Monday, June 28, 2010

INTERVIEWING MRS. WILKINSON: THE FAIRIES



THE FAIRIES


Their land is bigger than you’d suppose.

Like the sea it disappears into the sky,

above the trees, one smudgy line.


First time I went there, the Queen took me,

wanted me to marry her youngest.

I wouldn’t.

He was handsome enough, but

there was something

not quite right about him:

the way he smiled, maybe the way

his nails grew long and blue-tipped

instead of white and pink.


Some people think it’s those big ones

who cause the troubles.

But it’s the little ones, imps, I call them.

They’ll sour the milk and stale up the bread,

leave footprints all over a fresh-iced cake

just for the fun of it.

Now and then I find in my dresser drawers

the handkerchiefs all rearranged. Once

an embroidered one folded like a bedroll.


And then there’s changelings.

Happens all the time.

There’s at least three in this town I know of.

I’ve seen those babies they took

when I’ve been over in their land--

they don’t remember their mothers,

but sometimes, early mornings,

they get a longing look.

They’re mostly happy;

fairies take good care of them.

Back here the mothers

say “Trouble. This baby

is high-strung trouble.”

They wouldn’t believe me if I told.


But those big ones now, on their horses so white

it looks like the moon is out even when it isn’t,

they go about their own business.

‘Course they can be dangerous if you don’t watch out,

but so is anything worthwhile.

As long as you use your head, they’ll do you no harm.


Used to be, folks didn’t talk about them,

or they called them other names.

But if they’re fairies, why not say so?

Truth is truth, and it will out, like they say.

It hasn’t done me any harm I can tell of.



Friday, June 25, 2010

INTERVIEWING MRS. WILKINSON: GRAM



By the 1990’s, Mrs. Wilkinson was the only person on this side of the bridge who believed in fairies anymore. The people across the river, in the hills, have never stopped believing. The houses over there are far apart, and the roads through the woods are lonely.

~A History of West Wilton, Vermont


GRAM

Gram came down to live with us after Mother died.

Mother fell down the stairs and hit her head, Gram said,

but I was really little, so I don’t remember.


Anyway, Gram came from up there, the other side of the river.

Folks are different up there, they live different,

don’t visit much. It’s like they’re on their own.


We were always poor, but Gram made the best of everything:

drapes out of sheets, dresses out of drapes,

dinner from whatever was at hand--squirrel sometimes.

She was a real good shot.


When my sister cried for a dressing table

Gram made her one out of an old carton,

covered it with some magazine pictures she saved

and stuck on a coffee can lid for a mirror.


They said she was a pretty woman

when she was young, but when she got old

she had squinty eyes from looking at the fairies.

Some people have that kind of vision, like cats.

Owls. They can see in the dark.


Gram was real good at games.

She made a game out of being quiet

those times Daddy was sleeping it off,

and she taught us I Spy, to pass the time afternoons

we had to sit outside the hotel, waiting for him.


But then there was the accident

the summer I turned fourteen.

They put her in jail.

Once when I went to see her there,

she told me the Queen had come,

tried to get her out,

but the bars were iron

so she couldn’t pass.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

PERSPECTIVE--prose




Over the course of the years, I have been visited several times by people who sell aerial photographs. They will fly over my house, they tell me, and take a picture, and enlarge it and frame it so that I can hang it on my wall. I have on these occasions explained to them that my husband is both a pilot and a photographer. But if he were not--if I had not had the opportunity to see our little house and yard from the air--I would buy such a photograph, and I’d look at it often. “There is my vegetable garden,” I’d say, “and there is the clothesline, and over there is the little plum tree, and you can almost make out the bird bath there on the edge of the lawn.”

I also like to climb a hill near my house and look down at the place where my house is--I can see the houses of a couple of neighbors from that hill, and I can just see a bit of our garage roof. In fact, whenever I climb a mountain around here, the first thing I do is turn and look toward home. And whenever I’ve flown anywhere away from home or back again, I’ve leaned toward the airplaine window and looked out for the railroad tracks, the river, the old White Pigment Plant--for familiar landmarks. It’s an odd thing, when I think about it. From the air, or from a distant hill, I cannot know the details of my place that so delight me when I’m there. I can’t see the flowers in my garden, or smell my neighbor’s silage, or hear the wood thrush singing away in the trees. But I like to see it from above: it gives me a new sense of the relationships between things. I can see how close we really are to the train tracks, for example, and I can see where the pine woods ends and the old pasturelands begin.


