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

of complaints.


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,

unborn beholder,

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

of men.


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