FIRST SCROLL: IN THE TEXTILE MUSEUM
For John, for my family, for Bonnie
In the museum, in the galleries' dim
light, long fibers hang from
the walls, fibers too fragile
for the scant dirt and oil of clean
hands, too fragile for clear incandescent
light. Fibers spun out from the cotton
plant, the banana tree, the linden, wisteria,
grass, the sacred elm, that have crossed,
have wrapped themselves around each
other, darted in and out, taken on color
or resisted, have formed themselves
into garments, undergarments, into bed
covers, into banners that celebrate
the woven life of the child. These cloths
fabricated on small islands in the east,
old pieces fashioned with new threads
into newer and newer work coats, sled-haulers'
vests, socks with split toes, aprons, gaudy robes.
On the back of firefighters' jackets
moon's rabbits stand up like men
pounding rice for rice cakes, head bands
around their heads, smoke clouds billow
across the shoulder's sky, lightning bolts
flash on the sleeves. On the inside
a red peony blooms like a torch fastened
to the man's skin. Bed clothes too:
a comforter mimics a robe, split open
at the spine, an extra panel inserted,
the sleeper has slipped her arms into
the coverlet's wide sleeves, back of the robe's neck
tucked under her chin--what dreams sail under the blue
skin of the sea? Where rabbits leap from curling
wave crest to wave crest, pale grey pelts
curling like foam, fearless, fool-hardy rabbit
wits that crossed the ocean from island to island
jumping from slick shark's back to shark's back,
jeering the living bridge before they touched shore.
Or foretell a large family, so many children
each separate, each joined by discontinuous threads like
foam, like watery spray, like the sharp scent
of smoke carried on the air. Or that bridge of
stars that spans a whole ocean of night sky, divides
those who love each other, through all these piercings,
these bindings, deep indigo field pricked and pricked
with light until a wash of light weaves a
road, a track, needle's path in the mind's eye. So that one
day, the seventh day of the seventh month, any
miraculous day, each year, they fly, they cross on
sources of light, they reach, meet
warm finger tip to finger tip in the blue air. Doors open,
we walk out into motes of red-gold November light.
The museum bursts into flame.
FORCES OF NATURE
Questions like: do angels have wings, these are the kinds of things
we demand answers to--and do they really fly into our dreams
with their array of doors, towers, baskets, rivers, radiators
and snakes just to show how we've been bad again;
don't they have anything good to say;
why do they appear in pillars of smoke, pillars of light;
are they afraid to show their face, or is the task
merely to keep us guessing--do they bite?
and how many of these infernal creatures are dancing
to beat the band on the stainless steel dance floor,
manic as usual at God's bidding, and why doesn't he do his own
dirty work, anyway, why doesn't he fight his own battles
and not draft us and his poor angels to blow until we're blue,
why do we continue to hope we were made in his own image
when all we know for sure is
we can dance like angels and we don't stop
whispering, "fools, what fools," as we float away.
Today I entered the great sub-kingdom of the Vertebrata;
all day I have studied fish, dissected them, read about them
in books and journals, in letters from my expert correspondents
who patiently answered all my detailed questions, compared
male and female fish, wondering always what causes the differences
between the sexes. I am mad with delight having a whole new class
of creatures to consider. At luncheon I could hardly eat my soup
for thinking of the feathery gills, pectoral fins, the hooked
jaw of the male common salmon. Now at night, I lie in bed awake
while Emma sleeps the good, well-earned sleep of the wife
and mother; she snores softly, and pictures of fish as accurate
as Mrs. Cameron's photographs appear in my mind as if I dreamed
awake. Mr. Warington's loving estimation of the male stickle-
back--he says it is beautiful beyond description--returns
to me and Emma swims by, a gigantic pale fish, her scales shiny
and wet, the quick flick of her fins as she swims off, smiling
slightly at my enthusiasms. And I imagine myself a male fish.
I dart around her in every direction, and then back to the nest
I have made for her. I return to her again; she continues her
strong, steady, idle swimming, amused by my ardour. I push her
with my snout, pull her by the tail and side-spine, I am mad
with delight, I will do anything. I am bright green and blue,
belly and throat carmine, my scales are lustrous like metal,
and I feel my skin translucent, thin, my fishy body slippery,
aglow with an internal incandescence as if my love resided
hot in my simple heart, in my muscles, all my organs, in my tail
and fins, even in my bones, not merely in my mind--
the thoughtless love for the female of my kind.
