or embracing. 

The spiral the journey spins from, crevice
or city, wasteland or teeming womb, bless
this travel, open the path, point to or from,
and only on arrival looking back, we carve
our way, chip at the varnish, mark our place. 

II. Walking Man 

I’ve been walking for sixty years, from or to.
I rarely knew my place until arrival.
Then, I worked, stated will or question,
often left a mark and kept my place.
Sometimes I knew the plantings, the good I did.
I still walk, The sun this morning marks
a path, if only for an instant. I go
forward. Looking back is only salt
or Hades, bitterness or regret. The path climbs
upward, always upward, the destination stars. 

III. Kokopelli and His Mate 

The humpbacked flute player has found
his mate, a fertile valley for their plantings,
shade along this tree-lined cliff base.
Wherever she resides, he can rest,
ply his cheerful music or that of others. 

The beauty of his day he finds in her eyes.
The fruit of their being lay inside her.
And where the journey continues or ends, in rest
or travel, in the heat of the trail or cool shade,
a tree beside clear waters, he finds home.

The poem unfolds in three sections. Section I simply establishes setting. Sitting on my room’s balcony one morning, I watched the rising sun make its way up the staircase of the familiar red rock formation’s stratification. Morning’s normal sun advancement suggested travel, a lifelong travel perhaps, and the Hopi migration stories that remain so important in the ambiance of the Pacific Southwest. That continues into the section’s second stanza. The Hopi spiral begins with the original clans’ emergence into this fourth world from a portal to the third world, a water world. kokopelli2Hopi stories often place that portal in the Grand Canyon, a dominant geographical feature just hours north of Sedona. Others place emergence as coming from a crack or crevice, metaphorically the womb. Another often prominent Hopi petroglyph is a female figure, newly emerged into this fourth world, giving birth not just to humans, but to all the animals commonly occurring in the region. Many anthropologists and New Age culture mavens see this simply as another expression of the Great Mother, Mother Earth. The medieval Christian church could find in this the Trinity’s creative side expressed in nature through the Holy Spirit. That patron saint of modern poets William Wordsworth found his God expressed in the natural world around him.

Section II supplies a character for the story. In teaching the reading, comprehension, and subsequent analysis of poetry (I am a teacher of literature and writing), I show that all poems hold a story. The reader needs to grasp that story before he or she can find any other value. This character, while living in the Southwest setting nearly a thousand years ago, becomes metaphorical and autobiographical. At the writing of the poem, I was sixty years old. I recognized his effort at walking the course set forward and also reflect that looking back regretfully becomes a fool’s game, with results like Lot’s wife from the Old Testament or Orpheus from the Greek story. Both in essence lost their lives. Life’s destination, I believe, is onward and upward, upward toward something God willed and God pleasing and, ultimately, God homed.

The third section brings the piece even closer to the writer. The poem here also fulfills the explanation of the mythic elements of the Hopi stories and the petroglyphs in question. The wanderer has found home. In concrete terms, this means a small holding, a farm (farm remains, perhaps because of the roots of American traditions, such a beautiful metaphor). But in reality the wanderer realizes that his true home is with his mate. This works so powerfully in so many clichés, everything from “home is where the heart is” to the medieval lady who gives her token to the knight errant. In real and earthly terms, this is the peace attainable, emblematic of the Peace of God and the Heavenly Peace ultimately desired through the Christian walk. The wanderer stops his wandering when he can find a place to reside, work worth doing, and accomplishments worthy of reckoning.

And I felt good about my poem, something mythic and yet a memoir, something set in terms popular culture might value but in terms approaching the profound. And over the following few years, I sought publication for the piece.

I have had some small success in publishing poems, and so I included “Petroglyphs” in my annual submissions. I was generally happy if one or two poems gained acceptance out of the few dozen offered, and I fully expected “Petroglyphs” to be printed somewhere.

But then that didn’t happen the first year. Or the second.

I had the perspective and experience to be only mildly chagrined at this; editorial aesthetics and poetry remain incredibly diverse, random, and subjective. All art is like that. On more than one occasion, a piece I considered the weakest of the three in a set found acceptance over what I considered stronger work. And editors by nature tend to consider themselves right. So I consider whether “Petroglyphs” goes out again. Likely. But I have since visited and revisited a number of sites displaying petroglyphs, and I have new considerations.

For the existence of petroglyphs, religion, magic, and prayer remain attractive explanations. All of those help explain, access, and manipulate the unknown. But, I wonder, how many petroglyphs are simply graffiti or marks commemorating a journey or a passing by? At the Honanki site, one of the more prominent etchings—black soot likely mixed with grease, a medium used since pre-historic times—can be precisely dated. High above what may have been a common room or kiva, someone unknown, perhaps a shaman, etched a series depicting an indistinct clan shield, Masauwu (that being who, according to the Hopi, ushered humans into the fourth world from the third and then supplied advice and assistance), and then the Mother being birthing all of the animals common to the region. In other words, above what may have been a religious meeting place, some holy man may have drawn the clan’s creation story, a sort of Sinaguan stained-glass window. That happened in a past specifically undateable. The specifically dateable pictograph lies near that. Not too far away, “M.L Black,” apparently a ranch hand, wrote his name. We know he did this in 1925. He dated it. Looking at that and the nearby more ancient depictions of what may be elk, I thought any religious considerations on the part of Black unlikely. The ranch hand simply left his mark.

And the poetry, the short stories, the essays (even this one), the novels and plays by people as diverse as William Shakespeare (everyone knows who he is) and Lauren Lee (a remarkably gifted high school writer whose work has more than once graced her high school’s literary magazine)—does not all of this represent individuals leaving their marks? Perhaps, I conclude, the writing I do, even the writing done by Jeffery Deaver, top-selling suspense thriller writer in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, is one culture’s highly technological way of leaving a mark for others who pass by to wonder at. It is interesting to think that whoever depicted the Kokopelli at the V Bar V site, he (or she) has been creating wonder in other humans longer than has the Bard of Avon.


Michael Kramer teaches English at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. He advises the school’s literary magazine, King Author, nationally recognized as one of the best in the nation for the past nine years. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.

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