“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.

“I watched you try, try to make that girl cry…”

Yesterday, with a speed that can only be chalked up to witchcraft, an ambulance parked at our local high school turned into Facebook rumors about hearsay about sightings of—well, I’m hardly the first to sound the alarm about the latest existential menace to law and order and basic human decency:

The frenzy was born in South Carolina in late August after unsubstantiated reports surfaced that clowns were spotted trying to lure children into the woods. The craze has since ignited a national phenomenon, with scary clown sightings reported in more than two dozen states from Alabama to Wisconsin. While many were hoaxes, a handful of the incidents resulted in arrests: in Alabama, at least seven people face felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told the Times-Picayune.

The incidents continue to stack up. Just this week, hundreds of students in Pennsylvania State University swarmed surrounding campus streets to carry out a mass clown hunt. A Connecticut school district said it is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror.” And an armed clown hoax temporarily put a Massachusetts college on lockdown.

The issue even made it all the way to the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the phenomenon on Tuesday.

One of the reasons I like being a medievalist is that it helps me distinguish the quirks of specific eras from timeless human folly. The former almost always sharpen into the latter when glimpsed through the lenses of distance and time.

In De Grandine et Tonitruis (“On Hail and Thunder”), Agobard, the ninth-century archbishop of Lyons, describes his encounter with a mob of rustics who had captured some “weather magicians” and were ready to stone them to death. He relates, grudgingly, a popular belief that men from a land called Magonia were stealing crops that had been knocked down by hail, which the weather magicians could summon and control, and flying away with the grain in their cloud ships. He also documents his investigations into a rumor that Duke Grimoald of Benevento, Charlemagne’s enemy, was sending men to sprinkle cartloads full of poisonous dust to kill the local cattle.

Agobard refrains from outright ranting, but his frustration is clear:

This story was so widely believed that there were very few to whom it seemed absurd. They did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust. Such is the great foolishness that oppresses the wretched world.

The situation may be medieval, but Agobard’s inquiry into the ways of weather magicians is an evergreen example of what happens when you hack through hedgerows of rumor in a vain attempt to find the crooked byway to the weed-smothered outskirts of truth:

Often we have heard it said by many, that they knew that such things were certainly done in specific places, but we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things. Once it was reported to me that someone said that he himself had seen such things. With great interest I myself set out to see him, and I did. But when I was speaking to him and encouraging him, with many prayers and entreaties, to say whether he had seen such things, I nevertheless pressed him with divine threats not to say anything unless it were true. Then he declared that what he had said was indeed true and he named the person, the time, and place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at the time.
[translated by P.E. Dutton in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader]

I’d cite more of De Grandine et Tonitruis, but a leering figure just crept from the woods. I could be mistaken, but he’s hauling what seem to be a bag of kidneys and a Mexican rat. There’s a farm across the street; if the cattle keel over, we’ll know who to blame. Like peasants before me, I’ll scan the horizon—and chase floppy footprints through ages of dust.

“So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner….”

“When the heck else will we ever get to see this?” With every seasonal email from the American Shakespeare Center, I ask myself this question—and then I gladly make the three-hour trek to Staunton, Virginia, to see a play I’ll never see on any other stage, let alone in a faithful reconstruction of the Blackfriars, Shakespeare’s indoor theater. This time, the play was Henry VI, Part 2, not juilenned in the interest of run time or mashed up with other plays in the trilogy but staged in its entirety as part of a three-year “War of the Roses” event—and marketed, cheekily, as “The Rise of Queen Margaret.”

Henry VI, Part 2 isn’t subtle or artfully written, but the Blackfriars players make it fun just to see the damned thing at all. In the current production, which runs through November, Chris Johnston nails his role as Henry, a pious doofus who’s out of his depth. Alison Glenzer (who was haunting as the Jailer’s Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2013) gives the cheating, scheming Queen Margaret unexpected heart and soul; no one laughs as she cradles the severed head of her lover. Rene Thornton, Jr., does double duty as both a hounded, frazzled Gloucester and, late in the play, the future Richard III, gleefully wielding a spiked and shielded crutch. ASC newcomer Jessika Williams is subtle and poignant as Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor, whose tenderly depicted marriage falls apart when political winds blow ill. The preposterously versatile John Harrell (who cracked me up in Ben Jonson’s Epicene in 2014) makes a good Duke of York, ambitious and haughty, and earns a blast of applause after a genealogical discourse that’s as effortless as it is endless. And then David Anthony Lewis comes roaring in, as if flung from a Viking mosh pit full of cocaine, to brutalize England as the willfully ignorant rebel Jack Cade.

