Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Poet Who Starved (Revised)

     by Brett Rutherford, after the German of Uhland

Such was his lot — each dismal day
was short, and was marked with sorrow;
just as a poet ought, he withered
and quite forgotten, passed away.

He was an ill-starred infant
with only a muse hag for a nurse-maid,
and she it was who tutored him
to sing whether supper came or did not.

His mother, if one called some woman that,
crisped early to her untitled urn,
and so presaged his latter doom,
an anonymous and unread vessel
unfit for holding in or keeping gold.

When all around passed pewter mugs,
flagons and cups and champagne flutes,
he was the one they scorned to cheer,
pouring the dregs on cindered ground.

He knew the names of their fine vintages,
the lineage of kings who trod the valleys;
he could tell the rise and fall of empires,
but not one sip was given him!

Still, smiles returned to him each Spring,
his dreams of sweet blossoms woven,
but others hewed his trees to splinters,
boots muddying his purple stream.

When others orgied holidays, game days
and feasts, and marched in victory parades,
he raised his proud cup from afar —
his, the clear cold water; theirs, bloating beers.

The others watched him as he walked on by,
between his study and the library shelves,
thought him a pale being of scarcely flesh.
“He must have inherited money.

“An other-worldly man, almost a ghost.
He doesn't live like us. Ambrosia, mead,
strange fruits and berries, and a millet stew,
must be his monkish provender.”

Dead! dead! they found him sitting there
over the crumbs of one last saltine, pot
of a weak tea too many times infused
until it was merely shaded water.

There was nothing in his house! Just papers piled!
Cupboards zig-zaggedy with spiderwebs,
ice-box unplugged, a gasless stove,
plates in the sink, oh, too far gone for mould!

Easy it was to carry him, pine box
weighing no more than pine box and a suit
of grave-clothes. No hearse for him: a handcart
sufficed to trundle him off to the graveyard.

His tread had scarcely marked the dust
when he walked of nights. May the earth
rest light on his shoulders. May someone find
those papers he left, and publish them.
May someone remember those words were his.

[Written February 2019, revised May 2019].

The Doll Without A Face (Revised)

By Brett Rutherford

         Who is it who can tell me who I am? — King Lear

One tea-and-cookies Sunday, she had more time
to spend with me, the youngest son’s first child.
As I sat, lap full of Classic Comics,
grandmother Rutherford rummaged away
in the unseen kitchen. “Where? Where?” she asked.
Wood drawers slid. Cabinets squeaked open.
“Ah! Don’t slip away — I found it again.”

She cleared the tea table. “More, please!” I asked,
and held the tea cup out. She poured, I poised
the full teacup and watched the pot vanish
onto a sideboard. Then she placed before me
a bag, soft, suede, as tan as the oak leaves
that still clung rabidly to trees outside.

It was tied with a leather cord, cram-full
of objects that tumbled out. Small things first:
shiny white shells, water-worn bright agates,
black arrowheads, a bronze scrap verdigris’d,
a miscellany of seeds and pods, dried
leaves and petals long past the hint of hue.

“It’s like my rock collection!” I offered.
“Agates like that I get from Jacob’s Creek.”
She pushes that one aside, holds the black
arrowhead in the palm of her hand, “Sharp-
edged black glass, so good for arrows,” she said.
“That’s how my mother explained it.” She traced
the edge along her cheek. I shuddered then,
“Be careful! Obsidian! Volcanic
glass. I find it in the road-fill. Aztecs
used it to cut out hearts. Sharp as a saw,
a surgeon’s saw.” — “You know too much for ten.
Your teachers don’t understand you, I hear.
That’s why I can say things no one should know
’til they are old, and writing, far away.”

She reached into the bag, removed a doll,
an almost weightless thing of dried-out corn-husks.
It had a dress, blue-printed calico,
delicate red shoes, a beaded hat, braids
made of twisted corn-silk, blond white. Round head,
was pulled tight with cloth, but hard as a stone —
no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth, no name
one could call it, or any name one wished.

“Boy: these are the things my mother left me.”
She left a long pause for that to sink in.
“Things that my mother’s mother left to her.
The family called themselves the Whites. Took her
in, a young girl, Indian braids and all.
No one was who they said they were: Stouffel
White was Christoph Weiss in Germany.
Henry White, the son whose big farm it was,
he spoke English, German when he had to.
Lots of children, hands to work and pray with,
one more was easy to take in. A lot
of Mingos from here were going West,
Senecas too, driven from New York state.
Many who could pass, already had names
from husbands and fathers and from Bibles,
and settled out in the hills and hollows.
Some had their children taken out to school,
some women married whites who didn’t want
an Indian man’s children, so gave them up.”

