My father never knew his grandfathers; his maternal grandfather died of cancer when he was a toddler, and his paternal grandfather, Adolf, died more than a decade before he was born. Adolf’s children, among them my grandfather, never spoke of him. One fact about his origins was certain: that he had emigrated from Sweden. The only other detail was hearsay: that he had worked as a gardener on a Swedish estate. When he bought the family farm on a Connecticut hillside, the house was derelict and the fields had run wild. He returned it to productivity, an unfathomable labor. Growing up, I felt a residual energy in the soil itself, a power without detail, as if Adolf still held the family land on his invisible shoulder, our private Atlas.
Adolf died in his mid-sixties during the Great Depression, an anomaly in our long-lived clan. Never referred to, he seemed to have been forgotten, or to have existed so long ago that his memory no longer mattered. But this was camouflage. Surrounding my great-grandfather’s life and death, I sensed an intentional silence, a force field protecting his meaning. I wasn’t surprised when my father relayed all he was ever told: that Adolf had been brought to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the chest.
How could this happen? Out of three images—gunshot, wound, chest—a stark scene coalesced in my mind. A narrative began to form inside it, the way scar tissue knits together the parts of a complex wound. It had happened in the barn; it was night; it was very cold. He was cleaning his gun, and somehow the trigger…
There was always a gap between his finger and the trigger. The secret was that gap; the truth lay hidden in it.
An antique rifle hung over the fireplace in my grandparents’ farmhouse. As a teenager, I wondered if this was the gun that killed him, and, if so, why it would be displayed over the mantel. His life and death were like that: omnipresent, yet never talked about.
My first adult poems attempted to flesh out this man. One poem resurrected him at work in his greenhouse; another imagined his death, the most potent secret in my family. Some poems put a granddaughter at his side, as if I were creating a self that could have known him.
I gathered photographs and collected the scanty details that escaped the strict reticence of my elders. I wanted to know about his ordinary life. Where, in Sweden, had he been born? Did he have brothers and sisters? What did his father do for a living? What was he like—what kind of father, person? To ask about his death was impossible, but to ask about his life seemed even more fraught, as if, having taken his own life, he had forfeited his right to a personal history. I began to research the history of Swedish emigration; he could not be refused a place in History, even if we couldn’t speak of him.
I got married and had my first child. My husband was also an emigrant, an exile from Iran whose family’s home and assets had been confiscated during the Islamic Revolution. His father had barely escaped execution. He spent ten years writing a memoir of his childhood in revolutionary Iran, when each day was charged with the fear of his father’s arrest. He may never see his native place again; our children may only come to know the country of his childhood through this book.
My family’s early days as emigrants were almost beyond imagining; I strained to glimpse a receding coastline. I interviewed my grandfather several times about the farm, about his father’s emigration and early life. He couldn’t recall his father ever speaking of Sweden. The only story he inherited concerned his father being tricked by labor agents on the voyage to America; They asked my father if he wanted a job, and he said, well, YES, and they said, sign here. He ended up digging coal in Pennsylvania for four years.
I once got up the courage to ask my grandfather what his father was like. What did he talk about? He never talked! It was a choked-back explosion from the gentlest of men, a warning. When I asked what year his father died, my grandfather replied that it had happened on his seventeenth birthday. We never spoke of him again.
Well into my thirties, Sweden itself seemed a fabled country that one couldn’t conceivably visit. Our family roots there—untraceable. And then, one day it occurred to me to type Adolf’s name into the search bar of my computer; I discovered a genealogy site where a relative I’d never heard of had constructed the family tree, listing names, birth dates, places of residence and professions, all the way back to the 1700’s. A recurrent dream was eerily fulfilled: I discover a door in the house I have lived in my entire life, and it leads to an entire wing of other rooms.
When my daughter was a year old, I clicked the mouse on my computer and bought tickets for our small family. And we went to Sweden to find my great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather survived the worst periods of famine and crop failure in 19th century Sweden. During the floods and famines of 1867-8, his five-year-old sister Hulta died.
