That March we came, the hills
were bare and swept of winter leaves.
Stained with the red ink of their sap, orchards
whose bark was tight as if too small to hold the coming green.
The land stony with promise, fat sheep on worn-back rock ledges,
white like stone teeth bared to frost. Elms brown-webbed
across the sky, jays blue-flickering through branches.
Beautiful and barren in pastures, walnuts made
a lavender shadow. Spring air full of snow,
a pattern no person could easily trace:
the beginning of fear.
Poetry remix, pages 3-4, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (Feminist Press, 1991)
Mother quiet. Father had not told her the land
was not unencumbered. Even when she saw this—
A good harvest ought to come, she said. To me,
fourteen, and Merle, ten, some great adventure had begun.
That Mother was believing, not shaken–no
bitterness, doubt–all we needed to know then.
Poetry remix, pages 4-5, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (Feminist Press, 1991)
Wasn’t a man made for a farmer although brought up on the land.
He hadn’t the resignation which knows how little use to pray for a bean
before its appointed time. He’d saved and come up hard and slow
like oak or ash that grows with effort but worth more
than any poplar shooting in a season two feet high.
Dad’s birthday comes soon now, Merle said.
He’ll be fifty-seven. We need to have a party—
with presents. But what to give a man
chopped back down to root?
Poetry remix, pages 5-6, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (Feminist Press, 1991)
Fist-big flakes of snow that came across the hills
windows until wet snow smacked against glass.
Wind shook hickories, branch to root, sent trembling through oaks.
Where rocks shelved out to make a fall, Merle saw air bubbles under ice.
Slime ferns fresh and green. Sun so hot we swung our coats
open, stuffed caps away. Everything after that beginning,
changing and so balanced between wind and sun,
neither good nor evil, could be said outweigh the other wholly.
Something treacherous and kind, trusted only
to be inconstant, which would go its own way
as if we had never been born.
Poetry remix, pages 7-8, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (Feminist Press, 1991)
I almost called out to put something on her head.
Spring is dangerous weather, Father, never without a hat, says.
Seeing her alone, running, singing, words stayed in my mouth.
Like a dog starved out she ate sometimes, or slept at odd hours
like a lynx stretched in sun, or wandered marshes at night,
by dawn legs half-frozen with frosty mud. This time
more strange. Not belonging to herself.
I felt an edge of darkness. Went back to the house
where things were plain if not always good.
Poetry remix, pages 23-24, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (Feminist Press, 1991)
Standing under oaks at night, asking, What am I?
The unrevealed thrust up like an iron dike, like shards
of a meteorite imply worlds beyond. Adolescence—
when a fallen nail unlifted or tuft of sheep’s wool
accuse at night. Two branches crossing, meaning and symbol.
The hill-quiet and stony pastures made me ashamed
of a thousand wormy thoughts, but more
often like hands to heal.
Poetry remix, pages 31-32, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (Feminist Press, 1991)
Elm trees green like sulphur smoke,
wild ginger hard-packed on its roots. In the ravine
I found a moccasin snake coiled and hating, cold spring
water flowed over his skin, over and over until I almost chilled.
Blossoms stuck scrappily, apple buds thick, pear trees covered.
A good year, we said. Little rain that month.
I wondered if anywhere on earth men could say
such and such will be, with certainty.
No farmer ever could.
Poetry remix, page 39, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
An earthly smell evenings, mingling black grape
and honeysuckle. I woke to blossoming
moonlight, firebush complaining of a catbird.
Marshfield blinded with fireflies seconds at a time.
Earth indifferent. I with my heart
ready to crack.
Poetry remix, pages 113-114, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
That evening Dad shouted, Where’s the food, you women?
Mother, suddenly younger, brought in ham stuck with cloves,
and later Merle, cake, face looming above little flames.
Time for presents. I thought Kerrin would like to be first.
This is your present, Dad! Opening a folded knife, she aimed it
across the room. Dad shouted Look out!
Shoved back his chair, tried to snatch but jerked her arm instead,
knife slashing old Cale’s blind head. Kerrin in a black rage.
God damn you! Dad said.
He picked up Cale, mother holding him blood-foamed, and went out.
Merle and I listened over the wind. Two thumps of a gun.
Then gutters. Rain.
Poetry remix, pages 28-31, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
We sat on weed hay, put the lantern down.
The new straw clean smell. Chickens churred in sleep,
rain a slow washing sound, small rustle of mice.
Merle sat pushed against me. Where do you think Kerrin went?
I don’t know, I said. She’ll come back soon. We’ll party
some other day. But I knew it would never be.