She went to the sideboard, a drawer pulled,
“Here” — a stern old woman in widow’s black —
“is how she looked when she came back to us.
I never called her anything but ‘Ma”;
she was ‘Mrs. Trader’ to the neighbors.
Ten years they had lived in Allegheny,
across the river from Pittsburgh, chairman
of some company board he was — died there
and she came on home. None of us did church
except for Christmas, and neither did she.

“You didn’t talk about being a Mingo.
It was bad enough when the first war came
to say the good White name was really Weiss.
But then she just told everyone: not White,
not Weiss, she was Indian, plain and true.
We laughed. She tried to change her clothing then,
bought beads and buttons and Indian scarves.
My husband was furious. Our children
were called names and ridiculed, but then
a thing of shame became a thing of pride.
One day she sat on the front porch with me.
She had this brown bag and the things in it.

Sharp-edged black glass — this is good for arrows,
she told me, as one by one she brought out
the rocks, the shells, the copper shard, this flint
she said came all the way from Michigan.
This from our fathers’ fathers, a bone thing
from a raccoon’s private parts, and magic.
She had a name for each thing, and a place,
all in her mish-mash Mingo-Delaware.

“Then came this doll, this doll without a face.
I never saw her cry but once, and this
was it. She didn’t let me pick it up,
just held it on her lap and said, “Listen.
Remember. My mother gave me this doll
the day she left me at the White farmhouse.
She’d be gone a while, she said, and I
must look at her face, then at the doll’s face,
then at her face and at the doll’s again,
till when I saw its emptiness I saw
her grieved face, her deep black eyes, her forced smile.
‘Just keep the doll with you till I return.’

The Whites were kind, and I worked hard.
Kept to myself and sang my own music.
When done with chores, and there were plenty,
I roamed in woods with the named animals
I knew from my mother’s teachings. Three girls
I played with, not quite as sisters. They scorned
my poor clothing, my stubborn braids. Ma White
took all my clothes one night and gave me hand-
me-down dress and underclothes and new shoes.

I was less an outcast now. No Sunday
church for me, but we would play with our dolls.
Their dolls had porcelain faces, with bright eyes
and noses and ruby lips and blushes.
My doll — it had only my mother’s face
that only I could see, and I just smiled
as happy with my little one, as they
with theirs. Summers I’d play apart, out past
the last corn-rows where the deep woods began.
Mrs.White called me in, but I wouldn’t come.
I waited — one day each summer — she’d come.
A whippoorwill call in daytime, she’d come —
there’d be no embrace so wondrous, no eyes
so deep and dark and arrowed with sad tears,

nothing I wouldn’t labor through so long
as she came with basket and moccasins,
dried fruit and candied ginger, a handful
of found rocks and feathers and those agates
that looked like sunset paintings done on stone.

Up and down and across three states she went.
The old trails ran north-south and west-to-east:
Salt Lick Path to Braddock’s Camp; Braddock’s Road
white-written over Nemacolin’s Path.
She knew her way, scavenged and traded,
did God-knows-what to visit me each June.
Strawberry-time, I knew she’d be there
calling at the wood’s edge for her daughter.

Three years it went that way. I grew. Sisters
and cousins of the Whites tormented me
for my strange ways, weird songs, and for the doll
that had no face. At night they’d turn it round
so that it wouldn’t face the other dolls.
They said it gave their dolls bad dreams. I hid
it beneath my pillow, then in a box
where I feared it would suffocate. Ma White —

I could call her ‘Ma’ as long as the ‘White’
was attached to it like an apology —
came back from town one day with a present.
A doll it was, a newer, cleaner, bright
of eye, five-fingered, five-toed, black-haired and
silver-shoed princess. She’d put to shame the dolls
my sisters had nearly wrecked with playing.

Soon I prevailed at a porch tea-party,
where my doll, ‘Abigail’ now reigned supreme.
White sisters scowled, knowing no comeuppance
could come their way before the Christmas tree
restocked their dolls with the latest fashions.
My doll was lecturing her inferiors
on the new rules of the White doll order
when, from my corner of my eye, I saw,
between two cautiously-parted branches
what might, just might, have been my mother’s eyes.
I didn’t turn to look. Girl-chatter blocked
the call of the day-time whippoorwill, once.
Maybe twice I heard it, but didn’t go
to the wood’s edge where I always met her.
Then she was there, in full sight, eyes all wide
in a wordless ‘See me, daughter’ greeting.