I know I’m not the only one who likes the birds’-eye view of home. People buy those aerial photographs; people like maps and drawings that pinpoint the pieces of Earth where they live. Birds’-eye lithographs of towns were very popular years ago--they’re on exhibit in libraries, sometimes; I still love to look at the ones of places I know, to recognize the familiar things, to note the changes.


It gives us a security to know that home is there, even if we’re not. We were once in a commuter plane over the Hudson, and among our fellow passengers were members of a well-known rock band. They were tired, unglamorous middle-aged guys who told us they’d been on the road for two months. When my husband asked “Where are you going?” one of them answered, “I don’t know. I don’t even know where I was yesterday. We just go where they send us.” But suddenly, looking out the window, this same man grew alert and animated. “There’s my house!” he said, pointing at a place along the river. “That’s the closest I’ve been to home for a long time.” And he turned his head and looked until his place was no longer in sight, and he sat back in his seat and closed his eyes.


In all the wonders of space, the astronauts have spoken and written most eloquently of the far, far view of the little wet blue-green place they left behind. That luminous image of our Earth hangs on walls and graces flags and t-shirts and bumper stickers: “You are here,” that picture says. “You are somehow defined by this.”


I think that the desire for the long perspective is built into us. When children begin to get a sense of scale, they like to draw pictures of the globe with little dots showing their houses; they like to string out their addresses: “Mary Pratt, My House, New Haven, Addison County, Vermont, New England, United States of America, North America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Universe, Cosmos, Mind of God.” Defining our place helps us to feel at least a little bit safe as we tip and reel through our lives, on this wild round space ship.


But there is a practical side to having a long perspective, a very practical and important side. My town is revising our Town Plan; we’re trying to figure out what’s best for the future of the whole town. From my back porch, I can’t see the whole town: I can’t even see my whole yard. I certainly can’t see my neighbors’ pastures and hayfields and houses and barns and businesses. And there is no way at all that I can see my neighbors’ hopes and dreams and worries and fears about their lives and their places in this town. But those invisible things are the things that make up the shapes of the places we live, those things determine what is bought and sold, what is built and destroyed. Those things determine who lives where, who gets to do what, who pays how much in taxes. Those things determine which hills get climbed and which grazed and which covered in new houses. Our hopes and fears determine the size of our school, and the state of our roads. And they determine perhaps most importantly the way we know (or refuse to know) and treat (or mistreat) our neighbors, and the way we welcome (or don’t welcome) newcomers. Gathering to talk about those things is like climbing a hill above home, or like taking an aerial photograph--only together can we get a good complete perspective, a real sense of this whole place and the people who live here with us.


I have a house and a yard that I consider mine, but they’re only mine because the land that surrounds them is not mine. This place where I live is nobody else’s place. And just so, this town is ours because it is surrounded by towns that are not ours; and this state is surrounded by states that are not Vermont; and this Earth, ultimately, is surrounded by space that is not Earth. And after that? Well, who knows?




MFCP--This was published in Five Town News years ago, before Google Earth.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

SHAPE SHIFTING



Last night for my dinner

I slit open a womb of squash,

scooped out the papery ivory eggs,

sliced a green-white onion body so wet and alive

the two halves would not fit tight together.

I made a salad of living things,

infants of broccoli and radish;

dressed it with the blood of olive and grape.


The boundaries are not clear.

This morning the dog dug a nest of mice

out of long grass, swallowed the babies

like little pink pills. They slid easy

down her throat: wriggling embryos

dissolving in her stomach,

becoming dog.

I commend them to their god.


And there was a time I read an article

about a wildlife biologist summoned

to investigate the death of a woman

by mountain lion. It happens more often

than you’d think. He tracked the beast,

found its cache in a litter of leaves.

He said, “I hate to tell you, but what was left

looked an awful lot like meat.”