Those were my favorites, but the truth is, everyone at the Blackfriars is good—because who signs on to play multiple roles in four or five plays per season, four seasons a year, for years at a time, unless they love the theater more than they love sleep, leisure, or life itself? The actors also introduce each performance, sell raffle tickets, play songs at intermission, and handle the on-stage concessions. Their bios in the playbill all include a line like “more than 123 roles in 99 productions”—a staggering claim when few of them seem older than 40. I can’t imagine that there are more dedicated stage actors anywhere in North America; maybe that’s how they always make American-accented English sound like Shakespeare’s natural voice.

I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare productions by other, bigger companies, and they’re too often beguiled by novelty: Measure for Measure presented as a nude Weimar cabaret, Two Gentlemen of Verona as special-effects-laden grunge-melodrama with U2-themed karaoke, a drag-queen Taming of the Shrew strained beyond its limits with 18 pop songs by Duncan Sheik. I wince to remember a lifeless All’s Well That Ends Well that ended with the grinning cast, clad in World War I costumes, breaking into a frantic, almost apologetic riverdance.

The folks in Staunton do none of that. They study the play, learn their lines, and then come out on a bare but beautiful stage to interpret their characters almost entirely through voice, motion, and costuming, tight formal constraints that make every performance immediate and real. Despite the breezy atmosphere—including pre-show pop concerts and improvised interactions with audience members, who themselves may be drinking beer or scarfing down gummi bears—their work feels, in its fashion, more respectful of its source material than productions by larger companies. The Blackfriars actors let you see a play for what it is; they make you all the more aware of how other companies can smother a play under sets, lighting, and boffo art direction in the name of “deconstructing,” “reimagining,” or “reinterpreting” it.

The Blackfriars Playhouse celebrates its 15th birthday this month. I can’t imagine a better place to keep filling in the massive gaps in my knowledge of English theater and be entertained with every nutty visit. These folks turn even weak plays into crowd pleasers—and really, who else is going to stage Fletcher and Massinger’s ridiculous 1622 Tempest-inspired, horny-Amazon comedy The Sea Voyage? Where else will you see Beaumont and Fletcher’s naughty-bits stab-fest The Maid’s Tragedy? Happy birthday and congratulations, Blackfriars; I hope this post finds you a few new fans. To swipe the final triumphant line of the play I saw last night: “And more such days as these to us befall!”

“Don’t blame the sweet and tender hooligan…”

When the journal Able Muse lands in my mailbox twice a year, I’ve typically torn through the cardboard and gotten to skimming before I’m back inside the house. As usual, the summer 2016 issue rewarded my exertions, opening with a piece that’s as solid as grapeshot in the wall of a clifftop villa: “It’s Time to Talk About Lord Byron Again,” Amit Majmudar’s overview of Byron’s Letters and Journals: A New Selection, published last year by Oxford University Press. Majmudar, a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist who’s also the current (and first) Poet Laureate of Ohio, has penned what’s ostensibly a review essay, but his immersion in the English poetic tradition makes it one heck of an inducement to revisit Byron’s sprawling corpus and his almost pointlessly preposterous life.

The precision that makes Majmudar a good poet lends a special shine to his prose. Here’s one of several passages that share the delight of a satisfied reader where other reviewers would dutifully summarize:

Byron’s Letters have what you find in the letters of few other poets: Tumult. He sought drama, and drama sought him. A future Prime Minister’s wife, jilted, cuts herself for his sake. A few months later, he’s sleeping with his half-sister. White-water torrents, adultery in Italy; gonorrhea, malaria, indigestion. We read of him stripping off his coat and boots to keep Shelley, who was unable to swim, from drowning in a storm (he managed to pull the poet to shore in the end after vigorous bailing). Random gunshots sound a hundred feet from his door, after which he carries a dying policeman into his room to bleed to death. Enough action for one life, perhaps. Only then he sets off to expel the Turks from Greece.