Barefoot time. The fields flash
a silver skin of water, like the tilted belly
of a perch. The church bells peal out dolefully
behind him and he’s free, he’s free, he’s tempted
to exult. But the prowl of hunger in his gut
makes him walk instead of run. In his pocket
the potato is still warm, and he takes it out
to inspect the loosened, wrinkly skin,
the leather where the eyes
were gouged. It’s all he has,
and he knows to wait until his head
feels light. He’s hung the wooden handle
of his father’s drawknife on his shoulder, long
as a crutch. He feels the blade’s edge, even
through the wadding of his coat. The other handle
knocks his shinbone painfully. He need not go
to church today, his mother said, and sent him
to the woods to strip off bark and gather
white moss and fiddleheads at the field’s edge.
Wavelets crumble brightly,
shoved by sudden gusts of wind.
Other boys sail curls of white
birch bark on the reflected clouds, but he knows
what water means. That the rye seeds
are drowning in their bed. That there won’t be
any bread come fall.
Walk past the manor park, she said, to the pasture
turning back to birch grove. Choose trunks
no larger than his thigh. The knife’s handles
spread his arms wide. He stretches
his back to reach as high as he is able and draws
the blade down quickly to the ground.
Squatting, he stares unblinking at the stripe, pale
yellow as a wound before the blood springs up,
to catch the moment when the sap
comes forward, beading like sweat.
The folded over skin is thin and dappled
as a fawn’s. He takes the potato out and rubs it
over his lips, breathing in the cake-like sweetness.
He can wait. He knows he eats the fall crop,
because his father cried there will be
naught to plant when his mother begged
a seed potato for her son. Johan,
he gathers bread for us. Then she kneeled
between him and his father, grasping
a handful of his sleeve and pressing
her other palm into his chest.
He must place his palm on the trunk,
like so, and beg forgiveness of the spirit
in the woods. She made him promise.
He thinks of the one thing
of value he has saved and vows to give it
to his mother after church,
the piece of barley candy from his sister’s
funeral, wrapped in black crepe
with gilded lettering They Shall Reap in Joy.
He knows what reaping is.
He licks the wound, wondering
at its faint sweetness. How
roots pull sugar from the earth.
They die for our sins, he thinks.
This is my body, he hears the priest say.
His mother prays for the flooded fields
as the priest places on her tongue
the thin yellow wafer. Tonight she’ll soak
the inner bark, then bake it over the coals
until it’s crisp, then grind it in the stone mortar.
He’ll wake and sleep and wake again, his dreams
harnessed to the pestle’s tooth.
The morning bread
will be so tough and dense his jaw
will ache. The priest says
bark bread gives spiritual strength to man.
He’s glad the woods will go inside him.
He wants the quiet power of things
that wouldn’t speak of their suffering
even if they had a tongue.
My great aunt Edna offers me a shirt box filled with black and white photographs. Yours, she says, if they interest you. Where I’m going, I won’t need them.
Most of the images are of her, one of the notorious tricksters of the family. She sits on a beach wrapped in a cape of kelp sumptuous as a starlet’s mink stole, or perches high on her husband’s shoulder, head tipped back, dizzy and rapturous. I leaf through the photos looking for any image of my great-grandfather, and finally find him. He stands on the front lawn of the farmhouse with his hands clasped behind his back, half in tree shadow. The sun lights up his forehead, his right arm and shoulder clad in a soft plaid shirt, the metal buckle on his belt. He wears a newsboy’s hat and the round spectacles of an accountant.
Edna stands next to him, her smiling face downcast. Her dress is a diffuse white glow. In front of them, slightly out of focus, a billowing pile of blossoms spills from a half whisky barrel.
My father loved flowers, she volunteers. My mouth goes dry; what can I say to encourage her to elaborate?
Then, suddenly, as if the memory had just returned to her, she adds I got in such trouble once for picking a handful of his pansies. They were so pretty, so unusual. I just wanted to have them, but he had been letting them go for seed.
In the Photographer’s Studio
In 1881, a priest crossed out Johansson from the household record and wrote in Holmberg. That same year, the eldest daughters began to emigrate, and my great-grandfather, fifteen years of age, moved to a village in the Orebro province, hundreds of miles to the northeast. No explanation of the move is given.
Valley of Roses he whispers almost
silently. His father changed their name today.
Like hers it breaks in two, and his tongue
turns the sounds like pebbles
in the mouth, a hill a hill like an island.
