Friday, October 31, 2014

Danse Macabre by Sylvia Plath

Edward Munch, Dance of Death, 1905

Down among strict roots and rocks,
eclipsed beneath blind lid of land
goes the grass-embroidered box.

Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond
skeleton still craves to have
fever from the world behind.

Hands reach back to relics of
nippled moons, extinct and cold,
frozen in designs of love.

At twelve, each skull is aureoled
with recollection's ticking thorns
winding up the raveled mold.

Needles nag like unicorns,
assault a sleeping virgin's shroud
till her stubborn body burns.

Lured by brigands in the blood,
shanks of bone now resurrect,
inveigled to forsake the sod.

Eloping from their slabs, abstract
couples court by milk of moon:
sheer silver blurs their phantom act.

Luminous, the town of stone
anticipates the warning sound
of cockcrow crying up the dawn.

With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend,
compelled to deadlock underground.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Ghost Story


This is part of Locust Grove Cemetery near St. Francisville, Louisiana. In college I wrote a small ghost story based on an experience I had there as a young girl of fifteen. I looked for it this week, but have not found it, but one of these days, the story is bound to turn up. I never throw anything away. I wanted to end October talking about how we should all write to truth. That is not easy to define, and in November as I write my words for NaNoWriMo, I will attempt to explain why writing to truth is so important.

When I was a young girl, we often visited St. Francisville, Louisiana, which was like my second home. It is a place I have the fondest memories of and also some of the most sentimental. I am lucky to have seen St. Francisville during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was still a small town and had not really been touched by tourism and capitalism. For example, my mother was a friend of the owner of The Myrtles at that time, long before it was a tourist attraction and one of the most haunted houses in the USA. Then, it was just an old house with a tragic history, no electricity on the second floor, and used mostly for storage. I used to play in it when Mother went for her visits. I used a flashlight. I never saw a ghost, but my sister said she did and she was only a toddler at that time. Who knows?

I grew up on ghost stories. Mother told the most wonderful ghost stories and I believed every single word she said (at the time). I suppose places can be haunted, by history, by sad events, by the longing of people to escape into the past or to just ignore time. Maybe ghosts are like fingerprints? They linger on and on, a lasting image of some event no one can forget.

If I had to choose a place haunted in St. Francisville though, I would choose Locust Grove Cemetery, which is north of town on a what used to be a narrow winding road. It was the family cemetery of the Smith family who once had a plantation there. The house is long gone, gone before I was even born. In this cemetery is buried Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of President Zachary Taylor and the first bride of Jefferson Davis, who went on to be the one and only President of the Confederacy of America. Davis and Taylor eloped without the approval of the bride's family and on their honeymoon, she contacted malaria and died and that is how she came to be buried in this lonely little cemetery.  Mother loved this story and we went there many times over the years, walking around, talking, recounting the tragic tale of how poor Sarah sang a song while dying and how poor Jeff Davis became a recluse for ten years following her death. All that is true. And very sad and makes for great drama.

But the facts are not always known, and I have come to suspect that this story is much more tragic than history recounts.  

One afternoon, it was already late, (when I was that girl of fifteen) Mother, my younger sister, who was about ten years of age, and I went out to Locust Grove. (It wasn't as  neat and polished as it is now, no white picket fence, no signs, etc). Against the back of the cemetery is a sharp slope where other graves can be found, what everyone calls outsiders! The picture above is one such grave. (But there were many others at that time. Most of them have sunk into the ground today.) Mother was determined to walk as far down the slope as possible and we two girls tagged alone. I kept thinking that it was getting dark and I worried over snakes, but I don't think Mother ever thought of such things. She was always eager to do what she wanted to do and if she wanted to see a certain grave, well she did.

I think I became very anxious. I had already noted the consequences of being stuck out at Locust Grove in the dark, in the middle of what was really a nasty sort of woods. I won't recount now, the details of the grave we found and how it looked. Not now, because I want to confess that I abandoned my mother and sister and headed back up the hill toward the car. It was almost dark and I began hollering for them to follow me.

At the top of the hill, when I arrived, exhausted, bug-eaten, scratched up, and fearful, I saw a young woman standing near a tree. I never thought about her being a ghost. I just ran to the car, and turned the keys and began honking the horn. It was twilight and I was scared out of my wits! I didn't want to be stuck out there in the dark, especially with other people coming into the cemetery which is exactly what I thought in the car. I was always scared of strangers in isolated places. Finally Mother and my sister showed up, got in the car and I drove us out of that place.

Later that summer, while visiting a historic home in Woodville, MS. I saw a collection of small paintings, most the size of cameos. I love art and I looked at them a long time with the kind of earnest devotion I still give to such things. One of the paintings reminded me of the young woman I saw in Locust Grove. When I asked if anyone knew who the woman in the painting was, they said, Sarah Knox Taylor Davis, and from that moment on, I was haunted by the thought of her and her history. I even thought, at the time, that I had seen a ghost. Maybe this is how ghost stories begin? Maybe this is how we create them? In wonder and fear and that earnest devotion to story and art and love.

And even now, decades later, old and wise as I have become, when I  think of Locust Grove, I still see that young woman standing by the tree, and I remember with detail, the lonely sad cemetery and all the souls that rest there. 

So I guess you could say, I am haunted and I've seen a ghost. Happy Halloween!

Edited to add link.
Check out this link for Sarah's story.
http://www.la-cemeteries.com/Notables/Others/Davis,SarahKnox/Davis,SarahKnox.shtml

Monday, October 20, 2014

Alone by Poe


by Jessie Willcox Smith

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
When the rest of Heaven was blue
Of a demon in my view.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My first collection of Poe's work



As you can see, I checked this out of the school library, and I don't believe I ever returned it. Of course, I had to buy it before I received my final report card. This volume has been read countless times over the years and because it was printed during the 1950s, it's still a beautiful, highly readable book. The paper is as clear as the day I first read it. 

I love this quote in the Introduction by T. O. Mabbot.

Properly read, Poe achieves magic in a way rarely attained even by Coleridge, to whom indeed Poe owes something, though perhaps less than to Thomas Chatterton. Within his own range, it is hard to imagine a more individual mastery than Poe's.