First Books IV
Volume 16:2, Spring 2015
The Juniper Tree
after a story by the Brothers Grimm
A man who had lost something
and a woman who had lost something
married, and lived in a house with their child.
And after all that had happened,
after the branches outside had grown tangled
with each other, and the little birds sang
so that the air around them
echoed with their sad songs, after all
the blossoms fell, it was as if
a thousand years had passed.
And the woman took their boy, broken now,
and propped him up outside the door,
placed him in a lovely yellow chair
under the juniper tree. She tied around his neck
a carefully measured strip of cloth.
Think of it now: that ribbon,
that yoke around his throat.
Imagine her misplaced tenderness, her folly.
And this unfortunate story, this tale
of brutal love is not about you—
though there may be nights when you see the mother,
as if you’ve glimpsed her face from a passing car.
She stands outside, one hand lifted like a dark bird
thrown against the sky. And even as the evening air
rushes past your open window,
you know that she is frightened, now,
by all she has forgotten, or mislaid,
by the juniper tree, its wintered branches,
by the body of the boy buried there,
by the hard, bare-swept yard
as empty as a field where all the carnival rides
are packed and gone by dawn.
Near the Water’s Edge
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
In the original, it is a sea—
though I’ve imagined a lake in some sheltered Southern landscape,
where a mist lifts above the still cool surface of the water, slightly furred.
For me, the trees near the water’s edge must be pines, tall and black, sap-filled,
rising up the early morning sky. The smells are late summer.
The lake will still be dark, tea-colored, with the strong scent of tannin,
especially in the shallows. A mourning dove surprises bits of light.
In the story, a man stands on the shore, though at first, the fisherman in their boat
do not know him. They are tired. Their net lies empty until he speaks.
Then they lean into their work, slip the net’s grave knots.
Then the oily fish roil the waters at their feet.
And one of the fishermen is Peter. A tall man, a line between the water and the air.
His sun-strained eyes. The bristled hair.
It is Peter who finally recognizes the Lord, jumps into the lake, wades to shore
where Jesus has built a small fire on the beach, on the damp, coarse-grained sand.
Bring the fish. Come and eat.
This is the landscape of my father. His yellow pines. The single mourning dove
I remember from every childhood visit to the little town where he was born.
This is his August. His flat, sandy soil. And this is the landscape where my father,
a fatherless, motherless child, brought his own children
to camp, to gather around our own small fires in early morning.
As in an old snapshot, the colors now are slightly blurred,
though all of us are there—
Our light sweaters, even in late summer. My brother and sisters.
Our damp socks. The chilly air—
And of all the apostles, my preacher father loved Peter best—
the flawed man who was forgiven—
though I never heard him tell this tale.
Still, there is something in its hopefulness that makes it his.
My father, the orphaned boy with a wide, endless, ever-pleasing grin.
A man who drank. A man restless, restless for what he always seemed to miss,
for what none of us could give. And surely this is his story,
with its odd clarity of early morning, the gray light across the water,
the drift and gathering of the waves around the sturdy fishing boat—
and Jesus offering breakfast on the shore, the way my father fed us
eggs he’d cooked on the Coleman stove only he could master.
Saint-Gaudens at Aspet, Last Afternoons
After he was diagnosed with cancer, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens went to
live at his summer house in New Hampshire. He died in 1907.
From the porch, a surprising swath of blue
leans against the far hills, cloudless
before the evening storms.
The poplars stand erect as sentinels,
the rows of birches white as brides.
For him, the meadow would have been
this same yellow-tipped wilderness,
his wife’s garden
a summer wash of color:
lily, phlox, delphinium.
He would have had this same view
of the rose-walled studio,
the doors and shutters
the cool green of winter fir.
From the porch, I imagine
he could sometimes still direct
the work of his assistants from his chair,
on his best days, scribbling notes,
on his worst, lost in the restlessness,
entering a new settlement—
The hands of this man who caught
in clay and bronze
the beautiful energy of the gesture in its making
were nearly bone now,
fragile as the bodies of small birds.
Still, everything must have looked alive to him.
I see my place clearly now, Saint-Gaudens said.
Once, in a dream, I swam in an old pool,
alone among high, green hills.
Alone, but suddenly there were others—
and there among the other swimmers
was my mother, so recognizably herself.
My mother, whom I have missed
every day that she’s been gone.
I held her face in my hands.
And the bones of her cheeks were the bones
of Saint-Gaudens, the bones
of a last bronze bust
made of his face just before he died.
Hers were the same inward-looking eyes,
hooded, their same brilliant light.
She looked at me, then, but did not speak.
And Saint-Gaudens’ son
remembered a long summer afternoon
when they sat together on the high terrace,
when the sun shone on Mount Ascutney,
and his father was silent for a long time.
It is beautiful, he said.
But I want to go farther away.
The Invented Child
I spring from the pages into your arms.
Someone who once knew him said
Walt Whitman sang before breakfast
behind his bedroom door—
broken arias, bits of patriotic tunes,
the way my child sings this morning
in early spring, the way
the raucous mockingbirds fill the warming air
with their own borrowed songs.
The world is once again its hopeful green.
Bold forsythia bursts its spindly stalks.
The young trees again flicker on the slopes,
and when he ended his days on dusty
Mickle Street, Whitman must have remembered
mornings like this—
Nights, no longer really sleeping, confined
to the paralytic chair, say he remembered
that earlier, softer air, the light of the water
in that clearing he had called Timber Creek,
the idea of it—
Say he thought again of those days
when he was still fat & red & tanned,
when he’d strip off his clothes
and roll his great flesh in the pond’s black marl.
In the close, bug-ridden room in Camden,
he spoke, sometimes, of a grandson,
fine boy, a Southern child who sometimes wrote,
once stopped by—
No one ever saw him.
And old poet. His invented child.
Though why shouldn’t a man
who’d always lived in words create something
to endure his sore, soiled world?
There, at Timber Creek, Whitman wrote about the trees,
their rough bark, the massive limbs and trunks,
as if they were the bodies of those he’d loved.
Some people believe the souls of unborn children
rest in trees. Say he say them, then,
caught their soft breath
sweet as the spice bush, lush as the early crocus.
In the long, hard work of his imagination,
say he watched their disembodied hearts
sway among the new leaves,
watched the eager light shine on another fine morning
until the sky lifted above him
like exultant, fresh desire—
and the children descended,
and then the crowns of the trees were all on fire.
Silverfish Review Press, based in Eugene, OR, sponsors the annual Gerald Cable Book Award for a manuscript of original poetry by an author who has not yet published a full-length collection. They publish work in a second series by poets who are further along in their careers. It is their goal to keep the books they publish in print for the writing community.
Margaret Mackinnon is the author of The Invented Child (Silverfish Review Press, 2013), winner of the Gerald Cable Book Award and the 2014 Library of Virginia Poetry Award. Other awards include the Richard Eberhart Poetry Prize from Florida State University, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Graybeal-Gowen Poetry Prize from Washington and Lee University. Mackinnon teaches English at a private girls high school and lives in Falls Church, VA.