The Architect of Suffering


In 1997, John Smelcer and Ted Hughes—Sylvia Plath’s widower and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom—met at a pub in Guildford, England. Over pints, the idea of this poetry collection was born. Finally, the book that Hughes considered to be the American cousin to his Crow flaps, caws, and spraddles into the pages of literary history. It was inevitable that Hughes and Smelcer should meet. Crow, meet Raven.

In the mythologies of cultures worldwide, Raven, or his smaller cousin, Crow, is often portrayed as a mischievous trickster Creator and Destroyer. In this collection of poetry, John Smelcer has crafted Raven as all these things, but also as an Instigator who was present at key moments of human history when things went awry. A quarter century in the making, Raven is finally flapping his way into literary history!

A collection of poems about the world’s seemingly lack of compassion and kindness and what or who may lie behind it.

“In clean clear language Smelcer takes this knotty cosmic riddle, cruel compassion, treacherous beauty, trickster Raven God—or human beings—and tries out his tough, funny poems. This book is a hard-won look at the riddle.”  Gary Snyder, Beat Poet & winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Illustrated by Larry Vienneau, Don DeMauro & Leonard Baskin

raven post 2THE BIRTH OF RAVEN

On the Monday after the first week
God accidentally made a black hole
which threatened to destroy Creation.

So He put it in a bag

hammered it with a spiral galaxy
incinerated it in the oven of a thousand suns
and drowned it in every ancient sea.

But when He opened it

Raven flew out from the blackness
blinking and stretching his wicked new wings
bending his unflinching hunger earthward.


 Illustration by Leonard Baskin; used with permission


In the beginning
Raven was as white as a glacier

But eon after eon
his wings turned black

his head
his feet
his beak
his claws

In the end

his heart became a coal mine
his eyes two black holes
devouring the universe

atom by a  t  o  m


At the end of the tumultuous sixth day
God fashioned Man—a future victim of Raven’s

selfishness and greed. Perhaps God said something or
perhaps He said nothing at all. When He was done

God wiped his brow and sighed deeply. It seems
to me that sigh must still be hanging there.


In 1692, Raven flew to Salem, Massachusetts for a crack,
but he quickly became bored with the Puritans

who simply didn’t know how to have any fun.

But then he spied two girls sticking out their tongues at an old lady
who chastised them for picking their snot in public.

Disguised as a black-frocked vicar
Raven whispered, “She’s a witch”
and suddenly both girls went into epileptic fits.

As the good townspeople gathered around
Raven began to sing a contagious song:

“Ding, dong the witch is dead!”

In no time, a hundred accusing fingers were pointing like pistols.


April 15, 1912

Raven flapping across the North Atlantic
on his way to visit cousins at the Tower of London.

Through the starry night he spies
the Titanic, New York bound, icebergs dead ahead.

On a lark, he lands,

hides in the wheelhouse and waits
until the captain leaves the helm
then, in his best impersonation,
calls down to the engine room,

“Full Speed Ahead!”

Satisfied with his mayhem
Raven resumes his flight,
humming some tune he heard
a trio playing as the ship



the    abyss

as deep and dark as Raven’s gullet.


Raven set up at the corner of 42nd and Broadway.

He placed three shells on a table and shouted,

“Step right up! Everyone’s a winner!”

Christ, Buddha, and Mohammad, who were on vacation,
stopped to watch and listen, wearing mirrored sunglasses,
sandals with white socks, and T-shirts that said “I ♥ New York.”

Raven pegged them for pigeons right away.

“Guess which shell the pea is under and you’re a winner!”

All three prophets put down a twenty.

Seemingly, Raven placed a pea under one shell,
but it was really a slight of hand, then he shuffled them saying,

“The wing is faster than the eye.”

Christ raised a shell and there was a pea!

Raven was bewildered.

Then Buddha lifted a shell and there was a pea under it as well.

            Astonished, Raven couldn’t believe his eyes!

Finally, Mohammad picked up the remaining shell,
and miraculously also found a pea.

Beaten at his own game, Raven flew away in a fit, squawking,

“Cheats! Cheats! Cheats!”


As a member of an Alaska Native tribe, I have known Raven (Corvus corax) all my life as the deified trickster, the ever-selfish, ever-hungry, ever-wicked, ever-present, and always clever god of our Native cultures. I have written several books of Alaska Native mythology. Moreover, as the only tribal member who can read and write fluently in my Native language (Ahtna), I have included a handful of my poems written in Ahtna Athabaskan (the language that Raven gave us) and have rendered them into English, making them among the rarest translations of a language in existence.


Raven wanted to learn patience.

So he sat amid stones
on a mountain
for a thousand years—

neither he nor the stones
saying a word.


Saghani Ggaay den ghaetl’.

Xa’ dii daa yae’ ts’es
dghelaay ts’en’
c’etiy xay—

Saghani Ggaay ‘eł ts’es
kole ghaas.

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