A Visit to Monticello: Two Poems

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Monticello’s Dome

Was it 200, or 400,
or 600 unsung voices
I heard singing
in the bell
of Monticello’s dome?

Why is it closed off?
Why is everything so orchestrated
As if Jefferson felt he could direct
The course of nations
More easily than his legacy
Like a pair of doors that close
Together in accord by his hand

Children of the Moon, Chapter 11: Sacrifice

In the morning police cars pulled up
to the ranch house door;
an officer spoke to Will and Sandy’s parents:
We need to ask your son, the oldest one,
some questions.

Sandy? About what?
The officer replied: The assault on Blanca Cors;
he was seen near her home that day.

His mother cried out when Sandy was led
to the patrol car; as his father ran for his car,
she leaned down by the window
to look Sandy in the eye:
We’ll be right there.

In the interview, Sandy was asked:
What were you doing in the area?
and he reflected:
Just walking, hiking, looking at things
and . . . Sandy hesitated

He could not mention visiting Primitivo
and so he fell silent, protecting a friend
many would be too willing to sacrifice

The interrogator moved in:
You’re hiding something. What is it?
Sandy shook this off:
I was out walking; I didn’t hear
or see anything.

The man retorted: Nothing?
and then Sandy remembered:
There was a man; I think it was a man,
in a field; when I looked again
he was gone.

The officer’s voice turned sharp:
So you saw a man?
Or did you see her and want her?

Sandy bowed his head, folding his arms
across his chest, surprised at the rage
in his questioner’s voice

The man leaned in to bleat into Sandy’s ear:
She was beautiful, and you couldn’t help yourself.
What did you do to her?

Sandy’s silence was his answer,
as he began to understand his innocence,
all innocence is beyond proof by reason,
and cannot be revealed in words,
no matter how clear and eloquent

His brother and parents arrived at the station
and are informed of Sandy’s arrest for assault
on the wealthy widow, Blanca Cors

Sandy? His mother cried in disbelief:
Everyone who knows him knows
he is gentle and caring;
but the sergeant answered her:
We have reason to believe differently.

Sandy was brought into the hallway, handcuffed
and flanked by officers; his father spoke to him:
Sandy, we’ll fight this. Don’t give up.

At the arraignment, Morris Rubra argued for bail,
but the judge said:
Juveniles are the most dangerous.

The prosecutor pressed his case:
There is evidence of malice and depravity
and although he is 16, we ask he be tried
as an adult; Blanca Cors is fighting for her life,
so charges may be upgraded.

In his cell, Sandy told Morris Rubra:
I was leaving Mulberry Ranch
and saw Primitivo; it was neither of us.

The lawyer said he believed him, but:
We must respond to the accusations;
and Sandy mused:
Why do people assume the worst
about others and so quickly?

Morris Rubra’s reply echoed in the cell:
They don’t want to look too closely
into their own hearts.

After a moment the lawyer commented:
You give people the benefit of the doubt;
many, however, feel that others
have let them down, deceived them
or forsaken them for no good reason

But, he said, I’ve found the reason
for assuming the worst is often for power
and domination;
and he asked Sandy:
Don‘t you feel the need to dominate?

I feel the need to escape from domination,
Sandy said, and he opened his hands:
Why can’t people see that I’m innocent?

Morris Rubra said, with a wry laugh:
It’s hard to know who’s innocent
by looking at them or watching them;
I’ve known people who smile and charm,
but by gumbo, were the most guilty.

So how can I defend myself, or be defended,
when any defense opens the door to guilt,
and any defense can be seen as a pretense?

The lawyer said:
That’s a good question,
and one I’ve tangled with a long time.

Sandy paced the cell:
In defending myself I’ll become self-righteous;
and he was surprised at Morris Rubra’s response:
You leave the self-righteousness to me;
I excel at it.

Sandy saw the irony:
Aren’t you sacrificing part of your better self
when you do that?
Morris Rubra raised his brows:
Yes; but I’ve chosen to make that sacrifice.

To read the Prologue, click here. You can read the following chapters from there.

Children of the Moon, Chapter 3: Mulberry Ranch

From the Myakka the swamp flooded away
in all directions, and in the river’s eye the ghost
of Ponce de León wandered in search of immortality

Within the swamp Will and Sandy found dry ground
on an island of live oak and cabbage palm
filled with the shadows of Seminoles
seeking refuge from U.S. soldiers;
and they walked on to forge a new path

By a marsh dotted with yellow eyes:
each flower on a single stem of tall grass,
a stream overflowed its margin,
and high in cypress trees maroon orchids
fell toward perfect reflection

The brothers rested on an oak’s undulating limbs;
Sandy lifted his head at tweaking vines:
a phone ringing in the wilderness;
when he eased aside moss and myrtle
creatures revolved away, perturbed:

Wood roaches the size of his palm,
spongy growths leaving bands of slime,
furls and curls of ridged lichen,
parasites often unseen by experienced eyes,
and creatures from early evolutionary time

Mira’s white shirt gave her away
and she climbed into the old oak with Will;
Sandy jumped down and leapt into the cypress,
calling from a tangle of wax myrtle:
Here’s another way to the trail.

