Unpacking books, shelving them
in the library of this old house,
I come across The Duel, a chapbook
Louis Rubin made of poems I wrote
before I left school. The book—
barely worn, inscribed
to the boy who would become
my first husband—just to look at it
makes me touch my face
as if touch might summon back
the girl who, like a distant
resembles me now.
I turn the pages, perusing
a line here, a line there—
by a title so certain, so absolute,
it takes away my breath.
Poetry Is the Spirit of the Dead, Watching
What on earth did I mean by that?
Who was I reading? Coleridge? Yeats?
The Eliot of Ash Wednesday?
Listen. A moss light
moves the tops of trees,
the hem of a garment walking
in circles; moves patiently and still….
Easter in the poem,
it was April in western Virginia
beneath Tinker Mountain
where I wrote it, the slim trees
puckering with leaves and early
blossoms, shadblow, flowering Judas.
Outside now, a slow rain curtains the house,
sifts through the cedars, beads
on the back of the doe
that crosses the grass in the dark
to eat the day lilies at the garden’s
edge. I understand her hunger.
My husband’s in bed in another room,
unwell. The fire’s made. In Old English
heorth and heorte, hearth and heart
I imagine the crow’s chill call.
Let it center me. Keramos.
Cremate. Potter’s clay.
The roots of words send out their spirits.
We are measured by our light,
said the hermetic and mild
beloved master of this house,
who raised it from collapse
and ruin. He didn’t get
his wish to die here,
where the gate to eternity (he felt)
swung on its hinges
open, shut, open—and is swinging
still, he’d say, as the spirits pass by,
I’ll sit with him, with all the spirits
who made this house, hearth, heart.
I would be with them.
In the central chimney’s great fireplace
the bread oven’s set far back—
the woman of the house would have
singed her skirt fetching out the bread,
stirring the kettle of hominy
and winter root crops. In 1680,
a farmer built this house
and scrabbled Connecticut’s stones
out of the earth for walls, and a pentway,
for the foundation of a carriage house
said to have been made of bird’s-eye maple.
He kept sheep, farmed what he could
in earth studded with glacial rubble.
The house was built by a poor farmer
who set gunstock posts,
rough-hewn beams, chestnut
and oak boards for the walls and floors.
The king’s wood, seven
of my hands across, meant for
English ships, he cut and nailed
into the wall behind the cellar door,
unseen. The original family
slept in a smoky loft, collected tolls
from anyone who used the road through
their fields to get to North Stonington,
lived poor, died poor, left the cottage
to descendants who, after a few
generations, moved on.
When Hobart Mitchell found the house
in 1950, poison ivy and trumpet vine
furled out the gape in the slumped roof.
It was a critter’s den he bought,
with a hundred acres, and for so little
it makes me know what envy is.
Bought it, patched it, fixed it up
between singing tours and
college semesters, lived here with
one wife who died before him,
and with another, dear Jean,
who died after him six months.
Childless, he left us the house
and the road, having put
the wooded ridges, wetland
wolf trees, nurse logs, bobcat,
wild turkey, and deer into a land trust.
We have a few of his books—
We Would Not Kill, which he wrote,
also the chapbook of early love poems
he kept in his desk drawer; and
by Gerald Heard, Prayers and Meditations,
which he studied and taught before
First Day’s Meeting for Worship.
We have his garden tools,
his manuscripts, and a photograph
of the Himalayas steeply white
above a village in Darjeeling. I wear
his college ring, carnelian and gold.
From Jean we have an earthen vase
from Oaxaca, the blue cloth from
Christmas dinners, the china she
chipped when her hands grew clumsy
with arthritis. Because I wanted
to keep their spirits near me,
I purchased from their small estate
a winged thing, a silver maple seed
that could be fastened by a long
______In this house,
once the designated poorhouse
in the crossroads town of Preston,
each morning they sat in the silence
of the indwelling Light.
In this room, Hobart used his hands
to heal whoever asked him. At night
for a time they summoned spirits,
moving the planchette across the board,
waiting patiently. They listened to music
before going off to bed and the wild
comfort and wide grace
of their bodies’ passion. Outside,
near the well, behind the buckled
old white lilac, Jean
heard a spirit in the wilderness,
so lonely, crying out. She probably
held it in the light—then took it in.
How many years ago, sick at heart and tied to the words of a dying
argument, out of my own darkness I offered the Nameless a sudden,
single-minded plea: show me the center of the self: and slept hard,
dreamless, waking in the dark with my whole body full of light. And
what I saw—though I might now say wheel or rose, pulse of fire or
sunrise—it was not these. I did not feel joy—I was it. I blazed. I did
not think—There it is or Here. I blazed. Next moment, I was touching
pillow, collarbone, table, wrist, and thinking in metaphor. Flower and
fruit on a single branch broken off the one body of the world of light.
Tonight, though I would like to ease
the length of my body along the length
of my husband’s and enter, breath
by breath, the heat two bodies make,
_______tonight I sit by myself
and study the monolith of stone
laid above the fireplace,
imagining the sweat, the struggle,
the sheer will, back-breaking,
and the final pride of heaving
it into place, then the crude clay,
slapped together, to anchor it.
I’ve seen no lintel stone as great,
but for the one in a crofter’s cottage
on Iona—so he was, that Connecticut
farmer, a Scot perhaps, with
bristled eyebrows like my husband’s,
like my father’s. His, too,
the blue chips of china
I’ve unearthed in the garden bed
as I shovel down—my muscles sore
with that labor tonight, knees stiff
as I listen to Samuel Barber’s
translation of prayer into song—
Thou who art unchangeable,
may we find our rest and remain
in Thee unchanging—
words, and I see how
one thing builds on another, this room
a poem making room for
Barber, the barred owl’s plaintive
hooing in the deep wood,
the far cry of a ferry horn
remembered in the foggy straits
between Mull and Iona—
word on word, stone on
stone, note on note, heaving,
how we rise from the daily midden
of our patch-worked living
_______What is prayer
if not a marriage
of passion and the opposing need
for quiet loneliness? What is
a poem, if not the death cry
of each moment’s hard-won
and abandoned self? What is
This house, it’s a thin place,
I think. The wind outside
might be the wind that summons
the faraway and brings, as near
as breath, the spirit of the dead
________Who are you?
I ask the acres of emptiness
into which everything is gathered
______turning the question
at last toward my own heart,
blind and stupefied—Who?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.