And then. O my daughter, and then,
ashamed that my sisters might glimpse her,
sun-burnt and moccasin’d with her traders’
basket and pack — I turned back to my doll
and — I — pretended —not — to — see — her.”

“This is how my mother lost her mother.
She never saw her again. In this bag
she hid away the doll, the arrowheads,
stones, feathers, dried blossoms and raccoon bones.
No longer could she see her mother’s face
on the wrapped rock that was the corn-doll’s head.

     “She hid who she was, until the time of remembering.”

[Revised May 2019}

Monday, May 6, 2019

Anniversarius 44: At the Edge of the Lake

I saw the lake, my lake, again, a few weeks ago [October 2018]. This brought me revisit up this early poem, "October 1967" from The Pumpkined Heart. We all thought the world was coming to an end soon. The Vietnam War divided the country. People were threatening "hippies" with violence. In this "nature poem," written amid the violence of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, about the remembered lake and the carillon music from the bell tower, I felt the isolation and anxiety.

Edinboro State College's carillon bells (real or a recorded) could be heard from afar. I remember going to class hearing "Musetta's Waltz," and coming out of class in the dark hearing Anton Rubinstein haunting melody, "Kammenoi Ostrow." The memory of the Rubinstein music against a fall-winter horizon bleak enough to be Russian, stayed with me.

Now I have rewritten this and added some current allusions, so that it is of 2018, although 95% of the poem is my 20-year-old voice speaking with the trees. This poem had been excluded from my Anniversarius autumn cycle, but this revision is now counted as part of that grouping. [Revised and expanded again, May 2019.]


by Brett Rutherford

Scorched by the blind frost, the maple leaves are dead,
and men who love not autumn herd them up,
with rake and barrel and ignominious shroud
of plastic trash bag, or they are trucked to a fenced-in
municipal recycling center, a death camp, really,
bull-dozed and stripped of identity,
chopped to mulch for next year's garden.

Bird flocks rise in arrow-shaped vectors,
riding the west winds up to escape us.
Leaves fall; they flee.

While all this leaf-holocaust
this flight-to-south abandonment
by nations of birds goes on all day,
while long night chill crisps cornstalk
and the irises droop, dying,
why are you doing nothing about it?

Abandon your sheltered room, I charge you:
gaze through tree-bared acres
to the dark line of leaden pines,
mark how the shadows grow bold in the slanting dusk
(it is a warning!), mark how the wind
now sighs like one who cannot be consoled
by hopes about the coming election. Death
weaves through the browning, rigid cat tails.
Bored, they lean sere and childless
by the drained swamp; soon their roots
will meet a gravel barricade, soon
water drained, a concrete wall no seed
can scale, nor root circumference.

The blasted oak wears its dead leaves
as a stubborn beard, while maple and birch
stand naked and appalled. Bulldozers
wait like mastodons at glacier-edge.
(There are plans, and trees are not part of them.
You and I are not part of them, and a third
of the insects are already gone.)

From an old brick tower the carillon bells
play Kammenoi Ostrow, a plaintive song.
I go to the shore of the lake.
I stand amid the blasted maples,
sere fathers as old as any gravestone here.
A few leaves I have rescued dance
around my feet in a defiant dust-devil.
They will return with me
to join my curiosity cabinet
of preserved loves, gelled moments.

Autumn is not and never will be
an ending. Autumn piled on itself
is a bottomless leaf-pile. Plunge in!
Stand here amid the dying bell-tone,
as wind that tasted tundra slaps
your face awake with icy needles.
Kammenoi Ostrow fades to silence.

Where does one make a stand for life?
There is nothing north of you,
and little cause to bird-flee southward.
This is the edge of the world.
This is where the first snow falls.

Subjects: Edinboro, Kammenoi Ostrow, autumn poems


The Bubble (Revised)

by Brett Rutherford

We rule an earth that is but microns thin,
you and I — we ride on our separate
hemispheres in a yinyang never-catch
pursuit — love in an endless chase of fear,
spinning and tiding a fevered planet. 
A sleepless Titan, Kronos, grows within
grinds forehead and nostrils against the pane
of the mind’s mantle’s, world’s cool underside:
this shadow of a shadow shouts its name. 
It thinks it is God, faith-fanged, it slobbers
souls’ marching orders, taboos and bans.

The reason’d Sphere is hard —­ a perfect tomb
for fiends, inquisitors, and catechists —
but now our bubble planet breaks apart
in demon tentacle arm-and-leg flex,
and simple Truth is lost to air.
I love in vain. You flee in terror’s thrall.
Gnarled old Kronos is loose in the world.