I loved this bit, too:

What with the prolific poetizing, the bisexual vortex of his bed set amid the smells and noises of a small zoo, the international fame, the international infamy, the looks, and the wealth, he must have struck people as a monster of nature, possessing a kind of preternaturally intense life-force.

[. . . ]

The promiscuity at the time did wax operatic, if only opéra bouffe, complete with shouting matches between the weeping cuckold and defiant adulteress, whilst the foreign interloper buttoned his breeches. In 1817, one of Byron’s mistresses moved into his house uninvited and refused to leave, even after her husband, her relatives, the police, and Byron himself begged her to go home. (He ended up employing her as a housekeeper-with-benefits; apparently she performed excellently in both her duties, reducing his daily expenses by half.) To gauge how sordid Byron got in those years, we need only go to the Letters of his neighbor and fellow exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley—who, for all his atheism and his shared contempt for British moral cant, was horrified to hear Byron haggle with Italian parents over the price of their daughter.

Majmudar writes wittily about Byron’s nigh-unbelievable adventures, as a fellow poet should, but he offers the benefit of a different expertise. As a doctor, he can’t help but mention, as few critics could, the modern connection between extreme promiscuity and suicidal depression, and that Byron’s hypersexuality was not atypical of what our age witnesses in a childhood abuse survivor—which, among so much else, he was.

Majmudar’s essay is 13 pages long. I’ve cited the bits that got a laugh out of me, but the rest is both a finer and more concise introduction to Byron than I ever got in college, covering not only his life and his erratic evolution as a poet but also his recent critical standing and international legacy. Apparently his poems translate congenially. Yet there’s one thing this titan of vitality was powerless to do: commend his spirit to the here and now. “We have had no Byronic poet for a few generations now, and we are the duller for it,” Majmudar laments, suggesting that poetry would do well to jog out into the dunes once in a while and shake the solemnity off its paunchy, pasty frame. Byron, he says, reminds us “it is possible for poetry to get written in the downtime between pleasure seeking and politicking, cussing and whoring and seeing (and saving) the world.” More of us can stand to hear this, and I liked that Majmudar embeds his exhortation in an example of what a strong review should be: proof that reading the book is a good, rousing start.

“She moves with the music, ’cause it never gets old…”

[This is the twelfth and penultimate part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, and June. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



In a dream about mountains, a mouse warned me
That an owl can hear a heart when it flickers
A farm-length away under fallen branches
And freshly mowed grass. The faintest whim
You harbor in secret, they sense and remember,
But the eleventh month tests them. The land is a clamor
Of wheezing moths on milkweed sills,
The crackling of squash vines that creep toward the shade,
A hiss in the dark when the heavens uncover
The Blinded Dragon. He blinks in vain
But he bristles with visions: blackest when feeding,
Golden when writhing, and red when he sleeps.
Though the night makes sure we never uncover
His hooded face, we hear him seethe
His thieving dreams. At dawn, he twitches.
His mirrored hide sheds heat in waves
And the universe wilts as he whets his tongue
For empty remembrance, the morsel he craves.

You squint and stumble, then stand at attention
To mark out the first of your many new worlds:
A moonlit arena, a maze on a plain,
A web of electric on lush, verdant planets
Where weapons rely on a light you can’t see.
You feel like a hero, this first real time
That the world flickers out, and what stays burning
Are furious atoms of infinite choice.
Count three heartbeats for half of each beep
From the ruby medallion that reckons your life.
Prowl through the underbrush; prey on your friends.
You could turn off your kit; you could call them to join you
And trust them with whispers of worlds yet to come,
Your prophecies spoiling their space-cadet glow.
Too fearful of youth on their faces again,
You just stare at their sensors, like stars, burning red,
Trembling like children with tension and promise,
Then someone says “go!”, and the glittering pinpoints
Bobble, and scatter, and bolt toward the dark.

We steer through the bums on the steps of the Garden,
Giddy with rhythm. The ghosts of the moment
Pogo behind us, their hair a blaze
Of sawtooth waves. Their singing beguiles us
“I’m glad in these hard times, there’s hope in your eyes”
To warble and march through midnight vigils
In hot, dusty rooms, no heed for the martyrs
Who fell by the way: the one we predestined
To wander the night with a knife in his back,
Or the girl with the spikes and spotlight eyes
Who brought the orc who ached at the grins
Of imagined deceivers. Unmoved by our rapture
“Do you be-lieve in love, one that lasts for all time?”
He reached in his pocket to pluck a guitar string.
Her throat puckered red where he wrapped it and pulled.
The dawn train home is hot and prickly,
The headrests are sloppy with hair spray and trash
And our necks run wet with wicked failure.