Could not cry even about Old Cale. After a long time
in dark so still, we crept the lantern back
to the house empty of tears.
Poetry remix, pages 31-32, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
She thought children should know states and years things happened,
1066 and the mystery of the square root.
The children loved her and sometimes she brought them home from school,
for no reason except they asked her to, one or two at a time.
If boys, Father would point out the pig houses or water pump at the pond,
laugh at whatever they said whether foolish or smart.
No Lincoln’ll ever come out of these, she said. Want to know enough to clerk
In a store or ride in a Ford Sundays. Which was and wasn’t true.
People had come back to the land as we had, different from men born
with calves’ bawling in their ears and taste of mud in their mouths.
But Kerrin could not see or point out to her class the myriad
strangeness of breath, which made her restless, and above all, lonely.
Poetry remix, pages 41-43, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
April 12: Slow Accretion of Days Built Like Coral Islands
wind wrenching and whinnying the sashes,
cold milk and sour red beets, flesh of corn kernels,
Kerrin singing in the calf lot, Mother’s calm faith like warmth.
Shadow of leaves, blue undulations across snow,
even when creeks froze over–kingfisher’s rattling scream
Green peas, hard and swollen, Merle gathered late,
as much a part of us as white-boned clouds driven like steam.
Hours in thoughts of self to keep the mind hungry, never fed,
and in the mystery of the turnip, you forgot its leaf.
Poetry remix, pages 58-59, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Frogs sang loud to deafen, like old women cackling,
but stopped dead when I came. I listened but
could think of nothing except whether Grant would come.
Strange to have someone live with us, who had gone beyond
county and state, learning things by sight instead of reading
about them. I felt nameless hope. Stood long
enough for the frogs to grunt and rumble
like spears thrust into silence.
Poetry remix, pages 54-55, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Standing alone at the foot of the pasture hills, I could see
Grant coming toward me across the barren creek bed.
Grass scorched to its edge. I could never see his face.
That you Marget? he asked. Has Merle gone? She’s here, I said.
I don’t see her, Grant said. Only rock and sheep marks in the dust.
I told him she was gone for a while. He started to go,
saying, You stay. Accept and take everything. Take it hard to you.
I put out my hand to stop him. Take what? He came back.
I could see his face as if noon sun were on it. Woke up.
All day the dream’s strangeness clung to him.
I wanted to ask what he never finished and for a while
pretended I knew him. Better than anyone.
Poetry remix, pages 150-151, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Cold dry April. Earth green, crab-buds fiery red, hawthorns opening.
Things bent over in being born. I watched him come up the road.
Older than I thought, cragged and strange-looking. Tall, thin.
I’m glad you’ve come, Mr. Koven, Mother said.
We found ourselves staring up at him. It’s good to have
somebody new around, Merle blurted out. —Anything new.
Grant’s big hearty laugh. You make it easy on me, he said.
I’m glad that anything’s going to do. — Come out to the barn, Father put in.
Dinner’ll be soon, Mother reminded him. You’re only new once, Merle said.
– Only worth opening peaches for once. You’d better eat all you can!
It won’t take peaches to bring me in, Grant smiled at us fast and went out.
He’ll eat a lot, Merle said. I can tell by the length that’s on him.
We’ll have food enough, Mother said. We’ll fill him somehow.
She looked worried though and went back to recount the jars.
Poetry remix, pages 73-74, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
But Grant said for a wild thing to be blind was death.
The eyes, like milk-blue stones, only thickened old skin.
Grant seldom let anything go without finding its meaning.
A fool hopeless belief that the more we know the more we’ll understand.
Maybe for you, I told him, for me only more confusion.
Better to be confused than blind, he said.
We watched the snake glide back, coils scratching and dry.
Grant said the eye scales would split off first. New eyes first!
Lord, I should have been a preacher like my dad!
One hand on the fence post, threw himself over the wires,
frightening the horses. Turned and quick grinned. Hooked in lines,
the team plunged around when he untangled their feet.
Didn’t come back, but shouted something about long-legged fools,
started up the row singing like Kerrin, only louder and worse.
Poetry remix, pages 90-91, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Stars windy brilliant. One enormous planet burned down the west.
No moon but white patches of everlasting gleamed disk-like in the grass.
You hunt near the plough, he said, I’ll thrash where the weed jumps.
I found it half-buried down near the plough nose. Big old silver thing.
Grant could never tell time by hunger or sun. I’d be coming in
for supper while Merle was still wiping up breakfast.
Wiped dust off its face, its round dull gleam in starlight.