The Titan Thing, unchained, must have its lust
and, wrenching out its adamantine bars,
throws lovers aside, knocks thrones to rubble,
grinds genius back to idiot dust motes.
Its vacant eye usurps the dying stars.

I go to a place of black-hole exile.
There is not room enough for you and me
in bed with that rampaging deity.

God-love destroyed our love. God-love destroys 
everything, a desolated cosmos.
So let us be both love and god
in one another’s worshiping.
Let us set up stock in Things As They Are
and sit beneath our own self-planted trees,
content in hand-grasps till every demon dies.

[Written circa 1967, revised and expanded 2018, revised and expanded again in May 2019.]

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

When the Vampire Is King

by Brett Rutherford

There are immortal beings, but they are all evil.
Whereas we live on the substance of life, eating
the root and flesh of creatures, they live
on life itself, the force and essence of being.

One of their kind has come to me, and fed.
Before each dawn he will have come and gone again,
again and forever until my last breathing.
It is a slow death he brings; he is barely
existent, paper-thin. He will be at it for months,
pin-prick and red-dot scab so quickly gone,
I barely notice. He grows more solid each night.

My friends are little help. They are being finished off.
The vampire's minions have formed a gang: red-
hatted criminals in sports attire and fast cars.
Each victim is reduced to just a pile of bones,
so that I will be left alone for his stalking.
He turns the corner — I dash inside a doorway,
an empty apartment or untenanted warehouse.
The moment I reach its back-door egress, I find
him standing there, pale as an opossum.
He wags his finger in admonition: no exit
exists except I will find him already there.

On the dread night of the Winter Solstice I die,
and on the next morn he will assume a human form —
my youthful twin, solid and mirror-bright.
He will live out the life he stole from me.
His henchmen will be no encumbrance to his plan:
having devoured everyone I know, to the bone,
they will turn cannibal and consume each other.
Only my evil twin will be inheritor
of the desolate carnage of my existence.

On the dread night of the Winter Solstice I die,
unless there be other immortals who hate
that crisped, crawling parasite enough
to rise from Tartarus to put him down.
Where is the hell-mouth, then? How to descend
into the darkness where evil hates itself
enough to foment a war of monsters
against a great and ancient foe? Old books I seek,
the magic alchemical lore of my childhood,
a gateway talisman, the key that Solomon
and Dee and the other necromancers passed on.
The stone Eleggua winks at me as I incant,
Opener of Doorways, lead the way! Hecate,
scorn not the call of one who is not a woman!
Ye Hundred-Handed slayers, lend me but one hand!

I am not lamb, I am not sacrificial ox.
A vampire should be no more than a mosquito
to my larger and more expansive new self.
I shall return from the onyx night of Hell
with bat-bane and wolf-bane and Gorgon shield,
and with the one sword that will open him
and free a thousand souls' life-force into the cosmos.

Vampire, stalk not a sorcerer!

Rev 5/2/2019
[The first draft, written in one pass upon awaking from a dream, had some irregular lines. The revisions cast this into a mixture of blank verse and 12-syllable lines.]

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Sarah Helen Whitman Book is Now Available

Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-1878), poet and critic, is best known for her brief engagement to Edgar Allan Poe in 1848, and for her role as Poe’s posthumous defender in her 1860 book, Edgar Poe and His Critics. She is seldom treated as more than an incidental person in Poe biography, and no books of her own poetry were reprinted after 1916. As critic, she was a ground-breaking American defender of Poe, Shelley, Byron, Goethe, Alcott, and Emerson, yet none of her literary essays other than her defense of Poe have ever appeared in book form. She and her friend Margaret Fuller are credited with being the first American women literary critics.This volume presents Whitman’s literary essays with more than 500 annotations and notes, tracing her literary sources and allusions, and revealing the remarkable breadth of her readings in literature, philosophy, history, and science. Brett Rutherford’s biographical essay is rich in revelations about Whitman’s time and place, her family history, and her muted career as poet, essayist, and den mother to artists and writers. Exploding the standard view of her as the secluded “literary widow,” we can now perceive her as a literary radical pushing against a conservative milieu; a suffragist and abolitionist who dabbled in séances; and a devotee of the New England Transcendentalists and the German Idealists who inspired them.The complete text of Edgar Poe and His Critics presented here, includes the opposing texts by Rufus Griswold, whose libels provoked her landmark defense of Poe’s writing and character. This annotated version identifies all the contemporary press reviews and books Whitman read and critiqued, making it indispensible for students of Edgar Allan Poe.The selected poems in this volume include the hyper-Romantic traversal of rival mythologies in “Hours of Life,” her most ambitious work; her poems to and about Edgar Allan Poe; sensitive and atmospheric nature portrayals; a defense of the then-reviled art of the drama; a love poem from Proserpine to Pluto; an occasional poem about Rhode Island penned in the after-shadow of the Dorr Rebellion; and translations from French and German poets, most notably the most famous of all European ghost ballads, Bürger’s “Leonora.” Whitman’s allusions and unattributed quotations from other poets are all annotated, making this book a must for scholars and students.