He wouldn’t want to have
a flower name. The priests insist anything
you love can be taken away for your own
good. That’s why he keeps his love of flowers
a secret, like his love of the week’s first task.
Klara Rosdahl, valley of roses,
has asked the manor lord for blossoms
of strong form: dahlias, trumpet lilies,
moss roses keenly scented as a pod
of cardamom, grown by his father’s hand.
And so to start each week he settles a yoke
on his shoulders, steadies the two
wooden buckets with his hands as he walks
along the rounded backs of boulders half-buried
in the pasture, leaps stone to stone to cross
the brook, and ambles down the shaded footpath
into town. He’s mastered a defiant
casualness, as if he doesn’t care
folks smile to see a boy whose hands have broken
into bloom. Klara places a vase of flowers
in the window of her studio, near the gilded
frame in which a lady, slim and glossy
as the pheasant feather in her hat,
cups in her gloved palms a single damask rose,
his father’s rose that now will never fade.
He clicks the latch home gently so the bell
won’t ring, then measures out
the room-span on the outer edges
of his soles. He touches open the door
to an inner room where a skylight drops
a radiant cube around a lady posed
before a moonlit forest scene.
She turns her shoulder toward the camera
to narrow her waist, her skirts
molded into lustrous pleats
about her legs, one boot-toe peeping out.
Her gloved hand furls around the lacquered
bamboo handle of her parasol.
Klara bends her face to the accordion.
Something isn’t right; the painted forest
billows just detectably. She looks back and sees
his shoulder blurred in turning, the door’s
light breathing. She follows him out.
The draught opened the door, not me, he says,
as she lifts the dripping flowers from the pails.
She shoots a knowing look under her brows
in which reproach mingles with covert
good-humor. Watching her fingers comb
the stems, unhooking dahlias from thorns, he says
My parents come today. At fifteen
years of age he sometimes volunteers
unnecessary things, a habit of childhood
he despises. At dawn he watched his father draw
the stropped-thin razor down his corded throat,
his mother raise a black dress like a penitent
folded over in prayer from the trunk
of her best things, the clothes she sewed
before his birth that they’ll be buried in.
Hung to air in the gauzy sunlight
of the doorway, formal, stiff, they seemed
like siblings grown and gone before his time,
returned from the foreign country of the past.
It’s a mark of thrift his mother has
a morsel of lace to tuck into her collar,
the filigreed gilt brooch, the earrings
from her mother’s family. The first thing
he will buy in Amerika when he’s
a man is a pocket watch with a chain
of thick substantial links, pure gold. He’s seen
the wealthy townsmen—mill owners, grain traders—
pose with watches in their hands, the lid
flipped open so the light picks out
the vines and flourishes cut in dense,
yolk-bright metal. He’s watched the laborers
clomp into her studio and put atop
their sweat-soft, shapeless linen shirts
what Klara keeps on hand for poorer folk:
the black suit coat, shiny with wear, ill-fitting
yet respectable. They curl their fingers
around the chair’s tasseled arm to hide
the dirt embedded under their nails.
His father put their new name on like that,
as if a name could drape them all, as if one word
could build a hill above this life, a hill
like an island, self-reliant as a stone.
Next week his eldest sisters go abroad.
They’ll take these pictures with them in their trunk,
parents they may never see again,
who will only travel to Amerika this way.
Genealogy: Vad’s Mill
I write to Barry Peterson, a genealogical researcher: I would like to know WHY he moved to Orebro—was he simply a laborer on a farm, or was there another reason? According to the family lore, he worked as a gardener on an estate, and I am rather hoping he might have been an apprentice; I know there are several large manors in that area, such as Karslund manor, and also Orebro Castle. Would his profession or work be recorded in the parish records? With whom would he have lived?
A week goes by and I hear nothing; then, this reply:
I am still searching for your great-grandfather. I am at page 29 right now of the 1881-85 clerical records. I have not seen a reference to Karlslund manor yet.
I found him on page 95. This is the entry: Holmberg (curved line down to) Johansson Adolf Fredrik, drang (a farm hand). The page is for the place called Waads Qvarn (Vad’s Mill). I can’t say for sure that the Mill was also a farm; this was the usual case, but mills that were also farms usually had more people living on the property. Living on Vaads Qvarn was a man called Karl Magnus Holmberg, born in 1839. Occupation: mjolnare. Karl was a miller. He was married to Eva Lotta Nilsdotter, and had three daughters. Also on this page are three farm hands, including your great-grandfather, A. F. Johansson.
