Cape May, New Jersey, 1832
The terns are fishing.
They sweep loose portentous arcs
over the whitecapped harbor,
then plunge with the efficiency
of the bloodhound, the definition
of the mapmaker.
The lancet has failed,
and the leeches, and the calomel,
and thus Milly has been prescribed the Cape,
where brackish air has been seen
by the good doctor of Staunton
to chasten the most intractable
of nerves and to cleanse
the most indecorous
A wave laps Milly’s shins, and she digs
prehensile toes into the inconstant ground.
The good doctor’s opinion canters
the folds of her inner ear in electrical echoes:
a mania the province of women,
of mercurial women, capricious women,
women who read, women who laugh,
women of melancholic humor,
women of bile and torridity and intention,
women of the First Families,
a mania the province of women
so woefully on the rise since
that ghastly trouble at Southampton.
This Atlantic cant
gallops the girl’s enervated veins,
blitzed by artifice and affectation
and abraded by sanctimonious men,
and interested men, and men of good fortune,
and men of fortune,
men with a terrible freedom
and rambling scopes and wires,
men whose utterances accomplish
and move and dilute and cue
a most delicate, a most unfailing
fractal dilation and license
of oceanic origin.
These conjunctions sync
to the shrink and clap
of the hermit crab,
she of borrowed homes,
she whom growth evicts
and who will make her sauntering search
for a house her size
at low tide, when the terns
have finished feasting.
North Elba, New York, 1856
Noon fog burns off Marcy
as Mary Brown bundles the littler ones
and sends them in search of trout lilies.
The lake has cracked, and the red Columbine
are gulping, and a man has come
with tidings of aspen buds along the westerly passage,
which all steadfast conductors know
means the freight will soon lurch
and the time to take Tilde across will be soon,
for these are the perennial dispatches
of the good thaw.
Mary Brown sins against God
when she wishes her friend might tarry.
She appoints a specific prayer
to flog the unholy hope that her love
might vanquish the higher call
of Canada, of Kansas,
where all her boys have gone,
and studies the lines of her friend’s face
and limns Virginia maxims there,
and lays her vanity down
in bespoke absolute witness.
Among the congregation
of zealots and fugitives and banditti:
a baby whom Mary Brown dissembles
beneath her linsey shift, nested
within concentric secrets and the lavish
confidences of the clandestine band,
read Weld to at night and Mark to at daybreak,
carried along deer paths, along routes
of the People of the Flint,
shepherd and shepherded.
At Champlain, Mary Brown will convey
her friend to the unwary chaplain,
where she will untie only the most indelible of the ties
and murmur the bashful baroque benediction
of a wholehearted, lonely hearted woman.
Natchitoches, Louisiana, 1859
Dilsey packs sordid earth
over the child’s terrible mound
in the East Field, where she buried Moses
last spring, where in dill and ragweed
her love bled out.
Rosalie has been waiting, has been watching
at the front window, has felt a barbarous satin wisp
at the butt of her palm and knows
a child has died, a child has been taken,
another child has been taken,
and Dilsey, who has kept away for so long,
who declined to come even during the drought,
even during the Season of all Suffering,
Dilsey of dim faith and weak flame,
Dilsey of dealt lot and callous,
Dilsey of brood and vim,
Dilsey will come.
Rosalie accepts the bowl of the hard woman’s
head into her hand, and lays her down,
playing a fine thyme rub from ear to jaw,
plying imperceptible circles as the woman
unburdens herself of a rutted outlandish sorrow,
and of breath.
It is well into the night when the women
leave for the east grove and nearly dawn
when Dilsey first detects asafetida, the Devil’s Dung
of Rosalie’s unvoiced bequest,
and dawn when Dilsey perceives
the full scope of the cerulean sprawl,
all manner of materia medica that when touched
by marvelous hands would wean
the hungriest of babies, starch the most prurient
It is said that the holy fire of the xinesi,
which many believed to be extinguished,
sent up a Delphic blue flume
as the women knelt before the field of tonic,
and that the white-tail,
whose epoch some said had passed,
cocked head and ear in benevolent observance
to the hard-hearted gleaning
and lavender and burdock wish.
LYNNE FEELEY is a teacher, scholar, and poet based in Somerville, MA. She received her doctorate in English from Duke University, and she currently teaches American Studies at Harvard. Her classes focus on early American literature and the history of slavery and abolition. Find her scholarly and creative work here: scholar.harvard.edu/feeley.