Susanna Rich's Book Now Available

Susanna Rich's Beware the House book-ends a wide-ranging collection of life story-poems between two Gothic, haunted houses, the first a surreal nightmare; the second, the mock-Gothic harpsichord-punctuated world of TV’s The Addams Family. Unease, discomfort, and pain belong between two haunted places (confused birth and sardonic death), and Rich shares deeply personal accounts of her Hungarian-immigrant grandmother, obsessed in old age with Franz Liszt as an imaginary lover; and a disintegrating mother in the throes of dementia. At the center of the book are poems like glass shards of modern living, a keen and concise language palette turning the everyday into the extraordinary. Like a gypsy dance, these poems careen off common experiences — the grandmother’s kitchen, the captive butterfly, a rebellion of trees, the driven car and the rubbernecked accident. And there are villains: the predatory boor repulsed, the unteachable student lesson-taught, the empty soul of the CEO laid bare, the bad president as piñata, the lecherous poetry professor, the restless Dybbuk.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

At First Sight

When people who read too many books are smitten, this is what you get.


by Brett Rutherford

You are my Ring of Power,
The hurled strength of Thor's hammer,
The Chalice, Excalibur,
Swan-Knight, archangel bright,
Siegfried awash in the Magic Fire,
Tristan, The Green Man,
The last Mohican at the wood's edge,
Golden-fleeced Jason, Perseus fleet
winged down with blade and polished shield.

And as for me, I am just a poet,
the sum of all the dreamers' words I read
and marked as my rude guide and talismen.
I was called Edmond Dantès once,

betrayed alike by friend and lover
until I became rich and vengeful.
I was Nemo at the helm of The Nautilus,
unperturbed by personal passions,
implacable enemy of unjust nations.
I was stern Morbius on far Altair
weighing the wisdom of the ancient Krell,
withholding love for the more-than-human.
Paul Verlaine was I once — three times
I regarded the young Rimbaud
through the clouded cafe window
and I walked away and returned
and I walked away and returned
before I dared introduce myself.
Forlorn I walked to a London's dawning,
fortune and reputation spent,
betrayed by Bosie, to my prison cell.
With mates I wept for slain Sarpedon,
and on the other side of the battle,
beat my shield for Achaean Patroklus.
These hands for Emperor Hadrian carved
the first immortal marble Antinous.
I despaired of all love at the organ
I played beneath the Paris Opera.

I was the avatar of solitude.
Why does it shatter now in a breath,
one head-to-toe embrace reducing me
to volt, amp, and constituent atoms?

You are my Ring of Power,
The hurled strength of Thor's hammer,
The Chalice, Excalibur,
Swan-Knight, archangel bright.
Siegfried awash in Magic Fire,
Tristan, The Green Man,
The last Mohican at the wood's edge,
Golden-fleeced Jason, Perseus fleet
winged down with blade and polished shield.

April 3, 2019, rev May 2, 2019

Saturday, March 9, 2019

What Men Are Like

by Brett Rutherford

All men are like that, you know,
defensive and brave for honor's sake,
proud of their whiskered privilege,
lord of domains so clearly marked
with the smell of themselves.
They bite the back of your neck
as if they really meant to stay,
arched like that, in the impossible pose
of thrust and domination.

It is not true,
though he fight hordes to assert it,
that you are his sole affinity.
Come night, the moon sees what he is,
lost mariner in search of isles,
driven by lunar gravity
to them, those aching Others lined
on the gap-toothed fences of night.
Sirens in alleyways, dark eyes
on the brows of garbage cans—
for him, adventure is everywhere.

All men, when such a lure
compels them to go, become
what all men ever are:
arch-back, puffy-tailed tomcats.

The Poet Who Starved (Revised)

     by Brett Rutherford, a fter the German of Uhland Such was his lot — each dismal day was short, and was marked with sorrow; ...