I think he moved there because Karl Holmberg was his uncle. I don’t see any indication that he was a gardener, or that Waads Qvarn was anything else but a farm with a mill.
So he wasn’t a gardener after all, not even an apprentice. Just a farm hand, drang, that lowest rank of rural male labor.
Sick for home, he’d sit among
the stunted wildings
growing on the millrace
envying their self-
that they were thoughtlessly
Or lean against
the castle’s warm brick wall,
looking through the iron
gates as apprentices
ran with their barrows,
or raked smooth the red-tinged
earth, fine grained and rich
with blood and lime.
The sole flowering thing
he could have loved
in this new life
his uncle forced him to cut down
when the iron cartwheel
clove the moist spring wood
sending wheat sacks tumbling
to the mud.
You’ve wounded it
his uncle said as he left
to fetch the axe,
wounded it past
any hope of bearing.
And yet it stood,
its veil of flowers alive
with bees as if to prove
how long beauty can go on
while the taint
works outward from within.
And the little girl,
barefoot, her white dress
smutched from fetching coal,
watched him chop it down,
the girl the village called
the bastard child. She counted
the shuddering strokes.
And when it was done
she broke two twigs of blossom,
hid one in her apron pocket,
and tucked the other in the curl
of his callused hand
as he leaned upon the axe
to let go the air
he’d held, drawing
a ragged breath past the heaving
of his heart.
After that, the bleached
hung like lead, the name
his father took from this
he wanted to spit back
into the millpond’s
turgid pool, so black
no light, no human eye
could ever fathom it.
His uncle caught him
staring down those depths
too often, hands cupped
over his ears to block
the thirsty suck
of the paddle wheel,
the rumbling grind and whisk
and finally cuffed
his hands away, the blow
driving thunder in,
his skull a bell
The only part
he relished was
the end of every day,
when his uncle took
the chisel and
the hand-sledge up
by lamplight, punishing
the stone, deepening
the score of hatch marks,
when sparks flew bright
and cold as winter stars.
Photograph: His Parents
Klara Rosdahl Fotografi-Atalier, in gilded art nouveau script, filigrees one corner. Each portrait features the same velvet-upholstered chair with fringes dripping off the arms, but in Anna’s picture, we see the left side, in Johan’s, the right.
Johan wears a suit jacket; a narrow, drooping mustache echoes the shadow under his white collar where a tie should be. His hair is dark, and has been combed smoothly back from his straight hairline. Yet the half-closed eyes that tilt slightly upward, the high cheekbones stretching the thin flesh, and the slightly parted lips all give the impression of depletion and exhaustion. His fingers are grotesquely muscular. The hand nearest to the viewer, fingers curled under, seems as big as his face.
Anna Louisa’s eyes look out candidly, the irises unusually large, evidently blue—young eyes in a careworn face. Her center-parted hair is meticulously crimped. Her fingers, knuckles knobbed, rest in a stiff curl on the armrest. She wears a fitted jacket with shiny metal buttons up the front.
The photographs are disquieting. They signal an inner refinement that can’t be blunted by brutal labor. There is little beauty in either face, but a palpable dignity.
Lace clusters at Anna’s throat, fastened by a round brooch of braided or filigreed metal. She wears a wedding band and earrings.
They are matter, and imperishable. They must still be in this world somewhere; somewhere, these heirlooms.
My great-grandfather’s mother, Anna Louisa, bore eight children in twenty-two years and lost three; one girl at two weeks of age, one girl at five, her oldest son Karl at twenty. By 1881, her three eldest daughters had emigrated to America to work as maids, leaving only the two youngest, Adolf and Ida, at home.
From behind the raised trunk lid, black
and glistening as if tarred, his mother rose
with a flannel bundle pressed against her heart,
walked to the table and settled it
before him tenderly.
There is nothing
for you here. You are the one son
left to me.
She sat across from him, the fire’s
fitful glow upon her face, her fingers
interlaced, but clenching
and releasing like a dread-squeezed heart.
Do you remember?