At the peak of the bridge, the breeze is amazing,
It could pick up your bike as you pass through the cones,
They cleared the way, kept cars away,
Now you’re over the Narrows, you need to let go,
You’ll lock up tomorrow, go limp now let go,
Let your hands fly back as you hurdle through space―
(Why didn’t you listen? The lanes were all yours.)

I could fatten you gladly with fifty raw crumbs
Of regret and remembrance. The grit and sweat
Still chafe the same, and on sodden mornings
When to breathe it all in is a burden, the swelter
Overwhelms, we sag, we sit through more sneering
From gnats that insist we’ve gone nowhere at all.
You could choke on the spores of spent vegetation
And underworked mud, make mawkish collages
From tape-flecked photos that fell from the wall,
Or else you could live. You could listen again.
When the first of our peppers have popped into form,
A song blows north through our silent grove,
A trickle of rhythm, rising and thrumming
When sunlight is fading. We follow the pounding
And find something new: a field past the bramble
Where sunflowers rumble in rows without end,
Like booming speakers that blare the truth
As they turn to face nightfall, no less worthy
Than just before noon. Kneeling before them,
Giddy pilgrims peek from trenches
To honor a whim on the wind, and be healed;
They hear their own songs as they hop through the furrows,
Dancing like frogs with a finger thrust skyward
In natural elation, in lightness unceasing.

The sun stands still: something scaly
Appears to be stuck on the steps in a net
Where it fought with a shadow. Its freedom is yours
To make real or deny. The knots are constricting
And ripping its side, but to see it this closely,
This long, and in stillness, no stars in the way,
Is an offer of grace. It asks for nothing,
But whether it’s sated, or weary, or fuming,
It needs to feed elsewhere. Let able strangers
Tear the mesh gently, then take the wyrm
And leave it in peace, letting it bleed
Through the litter and sticks. Laugh at its weakness
And what it takes with it. And welcome what stays.

“And there’s talk in the houses, and people dancing in rings…”

[This is the eleventh part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, and May. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



The year amasses its measureless weight.
With a turn of the heavens, a tilting world
Sends us chasing the mean: chairs and tables
Slide across the floor, and framed paintings
Fall away from the walls. We wait for rest.
As a summer-blown tractor on the sidelong edge
Of a grassy slope slows to a rumble,
Raring to topple, when its teetering rider
Questions his wisdom but coolly steers
Into the incline, toward the even plain,
A whim in the stars leaves us steady and poised.
The Raven with Scales roosts in the treetops
To croak forth the turn of the tenth-most month.
When brilliance and nothingness neatly align
In fleeting balance, he brazenly shakes them:
They swing from his beak on bronze-white chains
Whose plates overflow with fruits and seeds
And nuts he plucked from the purple night.
Then he lifts off, cackling, and lets it all spill.
Far below him, the falling remnant
Is reason for joy: a ring of squirrels
Darts from the vapor of dimmer stars
And bows to their lord. Bobbing in circles,
They hunger for crumbs from higher realms
Past the baffle of heaven, though the briefest glimpse
Would seize up the wheels in their whirligig hearts.

How strange not to mention the moons until now:
The three closest ones clear and cheerful,
The fourth more fickle, the fifth ever dark.
But this was the month when the moons flickered out,
Leaving little to look at, and less to describe
Except stars, once exhausted, restored to their glory,
And the bilious creatures that creep from gullies
To savage the pots on our porch out of spite.

And yet, every morning, the markets open,
Their tables teeming with tender crops:
Stiff-necked garlic, greens in bunches,
Early peaches, early tomatoes,
A few ears of corn―crates in waiting
Renew our hope in the harvest to come.
The soy spills out and spins in the open
Like oxidized coins, but the corn rattles
With woeful groans, as its green stalks spread
Over patches of tan, tousled and sprawling
Down to the stream banks, like drowsy yeomen
Lolling on hillsides in leather and felt.