With an eye out for poison ivy’s toxic fringe
the little group came again to the old Indian trail
and in time to the shell mound
where Will dug into a quavering layer of debris
and held up sun-scorched oyster shells

Mira let run through her fingers
a handful of whelk and mussel shells,
pearls of an ancient time

Through pink trunks of stopper trees
and limber branches of pine acacia, the children
rambled down the hidden path

Above the lazy river and cruising alligators,
they saw on overhanging branches,
flashes of great white egrets, serene patches
of little blue herons, swatches of roseate spoonbill,
safe from raccoons and other predators

The little boat was resting in a bed
of spear-shaped leaves; a gator snoozed
in the shade and a row of red-bellied turtles
decorated a fallen tree trunk:
each rivaling Monet’s lilypads in the water

Treading lightly by wraithlike spider lilies
the three climbed into the boat, pushing off
with a dull clunk of oars echoing downriver;
in a panorama of marsh and sky,
they were centered in the heart of the Myakka

They hid the boat on the far shore, in reeds
by a pasture crisscrossed by wooden fences
crowned with barbed wire

Mulberry Ranch, Sandy murmured, as he led them
to a crêche of longleaf pine and laurel oak
and in this shelter a small wood cabin

Will bent his knees as a black-white-and-red arrow
flash-jetted between the trees;
Pileated woodpecker, boomed a voice,
and the children swung around:
Shadow!

Shadow’s face twisted into a smile
as he waved to them; they sat in the shade
to hear his stories of long ago:
of tiny three-toed horses, wooly camels
and very, very unusual mammals

While they were listening a man came
riding up on a golden Palomino:
So these are your rescuers, he said to Shadow,
as he dismounted; thanks to you all
I have a new caretaker of these lower pastures.

Will defiant and awestruck asked: Your ranch?
The man smiled at the children and answered:
My eyebrows are bushy, my gaze
dense with thought, intensely wrought;
my shoulders droop and arms sway
and while my hands are as pointed
as the tip of my tongue,
mother’s milk runs through my veins;
my joy spikes minute and myriad
to herald the fruits of my labor,
but these are yours to eat

And then he said: Mira Apaksi, I know your father,
we served in the war together;
he tipped his hat to all: Morris Rubra, a comrade
in harm’s way; laughing, he added:
And now a lawyer; I defend the hopeless.

Morris Rubra walked with Shadow to the cabin
and spoke to him before riding away
with a cheerful wave to all

Around them clouds were blowing up
in soundless explosions; and heading home
they deftly steered the boat across the river

Weaving their way through frothing elderberry,
they hopped a ditch to a shifting border
of sand and limestone beside a two-lane road
searing through a green landscape;
heat flash-fired their shoes on the blistering blacktop

They ducked through a pasture fence,
scrambling up a gravel incline to railroad tracks
curving by a flurry of trees;
the tracks vaulted over a steep-sided creek,
a lean wiry stream draining Florida’s wounds

Will and Mira placed pennies
on the dusky bronzed metal tracks
before moving onto the trestle’s crossties;
a wolf-mimicking cry ruptured the silence,
spilling crows and mockingbirds into the sky

Will jumped toward Mira, but a foot slipped
between the planks; Sandy pulled him free
as Mira leapt by; and skidding across gravel
they rolled down to the man-made gash
as the train clattered wildly overhead

That was close, Will exhaled
while Sandy pressed his handprints
into the creekside;
on the tracks they found the coins,
like motes of the sun, too hot to handle

A quickening pulse in the air frisked about
as gusts of heat nosed along their skin;
a chemical burning-off, acid-lifting explosion
echoing the rippling implosion
of sweet pain

To read Children of the Moon, The Prologue click here
To read Children of the Moon, Chapter 1: The River’s Eye, click here
To read Children of the Moon, Chapter 2: Shadow, click here

Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.

Ladders of Flame

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen
Copyright 2014 by Mary Clark
All rights reserved. For permission to use any portion or all of this document or photographs, please contact me at my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/maryclarkbooks

Excerpt from
Chapter 2 Ladders of Flame

Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their stained glass mosaics formed branches, flowers and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.

A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue.

Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

Watty Strouss 1981

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”

A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval.

“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.”

In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. Later she referred to it as “that funky little peace church on the West Side.” Watty sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run, but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.

The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.

So, the Upstairs Space had several names as well, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.

Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.

From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars. Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.

I walked into the street: This is the fire, this is the glow as flames rise in the core, heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms, almost human, they flow along fire escapes: angels, angels walking on ladders of flame.

A New World for Literary Eyes

Literary Eyes showcases my poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and interactive writing. I am on the internet and in the world at large, and in my own perceptive awareness, as Mary Clark, Erin Yes, mc eyes, and other personifications. In the best tradition of Isak Dinesen and the Greenwich Village Bohemians, I am always transforming into new identities. My work celebrates our primitive innocence and intuitive self-guidance. It’s a new world every day, experienced by the brave. Above all, the words are living. Read, listen, deepthink, and enjoy!