He remembers everything. The skin
stretched taut over her brows. Her lips,
thin as a seam in a charred log. And how
midst all these marks of care you’d find yourself
returning and returning to her eyes,
seeking in her mild, steady gaze
the blue the painter used for the eternal peace
of heaven in the new church, the blue
of Mary’s cloak. There must be jewels
that ageless and unchanging.
Don’t you remember?
He sees again from his pallet by the wall
his mother kneeling on the hearth
after the burial guests had gone, warming
a saucer of tallow on the coals,
rubbing the oil into the thirsty leather
of his brother’s boots till it would drink
no more. She put a block of camphorwood
in each. She laid the overcoat
on the table, filled the sleeves with bundled
stalks of sweet woodruff and thyme, and folded
the arms over the breast. She slid
her arm under the shoulders
and the knees and held the coat a moment
to her throat.
Ten years I saved them. A coat
of good wool cloth, almost new.
You could walk every step to the Holy Land
on the oak and ox-hide of this sole.
And so, to comfort her,
he put on his brother’s overcoat and boots
to board the train for Gothenburg.
She smiled in satisfaction as she smoothed
the shoulders down, proud the strong seams
lay so well. Aboard the ship, he thrust
the coat to the bottom of his trunk.
A stowaway. A shadow over his life
that no one else would ever see.
He sees her even now
as he shaves the pick’s ash handle
with a shard of glass, his palms
wrapped in spirit-soaked gauze
to toughen them. How the tallow
glistened on her fingers. In the fractured
face of coal it’s always
her damp cheek, lit
by his headlamp’s struggling flame.
Photograph: His Sisters
They carry handbags in hands that are large and work-coarsened; not even the white gloves can conceal this. They wear long skirts belted with cameo buckles, gold-pinned lace at their throats, costly-looking hats.
On Clara’s hat, pale tulip buds and full blown roses crowd the brim. She wears it defiantly over her bird-like features, looking right into the camera. Johanna’s hat is subtler, featuring a silky partridge feather. Though shorter than her sister, she is a considerable person, rounded and firm as if carved from a block of wood. Her mouth, which at first seems inflexible and severe, on second glance holds evidence of good humor conscientiously repressed, as if the dignity of the photograph required this.
I turn the photograph over; there are lines for an address, a square guide for a stamp. Perhaps the sisters had these postcards made to send to their parents and friends still in Sweden. At this time in Sweden, a peasant woman is required by law to cover her hair with a kerchief, and only women born to manors may wear such hats.
Because for four years you hardly saw
the sun, crawling into the earth
each day to pick the money for my passage
from a seam of coal, I confess
to you. Already, I doubt I’m being
honest with myself. Perhaps we confess
only to those we sense will understand us
I come almost penniless to you.
Yet I’ve brought you scion wood
from our little orchard as you asked, some small
amends. Father built the box
himself, lined with tin
to keep the sawdust damp. Think
of these small shoots waking, grafted to a branch
so far from home!
I trust the ship’s hold keeps them cold.
It’s in steerage quarters that I write
this strange letter, less a letter than
a trying out of what I need to say
to one I’ve wronged. To you, who sent
for me, who will come
to meet me at the wharf, lifting the trunk
of all I own onto your shoulder. Our ship
is torn along through walls of water.
This must be how the plow feels. How a wedge
feels when the maul drives it through
the heartwood of a tree. The water scrubs
the ship’s sides until my mind grows raw. It seems
to scrape the wood away. Perhaps I write
to distract me from that sound, to fill
my head with thought
like a glass float so it cannot
tumble through the fathoms underneath me.
The parish empties, Adolf. It ages.
The priest does not argue
with the parents anymore. He accepts
that Sweden grows its young for export
to Amerika. When I came to him
he did not look up but fetched the church book,
opened to our page. And what will you be,
he said, a serving maid? When you could have stayed
in your own home parish. When I might have trained you
for a teacher, you write so clear a hand.
I felt a flare of anger at the offer, made
too late, when he knew my passage
had been bought for me, our mother’s heart
wrung out of tears from the loss
of her last child.
I wanted to say Father, it is here
I learned to serve. But in the end, I couldn’t bring
myself to say even the truest thing:
that there is almost no one left to teach.
Didn’t your heart
constrict when you saw him dip
the pen and press the marks, turned downward
like a frown, through your name and all
your childhood history?