But look what we find in the last shaded row
By the long purple barn at the bend in the road:
Primeval acanthus, that carven adornment
And monk-doodled frill. The first one splays
Its spines beneath a spike in flower;
The second rests its rounded leaves.
We take two pots and plunk them down
On opposite sides of an east-facing door
And tempt them to prosper, pretending we live
On the leafy tip of a toppled column
Or the overgrown whorls on the edge of a book.
And maybe we do. A monk would train
Their writhing vines around our failings
To bring our days to a balanced end.
I’d read that poem. It plainly commends
That in the mounting fields and flaming lilies
That line the roads, you look to nature
To grant you peace, but the peace of the world
Has other intentions. When it ticks at the siding
And peers through a curtain of perfect darkness,
Be certain you’re willing to see its face:
The light would force you to learn to distinguish
The fleeting pax of a prosperous garden
From living peace. So let it sulk;
Let frantic stirges and faithless remnants
Claw their own eyes out and cling to the brick.
Let them dribble like mud into meaningless art.
When one scrapes at the window in whispered grievance
And seethes through the screen, scrawl your verses.
To its purposeless sorrow, sing your creation
And praise the day. But don’t look back.

“So keep an open eye, it’s as well we tell no lie…”

[This is the tenth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, and March, and April. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



What rose with a shudder and shook into being
The ninth month enjoins with monotonous song,
The thrum of gutters, glutted and burbling.
When inklings of light on an infinite river
Of roiling blackness writhe at sundown,
We hail the sight of the Sated Snake.
Astrologers say he could stretch his existence
To scale the wall of the sky to its zenith
And slither through windows to worlds unimagined,
If such were his will. But this wyrm is as fixed
As a fallen branch. He bides his time.
When haze obscures him, when the hissing downpour
Soaks through the bramble and saturates toad-holes,
His waiting ends: whole worlds come to him.

It rains for weeks. Weary farmers
Peer from windows with pursed resolve.
The trees turn blue; bugs fall silent;
The flowers starve for a stick’s-width of light.
In purple sunsets, we poke through the murk
And take stock of our grove. We gather herbs,
Frilly lavender, lemon balm, parsley,
Rosemary, chamomile, oregano, dill,
And quaking fennel, the favorite of kings,
Bounded by marigolds, baubles of daylight,
And drop their roots into damp little folds.
I carve out holes for honey-cup vines,
Twine-lined bundles of tangled runners,
And part them with care; you pick up sticks
And stomp through the muck in your sticky boots
Like a stuffed blue bear over bedsheet hills.
From the bug-caked mud, monsters rumble
And rise in a flurry to flap through the bramble
On graceless spindles and gawky necks.
Like lost inspiration from long-ago songs,
We hear them whisper: he will bite you,
He will bite you—
then birds come to order,
Hatching on branches like bubbles of rain,
The blunt little phoebe, fly-gorging, squeaking
Imperious peeps from its pole-top domain.
The night-black grackle gawks from the branch-post,
Its gilt-tinged eyeballs agog like the sunshine
We wait to receive. The wind brings only
A seed-hungry bunting, as blue as the gloom.
When the rain does relent, and the dark wings part
For a few bright minutes, we fiddle with slingshots
And rev up the tractor. Toads fly in horror.
We roar through the weed-fields and raze them at last.

When the drenching ends, as all things must,
The brittle farmlands bow to the grumble
Of wobbling green trailers and whirling blades.
The hay-bales fall like formal poems,
Stanza by stanza, studies in concord,
Pleas for order in the endless distress
Of unquenchable life.

                              Look in the garden.
It seems that some creature got sick in the dirt.
But see how it moves? No moss or fungus
Explodes overnight, like a nova, then rolls
Through the cool of the morning. Look closer. It pulses.
The sick is the creature. It creeps as it feeds
Over wet, weedy mulch, just one oozing cell,
Massive and vital, with millions of nuclei
Dancing in union, but destined to crumble.
The dirt awaits the wealth they commit
To the worm and the world in wild indifference.