MFCP-- this was a Grolier/Ellen LaForge Poetry Prize Runner-up in 2001


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

TURNING A BATTLESHIP




They say it’s like turning a battleship.

They say they’re making progress:

the vast bulk of iron against the swell

that rises and rises and against the wind

that never, ever, for a moment, lets up.

All hands are doing what sailors do--

--turning cranks, watching dials,

running to and fro. It was more obvious

when the ships were under sail,

when it had to do with lowering and raising,

with ropes and anchors and chains.

Like turning a battleship, they say.

Something that big, pounding along in a fixed direction,

thousands of tons afloat

inflexible, ungraceful, lumbering, loud,

not like, say, whales,

who turn their enormity

graceful and swiftly, who breach and sing and whisper and fly--

and porpoises--

and kayaks, currochs, dugouts,

sailboards and surfboards

skimming and slipping the surface--

and leaves in autumn--

russet from the ash trees, red from the maple,

brown from the oak--

and golden birch leaves--

how they blow light and high, following

every whisp

of wind--

and ravens somersaulting-- and hawks--

and little birds

flipping so easy above the corn--

and snowflakes and snowboarders and

children on swings and monkey-bars--

and ballerinas, gymnasts,

contra-dancers,

parachutists, politicians, bass guitarists--

and all those World Cup footballers


turning on a dime.


MFCP, 2006


Friday, June 11, 2010

APPLE TREES



I have spent time among trees:

their cambium pulling juices from air, from stone,

roots of my planting deep in the Earth,

life packed into ripening skin,

strong fingers like twigs

dripping fruit.


Monday, June 7, 2010

FILED AWAY




Poor wee things, headless,

buried all along the edges of the forest path,

or in the pasture, in secret.


It’s their ghosts that haunt you at night,

the plots that twist and flutter through your dreams:

that house on the hill full of flowers,

geologist found in his field with a rock hammer in his head,

Magi on their way to Bethlehem: Druid, Bodhisattva, and African witch,

the girl who ran away to dance and was shot by a clown,

the church haunted by the specter of an evil priest.


Someday, you tell them,

I will try to resurrect you.

But they twitch and turn

in their shallow graves, unbelieving:

those wasted carcasses,

uneasy dead.


MFCP--Feb. 10, 2004

Friday, June 4, 2010

THE HEIFER



Once, long ago, on a morning yellow and cold,

I walked by a brook through an overgrown wood

where heifers grazed. Snuffling and wary they followed.

I walked with care around their tender curiosity.


I was walking by a brook through an overgrown wood.

When I stopped, heifers startled, blundered away.

Had I walked with care around their tender curiosity?

The few thin beech trees trembled their amber leaves.


When I stopped, the heifers startled, blundered away;

I wondered at the violence I had done, unmeaning.

The few thin beeches stood with amber trembling leaves;

pine needles, hemlock needles edged with sunlight.


I wondered at the violence I had done, unmeaning.

When I stood silent, one Jersey fawn came down alone--

pine needles, hemlock needles edged with sunlight--

her footprints soft brown hollows in the earth.


When I stood silent, one Jersey fawn came down alone.

She cocked her head, regarded me with solemnity,

her footprints soft brown hollows in the earth,

her brown eyes deep and questing, unafraid.


She cocked her head, regarded me with solemnity,

then kicked her heels, turned and disappeared between the trees.

Her brown eyes were deep and questing, unafraid,

once, long ago, on a morning yellow and cold.



MFCP, January, 2006

This is in the pantoum form


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

THE WITCH'S FOREST



I am a native Vermonter, an increasingly rare species. I have for years resented the intrusions of tourists, the suggestions of experts, the "improvements" of technology.

And yet, I am a newcomer here, an alien in a place that was old and worn before I was born. When I moved to Essex Junction in 1961, it was a small sleepy town with a railroad station in the middle. Our high school even had a cheer about that for awhile: "Thunder, thunder, thunderation/Our town has a railroad station./Trains go by, toot-toot-toot,/All those for Essex, stand up and root!" The five main streets of the town all met in the center: the notorious "five corners." There was not a traffic light system there, merely five stop signs and a great deal of driver eye contact. I learned to drive before the coming of the traffic lights.