I learned that joy and terror sometimes
feel the same when he released me
and I wandered down the lane to a home
no longer wholly
mine. I floated to mother like a seed
under its parasol of down, half-surprised
she could see me from the doorway where she stood
brushing flour off her palms. She was baking
rye bread for my journey and had just pressed
her handprint in the risen loaves.
I gathered it all in:
the hem of her white apron brushing
the stone step, the white curtains stitched
in bluets on the edge,
oddly still behind the open casement window,
the lilac almost burying the door, and on
the other side the midsummer rose
with buds so full they showed the edges
of their underskirts.
I knew I’d never see them bloom again
nor smell their green apple scent, never watch
the petals fall to the ground, bluish white,
the only moving thing
on June nights when twilight
Remember our secret, Adolf? The wayyou’d save the best of the September
roses from the manor garden
for your sister, hiding them in your cap.
I’d be waiting in the stone shepherd’s hut
with my apron out and you’d pour roses in,
teaching me their names. Maiden’s
Blush, Rosa Mundi, Rosa Alba. You’d sometimes stay
to watch me braid my hair and pull
the braids across my brow, weaving roses
along my imaginary brim. I thought
I must have looked
like the young Miss on a feast day with roses
clustered in the fold of finely braided
straw, pale gold and rich
as thickened cream. How often I’d admired
the wide satin ribbons fluttering like touchable
blue sky over her shoulder
as she rode by in her dog cart, drawing
the tassel of her whip across her ponies’ backs
to make them trot past our cottage.
Haven’t you wondered how it would have been
to be born to that estate and have an entire
garden of roses bloom for you? To never have to leave
your home to serve in another’s house, or see
your father’s fingers thicken into roots,
or tremble as they lift a mug,
or watch his face grow vaguer
every year as if ground away with work,
waking in the dark to put in
two man-days of labor for the manor folk
since brother died? One day
she passed me in the lane
without a glance. It was not
that she pretended not to see.
It was as if she’d walked past
something not worth stooping
to pick up, a hairpin or a button pressed
into the mud. As if my hands
were nothing in themselves, just tools
that might have touched her body
once, like the boot hook or
the comb. I tell you,
I jerked the kerchief off my head, I bit
at it to tear it into two, I crammed
my mouth with it to stop the cry.
That was the kerchief I wore
onto this ship, made from the bolt of plain
black cambric Miss gave me—pay for a summer
hemming and ironing her dowry linen,
and milking cows and binding up the rye besides.
For tending her body
like a baby’s. And here I vowed
I’d not complain to you. Now I know
I never meant this
as a letter.
Still, I needto fill this paper, to confess in full
how I repaid your care.
When we docked at Liverpool I did not
get off the ship, for you had warned me
of the agents there who stole
these last four years of your labor.
Yet the market
came to us: a fleet of flat-bottomed
brightly painted skiffs bumped and nudged our ship
like ducks who think you mean to throw out
crusts of bread, and we all crowded to the rails to see
what goods they had. Some sold
spirits, some sold useful things like oranges
or candied ginger against the crossing sickness.
One man rowed with a woman standing
in the prow, and she wore a hat of pale green straw
tipped forward on a cluster of gold curls.
A wide pink satin ribbon tied in a bow
under her ear. Around the crown, masses
of peach and yellow roses, so fresh and real
they glistened like a pudding. And she held up
a box and slowly turned the cover off,
and in the tissue was a hat
the same finely braided straw, but the roses
had edges the silvery pink of a girl’s
neck after her bath, and centers deeply flushed
as if her palms were cupping candle light.
She signed to me
to undo my kerchief knot.
Can you understand the power I felt
when I could name something beautiful
and own it for myself?
Perhaps you will call it
nothing more than simple vanity
that made me bend down to her, letting my kerchief
drift onto the harbor’s oily swells
and flounder there
like a seabird that has starved.
The rutted earth is rich with flakes of purplish-brown glaze, triangles of fluted glass. As a boy, my grandfather explains, it was his job to stoke the tiled woodstove at dawn. In a photograph, the glass house stretches long and low, opaque as a block of ice. Behind it, the farmhouse looks like a toy. How did his father know how to build such a thing? He shrugs, mildly baffled, as if this question had never occurred to him and he can’t comprehend why it matters.