But nothing here dies over nothing at all,
For nothing is nothing. I know what I hear:
A minute to midnight, the mad windfall
Of giggles and whispers, a wisp in the moonlight
That slips through the flowers and flits up the rail
To its perch on the porch-roof, where it passes the night
With such delicate breaths that I doubt it was real.
When you come home, you’ll hear it too:
The whip-lash crack of a cricket-bone goad,
The wheels with spokes of spinners’ legs
Entangled in elf-locks, and out of your mind
Comes a burst, like the swifts that blow from the chimney
And soar over currents on scythe-like wing,
Never suspecting they nest at our whim:
It’s easy out here to feel utterly trifling,
A blade on the edge of an infinite plain.
But nothing is nothing; you know what you mean
When a hummingbird sees you. His sees what you’re doing
And knows who you are, not the name others gave you
Or novels you read, but the role you fulfill
In his fidgety soul, the father of nectar
And giver of zing. So go to the window
And listen till dawn for a laugh from the roof.
It may be that fiends, in their mocking at twilight,
Admit that you matter. And maybe we stay
In this marvelous place at their pleasure and whim.
Maybe they stay at ours. Maybe everything matters,
But we’re never the thing we think we are
And always the witness that others demand.
So tell them the tale of the toad in the flood
When his pond and perpetual downpour were one,
How the whole of the world fell to him alone,
And how he wept, and then willingly leapt
In the maw of the serpent, to see what comes next.

“Takes more imagination when everything’s remote control…”

[This is the ninth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, and March. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



When derelicts pelt us with petulant snow
That scourges the lampposts and scatters in winds
So willfully lawless that the windows rattle
And doors fly open in the upper rooms,
Then the eight month mends an ancient promise
And winter slinks off with the whiff of decay.
From the slopeside pens where alpacas mumble
To the lopsided tear-downs that loom too close
To the market-bound road, we reel from the wallop
Of dung flung over the face of the earth.
No wonder by then that the wind itself retches
When the White Skunk pokes through the sky at dusk;
She rises in rows of the rankest stars
That skirt the horizon and roots through the heavens
Assured of her freedom, a shadowless nomad
Aroused by the newness of noisome rewards.
Yet others here say that they see in her outline
Not starlight expectant, but the pallid exhaust
Of a hearse making ready for hearts in decline.
In the attic, fine ears heed the echo of wheels.
The bats, bored of fidgeting, brush past the fringes
Of rust-crumpled vents and go veering through treetops,
Where finches run screeching for fear of the brewing
Misrule in the twilight, the ten-minute limbo
When the dubious comforts of color forsake them
And everything winged is one in dismay.

We sing of this season as sodden with green,
Writhing and heaving and rampant, a surge
Of eternity spewed in a spasm of dust―
But the ripe-eyed flies and the flowering combs
That make us yawn strew yellow everywhere.
After frost and flurries, fields of wheat grass
Turn ocher from shock, like ancient maps
Unfolded and crumbling on a cloister wall.
By the sides of driveways, forsythia snap
Into splayed glory, like the golden spikes
On synth-happy boys when the sequencer rises
Through arches of limelight, and only their tribe
Wants to dance through the aisles to the opening band.
Clusters of yellowcress cling to the fringes
And pop from the meadows on microphone stems.
Packs of dandelions dot the crabgrass
In overblown clearings, and oceans of buttercups
Bubble through pastures and pass through the hooves
Of oblivious mares. An abundance of courage
Is waiting to ripen and rip from the wood,
But the land is as guarded as lines on the road.

Then things that fly throw flashes of red
And pink in the palace of purposeful cardinals.
He whistles, bristles, and brings her twigs
As she plaits their nest among purple blooms
And wadded mulch in a woody azalea.
Our feeders blaze with the fiery wicks
Of crests and crowns and craning necks
Of brazen woodpeckers, broad-winged and rapt
By grubworms that rustle in rain-sopping bark;
And the breast of a grosbeak gorging on seeds
In a thrill of abundance; and the throat of a hummingbird
That hangs in the firmament, heady with nectar,
Then turns, with a glint like a twinkling inlet
Compressed to a flash at the final sigh
Of a spent summer day.

