Translation Tuesday: Poems by John Smelcer

Featuring work by John Smelcer, who can read and write in Ahtna, one of the world's most endangered languages


Recipe for a Reztini

Two parts cheap gin or vodka

One part of your youth

Garnish with a strip of dried salmon or jerky

Shake it in the backseat of a Pontiac

doing 70 mph on Dead Man’s Curve


Jedi Mind Trick




This is not the land you were looking for.

Move along.


Indian Blues

Thomas Two Fists

whittled a guitar from a tree

that had fallen during a storm

and killed a shaman. He carved

the tuning pegs from the bones

of a white buffalo.

For strings,

he used the long gray hair of

old Indian mothers who had lost

their children and grandchildren

to alcohol and drunk driving.

For years,

Two Fists travelled from

reservation to reservation

and powwow to powwow

singing the blues.

Wherever he went,

Indians wrapped themselves in old blankets,

dreamed of forgotten homes and wept

dreamed of forgotten homes and wept.


Eagle Spirit

Said the shaman to the young man:

See that soaring eagle?

Your spirit is like that eagle,

the body its shackle.

Pitiable, earth-bound, broken-winged creature!


Sgulak Enk’aaze’

Yaak c’ededliinen ts’en ciił:

sgulak t’ak ‘aen?

Nuh enk’aaze’ lae sgulak,

naaytah enk’aaze’ tl’uu.

Tege, nen’-ut’aa kunelyaesi, tlok’- ts’enla’ kohnesi!


Raven and the Butterfly

Raven watched a caterpillar crawling on a branch.

It made a cocoon and transformed into a beautiful butterfly.

Raven was jealous for six months.


Saghani Ggaay ‘Eł Lahys’ibaay

Saghani Ggaay gguux dzuuts’i ‘aen uus zucene’.

Gguux dzuuts’i ggux hwnax tsii ‘eł zdlaen kasuundze’ lahts’ibaay.

Saghani Ggaay lae ts’ae gistaani na’aay.


Anger Management

A man wanted to control his anger,

so frightful even grizzly bears feared him.

A shaman told him to insult and beat a log

with a stick until he was exhausted.

When the weary man returned and asked,

“What lesson have I learned?” the shaman replied,

“Be like the log.”


Koht’aene Ts’akut’eh

(Literally “The man who gets angry”)

Koht’aene ts’akut’eh,

tsaani lii koht’aene.

C’ededliinen koht’aene yaa nitezet ‘eł tson decen

kae sen xał k’e tsaa.

Koht’aene na’idyaa ‘eł yaa

“Yidi uzadalts’et?” c’ededliinen yaa,

“Cic’uunen decen.”


John Smelcer is the author of a dozen books of poetry, including Songs From an OutcastTracks, and Raven Speaks. His short story collection, Alaskan, edited in part by J.D. Salinger, received a gold medal in the 2011 eLit Book Awards as the best short story collection in the nation. His novel, The Trap, received the James Jones Prize for a First Novel and was named a Notable Book by the New York Public Library and the American Library Association. His stories, poems, interviews and essays appear in over 400 periodicals. Learn more about the author at his website

See John Smelcer’s poems, published in Asymptote’s January 2012 issue, here.