Don’t trust anything natural, Marget. – Only the little wheels.
Fierce sweet smell from crab trees and stars in their twisted branches
dropped away in the dark like sleep. Night the one sure healing, I said.
Not for me, Marget. Shook his head. Like to see what I’m doing. I like noon.
Unlike God Himself, he didn’t need to sleep on solid earth.
Where you been, you two? Father asked. We’d come back soon.
Grant told him what we’d been hunting blind in black fire.
Marget sieved a deep rut, he said, and waked it in the dark.
Poetry remix, pages 103-105, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
In stoning cherries, acid stain on her skin, stove raging, steam
from boiling glasses, cherries dissolving in rich syrup-redness.
She stormed around kettles, tasting and slopping, shouted Haw!
dripped wax with one hand and stirred with the other,
sniffed burnt juice blackened where it boiled over.
A haloed way of seeing—peacock-blue and brown of lizards,
almost blinding whiteness of daisy fields. What was it–
too much health to be contained, radiating out like
over-stoked ovens? Cherries thick despite drouth,
the boiling sweet tang, but sugar getting low.
I wished Merle would put less in.
Poetry remix, pages 114-115, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
I rode in the strange mix of hay and darkness, weeds
and cattle lots. Farther on, heavy malt of oat fields.
Thankful never jealous of Merle,
never prayed Grant would not care for her.
To fortify me, the whip-poor-wills’ liquid howl
near the cave, shape of young mules on the ridge,
chorus of cicadas, ponds stained red evenings.
I shall never go starved, I thought.
I could still see and hear Grant. I was afraid though.
Prayed Lord, make me love the rind!
Poetry remix, pages 118-120, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Why were people here? Vigney Higham, spinster
living with old Mrs. Higham mile off the main road, hair taut
to her hat. Joe Rathman, old man like an ancient gnome in his great
black suit. Miss Amy Meister, whose brother had come back from war
and killed their father, who raised bees and sold yellow combs each fall,
knew more than the minister about evil and death. Stella Darden, who’d married
a tenant farmer and lived with his fourteen relatives in a one-room shack. Leon
Kind, whose son left him, unable to stand the silence Leon kept since his wife
died. And mother, some inner communion listening to the minister’s voice,
not his words. I wanted to believe but faith was like color of eyes one is
born with. I wondered if God was here. Kept feeling the back of my head
for fear the braid ends had come loose.
Poetry remix, pages 136-139, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Merle and I looked forward to little cups and crumbs,
elderberry or wild grape wine. Mother’s face luminous and rapt.
The deacon crept toward her and everyone’s head turned
at once as if pulled by one big string.
Only church members can take communion. Mother stared.
You’ll have to get out, he said loudly. Oh I see, she said,
nodding to make him feel he had given no offence. We all got up
and filed out. Kerrin tried to bang the door but it swung softly.
Outside, Mother looked as if she had lost some irreplaceable thing
and had been jerked back suddenly into life, empty-handed.
We walked toward the road. What did we do? Merle kept asking.
Dust came up in hot clouds. The answer nobody wanted to give, or knew.
Poetry remix, pages 140-142, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
That’s right, she’d say and go on to the next.
Children squirmed or slept in shadowless sun.
Afraid to talk. Used to her doing this.
When I told Mother, she sat on the porch.
Tomorrow you’ll have to tell the Board, she said,
to find someone else.
Walking between poison thorns, we took her rage,
unfought battles that wore endurance raw.
Father had grace and I remembered Lear:
The worst is not so long as we can say
‘this is the worst.’
Poetry remix, pages 178-182, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
One noon when we should dry and crack open like earth,
cold air blast, clouds like black waves, stabs of
lightening through the great upboiling mass.
Dad looked at Mother, and I saw the awful unmasking of his face.
Bring up the tubs, he shouted. She’s here all right, I tell you!
Half-wild we dragged out buckets, saucepans and bowls.
Grant calling like a boy. Cold air rushing Merle, Kerrin lashed
like a willow switch. First drops splashing wide apart.
Through clouds a long pole of sun, dying wind, no rain.
Father’s knees seemed to crumple as he sat.
Damned old Cyclopean eye! Grant muttered,
thunder a long way south.
Poetry remix, pages 152-154, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Kerrin saw fire blurring scrub oaks.
Pounded on Grant’s door, shook Merle.
It’s come, she shouted. Get up, you poor fools!
Grant ran toward the barns, then Father, all fear and rage.