Eight years I laboured at my task, at the dissection
and description of my Cirripedes; although in that time
two entire years were lost to bouts of illness
when my stomach was so racked with pain I could not
work. Whole days went by when I could do no more
than lie on the sofa while my dear Emma read to me,
and if I slept she kept on reading aloud, believing
the sound of her voice helped me sleep. Or I went
for the water cure, days spent wrapped in cold,
wet sheets and this enabled me to work again--although
how it helped I do not know. In those eight years
how I came to hate them, these creatures with their
shells, some stalked and some attached directly to a rock,
or a whale, or to the bottom of boats, whatever is awash
in water. And how, at times, I felt such joy and wonder
as when on my Beagle voyage I discovered in Chile
a new form which differed so from all the others
that it required a new sub-order for its sole
reception. Now when I was young, my father and
my masters considered me an ordinary boy; I confess
I did not care much for the classics nor my assigned
subjects in school, but in a fit of unjust anger,
my father, usually the kindest man, declared that I
cared for nothing but dogs and shooting and rat-
catching; I would disgrace my family, he
predicted. While I have no great quickness of wit
and apprehension, and no more inventiveness or
common sense than any successful doctor or lawyer,
and my memory though extensive is hazy,
and my power to follow a long and purely abstract
train of thought has its limits, on the favourable
side of the balance, I think I can truly say
I am superior in noticing things that easily escape
attention, my industry could not have been greater
in the observation and collection of facts. Since
my earliest youth I have had the strongest desire
to understand when I observed: to bring order
to the chaos of fact. This is how I came to
undertake this mammoth task--to understand this one,
my Balanus arthrobalanus, I had to study all.
So for those eight years it was as if
a slow current flowed through Down
House depositing barnacles that day after day,
under scalpel and microscope, gave up their secrets.
In those eight years my children accepted barnacles
as a common household item, if not a necessity,
their dissection as a usual occupation.
My description of a larval cirripede
with six pairs of beautifully constructed
natatory legs, a pair of magnificent compound
eyes, and extremely complex antennae caused them
much amusement, an advertisement for barnacles,
they quizzed me. During those eight years I
discovered the cementing apparatus--although
I blundered dreadfully on the cement glands--
I came to know barnacles as a parent knows
his children, how each is alike, how
each is different, as if one had got their mother's
hands, another the shape of their father's head. What
diversity there is, even in these simpler creatures,
and for me how pleasant is variation. I discovered too,
perhaps the most remarkable barnacle of all: among these
animals most are hermaphrodite, carrying out the duties
of both sexes. But this strange one, I suspect, is the most
negative of creatures: males who have no mouth, no
stomach or thorax, no limbs or abdomen, they consist
wholly of the male organs in an envelope. What
started as a little zoology grew and grew
into a great beast for I could not do less--
despite illness and the interruption of children
I hung on to my study like grim death--how
else had I the right to examine this question:
what accounts for variation,
unless I myself described many
species. No, I could not abandon my sea
creatures in midstream, I had to swim doggedly
through them all. What I have learned now fills
four volumes, but in truth never has a mountain
of labour brought forth such a mouse--
I do not know if it was worth it.
That there are laws of inheritance I have no doubt,
but what they are I have yet to find out.
I received her last letter: "Sick on Sunday;
well again today, Monday." On Thursday night
she wound her watch as usual, placed it on the bedside table,
laid her head back on the pillow, closed her eyes,
and never woke again in this world. Bessy, of course,
was with her, was the last to see her alive, help her
unpin her hair, wish her good night. The next morning, it was
her body and not her body that lay in her bed. When I arrived,
it was my mother and not my mother I saw, dressed
and laid out, the hands motionless on the chest.
Frank, George, Horace, Bessy, all there before me.
My mother was all things good. Bessy is, of course,
completely distraught; she cries all day long
and can do nothing. Her hands are constantly aflutter--
like a pair of squabbling sparrows. I am angry.
What does God think He is doing?
I have arranged everything, found a minister with common sense,
settled my mother's affairs. I cleaned out her desk,
decided what to destroy, what to save. All the letters she kept,
her diaries, everything that may contain her spirit
I will take. Bessy can have her shawls, her caps, the furniture.
My mother was all things good. In her youth
she was gay and carefree, not above a practical joke.
But I remember her as grave, beset by the anxieties
of our many childhood illnesses and my father's poor health.
Reserved: to strangers she appeared stern, aloof.
I have no clear recollection of her playing with us--
the jokes, the merriment all came from my father.
