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This past winter, Cape Ann Museum exhibited a show of Gabrielle Barzaghi’s drawings. Her work is all visionary landscapes and nightmare fantasy situations, and I was immediately taken with it.
Gabrielle will soon be showing a huge new work at Trident Gallery in Gloucester. The show opens October 18, 2013.
Gabrielle and I are doing a presentation together on January 22, 2014, at The Gloucester Writers Center. We’ll be projecting images of Gabrielle’s drawings while reading my poems and other writing; but more about that event as it draws closer.
Here’s a poem for the day from my book The Man in Green, published back in 1996 by Lee Chapman’s First Intensity Press.
The Pumpkins at Panther Lake
Another ambivalent landscape, October
a boy hangs a dummy
from a flagpole into dark late morning
of interior embered still
with years into the earliness, the myth residing
at a barned-in shore, a
ghost-burnt afternoon gone north
for pumpkins on the swell of
all the riches of the childish and innocent
grotesque, affirmed in what the great
pillaring oaks by the lake suggested; scarecrow-witches
of delight come longing
tight in the mask’s mold
through eye-holes into the image-lode’s
permission, about to return
to memory the inside
Across the entire breadth of New York State, undeviating, a hilly strip scarcely twenty-five miles wide invites the world’s wonder. It is a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult whose great stations number the mystic seven. For where, in its rolling course from east of Albany to west of Buffalo, it has reached one of seven isolated and lonely heights, voices out of other worlds have spoken with spiritual authority to men and women, and the invisible mantles of the prophets have been laid on consecrated shoulders.
—Carl Carmer, Listen for a Lonesome Drum
In my mid-twenties a wise friend, recognizing the tenor of my love for my home state, suggested I read Carl Carmer’s 1936 book, Listen for a Lonesome Drum: A York State Chronicle. There, in the chapter “The Woman Who Died Twice,” I first learned of Jemima Wilkinson, also known as the Universal Friend, a spiritual leader in late-18th and early-19th century Western New York.
A Rhode Islander who claimed to have died of plague in 1776 and to have been reborn as God’s messenger, Jemima Wilkinson acquired a large and prosperous following while still a young woman. Some of her preaching diverged enough from that of the established churches for conflict to arise, and so she and her followers left civilization for the frontier. Buying land in the area around the northern ends of Keuka and Seneca lakes, the Universal Friend spent the rest of her life there, trying to realize and maintain her vision of a new Jerusalem. (A 1964 biography, Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, The Publick Universal Friend, by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr., was recently reprinted by Cornell.)
Because I grew up in places not very far to the east and west of where she built her community, and because I identify that part of the world as home, Jemima Wilkinson’s amazing, strange story has a special fascination for me. Early on in my infatuation, I began a long poem on the Universal Friend—having in mind something like Kenneth Irby’s “Jed Smith and the Way” or those parts of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems that deal at length with figures from Gloucester’s past—but decided not to continue work beyond the research and notes stage.
Until fifteen years later, when I was writing The Mornith War. The Universal Friend had stayed with me all that time, and I found myself translating the person I had imagined through a historical perspective into a character of fantasy, and the figure around which the story revolves: Mary Tammer, the Prophet of Free Farm.
As I was at work on The Mornith War, something mysterious happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the city where I live.
For decades, a painting of a serpentine creature endured on a big rock on Cressy’s Beach, a beautiful place on the western side of Gloucester Harbor. Here’s a picture I took in 1991, visiting the creature with poets Ken Irby (on the left) and Gerrit Lansing.
No one I ever spoke to knew who was responsible for the original painting, or who touched it up from time to time, keeping it from being rubbed away by the elements. Years gave the serpent a sense of permanence, so that it seemed to me it would last a long, long time.
Then, one night in October 2009, someone took a roller and white paint to the beach and covered the serpent.
This brought on a series of Gloucester Times stories [First Gloucester Times story, second Gloucester Times story, third Gloucester Times story, fourth Gloucester Times story,], uncovering who (a well-known Gloucester painter named Robert Stephenson), what (he had painted Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity of Mesoamerican myth), and when (a beach party in 1954, when Stephenson was 19 … making the outdoor painting fifty five years old at the time it was defaced). What the articles never did uncover, though, was who blotted out the painting, and why.
The question of why really got to me—and does still. It was not done by someone who wanted to restore the rock to its natural state: the huge blotch of white looked more unnatural than the painting it covered. Why would someone go to the trouble of covering the serpent, but apparently not care what they put in its place? It occured to me one explanation might be religious belief, since people of certain faiths regard even pictures of mythical creatures as demonic. It was my guess that someone living in sight of the serpent believed it signified evil, and with that guess the serpent on the beach gave birth to the mourgel in The Mornith War.
The Mornith War is full of things that got my attention at the time I was writing. Events in my neighborhood, my world … books I was reading … my nightly dreams and nightmares … whatever parts of my experience overlapped with the story I was telling. Here begins a series of short posts about these sources, each revealing something from outside the story that found its way in.
A common bird around my house (I can see one perching on the peak of a neighbor’s roof as I write this), mourning doves have a small but important part in The Mornith War. I grew up hearing and loving their call, and (no surprise) the chapter 3 description of Elwood’s boyhood experience with mourning doves is a lot like my own. (Here are some sound samples.) But the call has special significance for Elwood, the bird’s voice—sounding like the question, Who?—reminding him of his divided self, his lost other.
Writing that chapter 3 passage about Elwood’s past, and my hearing of the mourning dove’s call in particular, I remembered a short Lorine Niedecker poem. Looking it up again I found that she wrote, “the You/ah you/of mourning doves” (Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, pg 181, University of California Press, 2002). The poem too hears the bird’s call as though it were English, and in it a lost someone is also mourned.
I read this as a sign I was on the right path, with the birdcall at least, and carried the mourning dove clear to the book’s final page.
The last post—about wanting to crawl into flowers like a bug—focused on some of the flowers that were then in bloom on the big rock beside my house. I had planned to follow that with another June flower post, this time dealing with Fernwood, a small lake in the woods to the north.
So, to bridge the gap between the last post and the next: Here are some of the pictures that would have gone with the piece I was planning to write, back before the neglect set in.
On the land bridge that crosses a corner of Fernwood Lake, I found what I think was sheep laurel. This spot isn’t far from the part of the woods where mountain laurel grows, the subject of an earlier post.
Also there were stands of pickerelweed. Along with the water lilies, they made the lake’s edge feel swampy. (Once, years ago, I came upon a big snapping turtle crossing my path at this end of the lake. I was totally surprised, and almost failed to call my dog back before he put his poor nose in striking distance of the turtle’s beak.)
There, a smidgen of last summer’s glory. Onward.