                                    Then the dark splays its feathers.
Like drops from a storm cloud, a duo of bluebirds
Splash through our forest, and find it worthy.
We raise up a home at the height they demand
Graced with eastern exposure and platters of worms.
Still they loiter, and leave, then look sidelong, and hover,
Insultingly cautious, as creatures must be
That summer in holes. Yet they sense the encroachment
Of skittering claws; then they claim every right
To the trunk, all its bark, and the brambles below:
As nimble fingers work fringe on a loom,
They drop and cut, across and returning,
Entwining the beast in a tangle of wills
Till its haunches blister and their beaks transfix it
From ear-tip to tail, shearing tatters of gray.
When the shuttling blur of blue comes to rest,
Pick up the feather you found in the grass;
Let slanted sunlight slip through the down
And between the barbs, let bouncing motes
Ricochet, scatter, and race through your thumbs.
Twirl the feather; it fades in the day
Into nothing but air in your open hand.

Then that nothing explodes, knocking you asswards
Through laughing creation. Lambs in pastures
Wobble and pop as empyrean bleats
That blast off their fleece leave them bald in the mud.
Cowbirds scatter when calves look amazed
At the force they unfurl when they fart in a barn.
In musty lofts, tumescent wretches
Glutted with colors they gulped down for months
Pull up their paunches and part their cheeks
With a clap: and they cough up a crackle of green
That scorches the grove, a green that burns
Through electrified branches, a blinding jolt
For restarting the world. This wheeling and bobbing
Is not for us, but is ours to imagine
Through plant-spattered glasses, a prism upended
That sucks every color through coiling green vines
For the shuddering out in one urgent bright come.

“Give us direction, the best of goodwill…”

[This is the eighth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, and February. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



Wake early; fill the feeders with seed
And sweep away the swollen remnants
Of busted mice. In barns and garages,
With the sickly rumble of a rusting key
In a seized ignition, the seventh month turns.
As spiders creep from the crags and fractures
That kept the runoff from wrecking their gears,
Shuddering trucks and tractors emerge
In the blur before dawn. The dingy glare
Of their headlamps rises over hillside fallows
And fills the stars with the Farmer’s Sons.
Their hands have yet to be hardened by summer
And their eyes are bright. In an hour of prudence,
They seed the sky with skittering beams.
Wake early to learn what their labors have made.

If you look, you can sense when a late snowfall
Will send the moths that suckle at floodlights
Back to the shadows. Bristling finches
Too harried to mete out harmonious verse
Flap to our awnings, flooding their gullets
With suet and seed. They see past the treetops
And over the daffodils, open and bright,
That rise on the edge of the road through the woods;
Beyond the monsters that yelp in their hollows
Or hoot from their crannies or cluck in their roosts;
Higher than chimes from the churchyard garden
That blow through the fields on a blustery night―

I’ll see for myself. Like a sixth-grade gallant
Who whets his hero in a haven of orcs,
Hacking and slashing, I hew the limbs
From saplings; they crumple in soundless defeat.
With a mattock and clippers, I clear a channel
Through a lake of leaves, and I lop the chaos
From looming boughs. Though litter and twigs
The wisp of a pathway points to a clearing
That swells from a stream to a strand of grass
Where the fertile tide of the forest recedes.
In the midst of these exploits, I meet myself loping
The opposite way. “The work is noble,”
I laugh at my wheezing, “but leave some steam
For a wary walk back. We both should be patient
And wait to make claims on the worth of the trail
Until blazing the way in both directions.”

For now, we go forward. We nail up meshwork
Filled with mealworms to flatter bluebirds
And tempt them home. We hang an orange
And strips of twine, if stray orioles
Should drop from the morning, dizzy and singed.
We sing of strength to a struggling lilac,
Frail and slumping, as we fondly consign
A blessed fish to its famished roots.
Like a limping exile with an ancient cup
In a bundle of rags on a battle-cragged tor,
I plunge dry sticks into stony clods
And pray for berries to bloody their thorns.
Then I hate how I’m getting ahead of myself:
Nothing but radishes rise in the weed-beds
That buttress our home; they break up the soil,
The humblest of callings, and hasten the rest.

In the cool of the morning, a creature of twilight
Struts through the bramble, strawberry gold
And vast with purpose, a vision of judgment
To the quaking souls of songbirds and mice
But auspicious to us, like an angel ablaze
With inscrutable news. Nosing the furrows,
It finds no prey in our pitiful sprouts,
But its tail flares up, like a torch at the vigil,
And in a glimmer the fur and the fire are one:
We walk in darkness from a whistling pyre
On the graveyard’s edge to the open door
Of a wayside church, our chanting scattered
In the passionless wind, but our wants converging
With the eager peeping from pastures and creeks,
More pleas for mercy than the measureless lauds
Of souls that wake early, as silence is conquered,
And all things rise in an endless note.