But now a picture comes to my mind of the parlour furniture
pushed to one side, the rug rolled up, and a troop of
little children galloping to a tune of her own composing.
She never minded childish messes. And she sang to us,
nursery songs--"When Good King Arthur ruled the land..."
"There was an old woman as I've heard tell...
and if she's not dead she's living there still."
Courageous, rash even, in what she let us do.
William was taught to ride without stirrups and thereby suffered
several bad falls. George, at ten, was allowed to go
the twenty miles from Down to Hartfield alone.
And I, too, wandered the woods and lanes by myself
which at that time was not quite safe for a little girl.
My mother was all things good. Calm, serene:
she understood that life's uncertainties
did allow for hope. Always comforting,
she never offered false comfort, false praise.
Fair, honest, blunt: an enthusiastic guest once thrilled
how she must enjoy watching Father conduct his experiments--
"No, I don't." My mother was all things good.
She was definite in her religion, in all her opinions.
Shakespeare, Milton: tiresome.
Tennyson: less so. Coleridge: revolting--
a mixture of gush, mawkish egotism and humbug.
So I had to learn poetry from my husband.
Although poets are, I fear, a lazy lot,
not as accurate as they should be, or perhaps, a bit stupid.
I have not found one poem that could not be improved.
Her sense of duty was strong: she had a large clientele
in the village. But I doubt whether she was any real help
since she never inquired closely about them
and many were people of bad character.
She didn't care much for art or higher education.
(She never tried to get the best teachers for us.)
What she cared for was comfort and Nature and affection.
She made the most of little pleasures: her delight
at the first taste of spring. I do remember clearly
that summer afternoon she called me to the window
to watch two blue titmice leapfrog over each other on the lawn.
I will hunt the stinkhorn in her honour. And, of course,
she thought it abominable to be brutal to animals.
Mounting a crusade to abolish steel traps used in game preservation,
she offered a prize for the design of a humane trap, but no new
da Vinci, no James Watt came to light and the reward went unclaimed.
My mother was all things good. She would do anything
for her servants and their relations. Each summer
she invited the cook's blind daughter to spend
a month with us and they discussed life in the Asylum.
My mother was all things good. She was
splendid in grief: when my father died, to us
who knew how she lived in his life, how
she shared each moment as it passed, she seemed
wonderfully calm, perfectly natural. Only in letters afterwards
could she find words to express her sorrow. And even she was amazed
she could enjoy life still--the good summer weather,
flowers in bloom, the clear bright colours of their petals.
She suffered her desolation alone, not wanting to be thought of
or considered, but to be left to rebuild a life as best she could.
And rebuild it she did, setting up a winter home in Cambridge,
making new friends. And now that the burden of love
she had taken on gladly when young was lifted somewhat
her sense of mischief returned. "I attended the downfall
of the great elm over the Lodge, and a grand sight it was,
especially when it took matters into its own hands and crushed
a good-sized sycamore instead of going the way they were pulling."
Or when she told me how the explanation she gave Bernard
of the play Electra shocked Price the butler.
"Is it nice?" Bernard asked. "Oh, yes, very," she replied.
"What is it about?" "A woman who
murders her mother." No--I understand nothing.
My mother was all things good. She was the one who taught me
our God is a benevolent God. Then what about this suffering?
He made the darkness pavilions around Him, dark waters,
and thick clouds of the sky. I understand nothing.
But what I cannot swallow is: I had no chance to say good-bye.
Born in Chicago, Anne Becker grew up in Silver Spring in that distant era before the Beltway was built. She has lived in and around Washington, DC most of her life. For 17 years, she produced Watershed Tapes, audiocassette recordings of major American and international poets reading their work. Becker's poetry, fiction, interviews and reviews have appeared in Gargoyle, Antioch Review, Ear Magazine East, Southern Poetry Review, Sing Heavenly Muse!, Washington Review, Washington Jewish Week and other journals. In 1996, her book, The Transmutation Notebooks: Poems in the Voices of Charles and Emma Darwin, was published by Forest Woods Media. An excerpt from the book, translated by poet Teresa Madrid, appeared in Calicanto, a literary publication from Manzanares, Spain. Becker teaches in the Maryland Poets-in-the-Schools program as well as at The Writer's Center. In addition to providing poetry tutorials for adults and children, she conducts a workshop, Writing the Body, for those who have experienced life-threatening or chronic illness as patient, care-giver, or family member.
Published in Volume 5, Number 2,
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