But shortly after my family's move to Essex, IBM expanded its plant, and people started moving in. We lived in a little Cape Cod style house in what was then one of Essex's three housing developments--Indian Acres. Our house was on Abnaki Avenue; the next street down was Seneca Avenue, my younger sisters and brother went to elementary school on Hiawatha Avenue.


The development was surrounded by the remains of a woods, and beyond that what was left of an orchard. All of the neighborhood children spent a great deal of time in the woods. I can still walk through it in my mind. The path in had a froggy place on the right hand side. In the spring, we caught frogs there, and pollywogs, and we could hear the peepers every spring evening. They would all stop their peeping when they heard us walk past, as if they were holding their breaths, and then they would start again, one at a time, tentatively. The path was well worn and dappled on sunny days with patterns made by the birch and hemlock trees overhead. I know now that that kind of woods is a relatively new woods, an overgrown pasture, most likely, but when I was young, it was primeval. There was a rocky ridge, a backbone, that crossed the path a few hundred yards in. I met a neighbor boy there once, shooting at squirrels with a bb gun. And on the other side of the ridge, after another patch of fine ferny dappled woods was what we called the Witch's Forest. A tall, dense growth of old pine trees with no relief of green underfoot, only some pale mushrooms and the accumulation of years of pine needles. Beyond the Witch's Forest again was an overgrown pasture, this one full of dainty little pine trees that gleamed silver in the morning dew. This was, of course, the Fairy Forest. But it was as dangerous as the Witch's Forest for children.


We called it the Witch's Forest for a good reason. The danger and the charm of the place was the chance of meeting there the Witch--an old woman who lived in a shabby old white farmhouse on the edge of the old orchard, an old woman who was bent nearly double and who always wore a shawl over her head when she walked in the woods. "I know you," she'd say to us in her cracked old voice. "I know you, and I know your dog. Get out of here or I'll call the police." And we would flee--we'd run until we reached the ridge. As if it were magical, the Witch never passed that place. Our parents told us that she was just a poor eccentric old woman who lived in her little house with--of course--several dozen cats.


But I wonder now, if we were walking through the woods next to the pastures of her farm. Did she stand on the ridge when she was a young woman and watch the sun set over the lush green meadow where the gentle Jerseys grazed? Could she hear the peepers from there, too, and did her children catch frogs in the old swamp, and collect their pollywogs in jars? Did she help to gather the hay in the Fairy Forest before seedlings of the old pines took it over? Was her farmhouse full of children's clutter and the smells of canning tomatoes and applesauce? Did her barns burn down, or tumble down, or were they dismantled and reassambled as houses on the edges of some exotic suburb?


When we were in Ireland, we stopped to look at the Gallarus Oratory, a very old and very beautiful dry-stone work chapel surrounded by rocky pastures full of the black-faced Donegal sheep. Sitting on the stone wall near the oratory was a thin old man in a tweed coat and cap, a walking stick at his side and a Border Collie at his feet. I decided to be friendly to him after I had examined the chapel, and I walked up to his seat and said good-morning. "Where are your from, now?" he said to me in a hard, cold voice. "Germany? France?" I told him I was from the U.S., and added, hopefully, that my father's family had come from Ireland. "Well, you'll be giving me a good tip now," he said. I wanted suddenly in my anger and my shame to knock him down. Who was he to demand money from me, when he had done nothing but expose me as a stranger, an imposter, a gawker at his home? Who was he to connect me to the Witch again, to show me myself through her eyes?


The Witch's Forest is now a playground with the latest kinds of safe swings and climbing equipment. People don't go there after dark. The Fairy Forest is full of houses, as is the dappled woods, and the swamp. The ridge itself was blasted and bulldozed away, and I can't remember exactly where it was anymore. There is an Orchard Terrace where the orchard was. But the Witch's house is still there, although I'm sure she died long ago.


I have a kind of plan, which I shall probably never carry through, to go to the Town Clerk's Office to find out who she was. I will find then where she is buried, and I will make a pilgrimage to her grave. I will leave there a pine bough and an apple and a stone from the Gallarus Oratory, and I will ask her pardon and her blessing.


I wrote this many years ago. I still haven't carried out the plan, but am quite aware of my own potential as a Witch in the Forest.