“Behind our glass, we’ll sit and look at our ever-open book…”

[This is the seventh part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, and January. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



A sickly gnawing from the ceiling unnerves us.
Say it’s the wind. Our walls are flayed
By twisted sticks, stiff and bristled
Like matted fur; and in the midst of the sixth
And shortest month, the Mouse ascends.
On her midnight revels, she rips through the stars
That spin on their tips like spilling fistfuls
Of sunflower seeds. The sundered shells
Pour from the heavens, unheard by mortals
But a deafening call to the dozing spirits
That nod over eggs in their evergreen lair.
The winter dares them to warble for joy.

In an age of delusion, I often lingered
In a sooty vineyard, a sacred wedge
Of pitted beams that bound an alley
To the sagging backs of city shops.
A clever hunter held court in this void,
Where he staked out every stalk and cutting,
Muttered enchantments, and made things grow.
Singers gathered, summoned by whispers
Of wistful frescoes and fountainside wine;
One pale and limping, with plump white ringlets
Framing the sides of her sightless eyes
And seasoned tongue, was attended by men
With old concertinas, who ached to warble
Their heartsick songs. I heard them once,
When lines of lovers lost to enchantment
Followed them out through falling dust.
The grove remained, and its grapes gave comfort
To rumpled pilgrims and peeping beaks.
They lazed in sunbeams; we leafed through books.
I never knew the names of the birds
That shared that place of shade and rest;
I just tossed them crumbs when they tiptoed near.

I know them here. Like hurtling suns,
Burbling goldfinches boing through the yard
And shine their light on our sheltered rail.
Beside them, chickadees sing of riches:
Their fellow seed-fowl follow in waves.
From forking treetops and tousled weeds,
A derisive cardinal and his rosy consort
Trill their judgments. A junco bristles,
As plump as coal, and pries out snacks
With his stubby beak, staring down brethren
That flock to our feeder to fend off the cold.
A feather-length more than its fellows and blessed
With the buoyant aid of an extra toe,
A gray-white nuthatch grips a tree-trunk
And clings without fear; it creeps ground-ward
Tail over neck, nabbing a seed-pod
To cart to its haven to crack it to bits.
Agog, the titmouse turns and ruffles
Its hooded tuft, like a tempted friar
Warily clutching his cassock of gray.
From the hollow wood, the worm-fowl follow:
In flooded yards, flickers huddle
And bow to the morsels that bubble to life.
When a stunted holly stirs with larvae
That writhe beneath the notice of men,
A rare riot of robins in swarm
Inhales them all. My hapless measures
Lack the wit and weathered reason
Of born woodsmen—“the bluebird carries
The sky on his back”—and the skilled shaping
Of silly fluttering into subtle miracles
Pecks at the novice. I’ll name what I see;
But what things mean is tomorrow’s work.

We waste fewer words in welcoming specters
That flit round the curtains and fall into lamps.
They startle us first, till we find out what plagues them.
They loiter in summerlight low by the ground,
Where their wriggling litter, lusting for earthworms,
Will feast for weeks. Then flies emerge:
In their thirst to endure, some delve into fissures
In attics and eaves; others find refuge
In slats under windows. Sluggish and trusting,
They dream of dirt, but their doom is real.
Winter tricks them; they wake too soon,
And the hearth tempts then inward. Haunted by sunlight,
They cluster by doorframes and keen their own failure
To die in the soil. Their song is fleeting:
And when we form a face on the glass
Just look away, and let it pass…

The house fails us. A horrid crunching
Makes the rafters cringe—we run to the threshold
With morning-cold weapons and wince at the prospect
Of a gristly ogre grinding the bones
Of winter’s victims in his weltering maw.
But the doors fall inward; from the endless heavens
The Mouse tumbles. Her time has passed.
In vain she basks in a bag of seeds,
The churn of it echoing out through the night.
We bar the way, blocking crevices
With rags to keep her rage contained,
But when we flee to bed, the frantic gnawing,
The hideous scraping and scratching at doors,
Scare us till morning. The scurrying world
Woke in confinement; it wails for release.