Mother dragged down a pile of sacks we soaked wet
to fight it where bushes were low but smoke poured
over us like wasps, skin stung with heat—
Merle flailing with her sack; Kerrin screamed,
covering her eyes, and ran back.
He and Grant trying to shovel a path when Mother fell.
Grant ran half a field, with his hands smothering the flames.
He and Kerrin carried her back, half-crazy with pain.
Scrub oaks torch-burst, fence posts flared;
branches, crashing to earth, roared Christ please!
Poetry remix, pages 189-192, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Wind down, flames slower, and blinding smoke drifted up–
no cinder clouds. Moon’s greyish chill before dawn.
Wires lay with charred posts at intervals like burned crows
caught between barbs. We looked at each other in grey light
and could not laugh. Merle’s legs black as the fields. Father shouted
not to forget the shovels. Looking back, I saw a dead branch crash.
Father repeated Mother’s name like a prayer or oath,
then aloud as he stone-stumbled. It had cost too much to win.
Poetry remix, pages 195-196, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
I shut the gate and saw Grant fumbling at a rope.
Kerrin, with him, grabbed his knife and hacked the knot.
Grant snatched her hand, You’ll cut yourself! Jerking back, she twisted
her arm behind so his own followed, her dangling body pressed hard against him,
one arm over his shoulders and face in his black, scarred neck. He dropped her wrist
and she fell back, one hand on his arm and knife clenched in the other.
Father stood in the door, wild-looking. Grant, what are you doing with Kerrin?
Saving a rope, he laughed. Kerrin hurled the knife at Father, screaming words
I’d only heard once before. The knife went slant against the wall.
Father lurched toward Kerrin, but Grant shouted at her to get out fast.
Grant started searching along the wall. She took it, I said and
he saw what I thought but didn’t say.
Poetry remix, pages 197-199, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
Even in sleep, she used to twist like a restless snake.
Awake, hands and eyes never still, twitching back and forth.
We came on her against the barn wall, one arm fallen
across the trough, blood from her wrist staining shallow water.
Skin drawn tight as paper over cheeks. Grant knelt.
Like finding hard bones, the rest gone to dust. I could not cry.
Grant picked up and carried her as he would a little hound.
To keep a hard layer of calm between me and the tide-like dark.
Death the one good God did.
Poetry remix, pages 200-201, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
He did the milking that night and came on the porch.
Where’s Merle? he asked, then Never mind, don’t call her.
Put out his hand in an awkward, formal way but laughed,
Goodbye, Marget! I thought I said, Come back when you can,
but only felt the words. No farmer’s going to have a soft time, he said,
but I wish it would come out easier for you. — We’ll get along, I told him.
It’s a pleasanter way to lose money than most. He laughed and stopped
by the gate where Merle was. They went down the fence row
toward the road and he waved his hat before out of sight.
I went inside and stared at jelly glasses. Picked up
a ball of dust. Fifth month of drouth. He was gone.
Nothing to soak the ground below an inch deep.
Poetry remix, pages 208-209, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
April 29: The Assessor Came in October
Brought papers. Dad listed cows and horses,
plows and tractor, one hundred sheep and
chickens, nine hogs.
You folks pretty well off, Braille said.
Pretty well out, Dad said. Them barns empty and
that silo three-quarters full. I have to buy feed this winter.
Borrowed two hundred to fix the dairy up.
– I saw a mule out in the pasture you didn’t list.
He ain’t mine! Dad shouted. I’m pasturing him for Rathman.
I reckon you don’t use him either? Braille winked.
Dad didn’t laugh. I ain’t got money to pay taxes.
– Ain’t this where you want to live? You got to pay for it.
You get me some money, Father said, and I will.
Braille rolled up his papers and got in his car.
Good-bye, you folks. I got it all down, I reckon.
Father, staring after him, sold the steers the next week.
Mother told Merle, Tell him to rest. He’s too wound up,
and a month before first autumn rains, that night died.
Poetry remix, pages 208-209, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)
April 30: The Consolation of the Heart in Its Necessity
In the light, he looked aged like Old Rathman,
pounding black shells with rheumy hands.
I pulled up my coat, although the air mild.
Merle’ll make a cake of those, I said. She’ll be glad they’re shelled.
She ought, Dad said. It’s work enough…hard work.
And I saw Father with awful clearness what he would soon be.
Old. Querulous. Only able to shell beans in the sun.
I went past him where we used to peer down on the orchard
now grey-orange branches, icy red oaks not fallen yet.
Out of these hills cold fire to face morning, at times
as much as the heart can ask.
Poetry remix, pages 230-231, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (The Feminist Press, 1991)