Sight Unseen

by Lauren Rusk

Sight Unseen

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Santa Fe, New Mexico




I came to see the conquistador, bronze

Oñate, who meant to have the last word

against a tribe of Ácoma rebels:


Cut the right foot off

each able-bodied man.

The other will remind them

they should have yielded

their winter corn,

not forced us to take it

at such cost—my nephew!

Now they’ll serve—

their women, their godless

old and small.


The story lasts in the dust.

It rises and goes on,


as in the Native museum

it propelled me back outside


to look for a recent sculpture of Oñate,

ruler of Nuevo México, the newly named

colony, exalted 


on a horse again, not far

from the Ácoma.




That which happened continues,

a tale told in quiet, from one to another.


A few friends at night,

ordinary Indian men, take turns

with a hacksaw. Their resounding

understatement. A bronze boot


does not appall the stars.




A Laguna woman on the road

drew me a map to Alcalde,

where I drove to see the statue

with its foot hacked off.


Perhaps she thought I knew

the officials had replaced it

with a fresh extremity;


a blowtorch had erased the seam,

though not the history,

which sparkles and rises like mineral dust

as bronze goes dark.




When I arrived the Oñate Center was closed,

a chain across the driveway for Memorial Day.

Scrambling under, I tripped,

scraping the heels of my hands,

stooping and stumbling, grateful

for the impromptu ritual.




There it was—unexpectedly compelling,

not stiff and blank, but spirited—

the big-nosed European visage full of thought

(later I read it isn’t Oñate’s face),

the stallion’s body pulsing, his knee lifted

by a whole system of sinews,

the back hoof pushing off,

the caverns of his nostrils sucking in the sky.




The best vantage point is just below

the small hill the pedestal surmounts,

where Juan de Oñate looks down on,

but not at, you.


From this angle, both boots are visible—outsized,

with sharp toes and, most of all,

the spurs, one too close

to the stallion’s flank, the other,

as I look up,


a wheel of spikes

against the unremitting sky,

a forged thing

attempting to say, I am the sun.








About the Author

Lauren Rusk teaches at Stanford University, including the university’s programs in Paris, Berlin, and Oxford, and she has also taught at Swarthmore College. Her books are Pictures in the Firestorm (Plain View 2007) and a study of autobiographical work, the Life Writing of Otherness: Woolf, Baldwin, Kingston, and Winterson (Routledge 2002, 2009). Her poems and essays have appeared in such publications as Hotel Amerika, Writer’s Chronicle, and Best New Poets, whose Open Competition Prize she won. You can visit her at