He lingers, testing the trigger
of the well-oiled latch, strumming
the fluted Belgian glass
with his thumbnail so the ribs sing
high and thin like a comb’s teeth. Then
opens the door abruptly so a puff
of heat breaks moist on his face, breath
of a body he made—
purlins, posts, sills and ridge,
windlass, brass gears and chain.
He takes deep quaffs of the green nut
smell of glazier’s putty as he warms it
until it’s a cast of his clenched
fist, knobbed like a whelk, finely grooved
all over with his whorled palm print.
He thumbs it along the metal frame,
then knives it to a bevel smooth as bone.
The fume of powdered lead
and kerosene makes his stomach lurch
with hunger as he whitewashes the glass.
The purplish haze on the brown tiled
woodstove blooms for him. The clay pots
chuckle as he stacks them.
He sometimes thrusts his hand and forearm
in the bin of vermiculite,
pulling out a handful to feel the damp
loft of it, tilting his palm to watch
the little pamphlets tumble and wink.
From scrap wood he fashioned
an accountant’s desk, filing each tooth
of the handsaw to fresh silver
before he cut the pins
and tails of the dovetail joints.
He dug a vault for it behind
the woodstove, walls of mortared fieldstone
lined with lead against the damp.
The notes inside are banded, bound flat, and each
familiar as a face, each one sweat-creased
with his labor. Ten years.
Another hundred acres in one hand.
Girdling the Trees
Adolf was nine years old when his older brother died. From the death record, I know the cause of Karl’s death: his hand, wounded in a labor accident, turned gangrenous.
Girdling is the process of stripping a band of bark from the trunk of a young tree, which forces it to bear fruit earlier.
He draws the girdling knife
out the pocket of his leathern apron,
hooks the curving blade around
the slim, unblemished trunk, child
in its fifth leaf–
He can’t do it, cannothold the trees at knifepoint
or hurt them into bearing.
Let the maidens flower just for beauty
as they like; let them waken
to full bearing in their time.
He knows childhood can end
in a single day, for he was taken
out of school to clear
the hillside, hacking roots
with his father’s iron mattock.
Sometimes he still dreams
of this. Sometimes his elder brother
is the stump he must work out.
He grips him by the trunk and drags
and drags, but his brother’s arms
have grown around
his coffin, the way a tree’s roots
sometimes clench a boulder. He pulls
until his own arms
seem to stretch out thin
as worms, and sometimes
his grip slips on clots of dead,
black blood, his brother’s
or his own, he cannot tell. In the dream
he sobs in rage and failure, he
who has no memory of weeping even
as a child, and oftentimes he’s wakened by
a trickle on his cheek. Lighting
the lamp, he touches his eye,
then hides the fingers in his fist, afraid
to look, afraid to see
blood on the tips.
He knowshis dreams hold portents. Last night
the child came back to him, the girl in white.
She brought from behind her back
the apple branch, the buds a loosening
miracle, still and virginal as snow,
but when she gravely
touched his shoulder with the branch
the blooms reversed, closing
to a maiden’s nipples
dipped in blood.
Artifacts: Vasa Club
On the shore of our family’s land, white pines cast brooding shadows on the water, and kingfishers nested in the root-riddled bank.
One winter, I noticed the heart-shaped end of a femur protruding from the frosty soil. I spent days excavating it with a screwdriver and a garden trowel, convinced I had found a human bone. The Pequot tribe had an encampment on our shore, and it was not unusual to find oyster shells, flaking and papery with age, musket balls, even wampum.
When I showed my treasures to my father—the bone, shards of pottery, the bit of pressed glass turned pale violet with age—he told me the bone was likely a pig’s, that he’d heard that the Swedish Vasa Club had kept a meeting spot and a small house on our family’s land for picnics and dances. His father was a child when these gatherings occurred; by the time my father was born, the Swedish community had dispersed. My grandfather never learned Swedish; his parents spoke their native language only privately, and he retained only a word or two.
the longing for home
A log cross-hatched with ruby seams
alights their faces, gives back
the wistful sheen of childhood.
The snap and purr of coals
is the loudest thing.
The night’s so dark beyond the embers
men stagger, sightless,
or grope their fingers round their eyes
to pry away night’s fingers.
the green-litunderwater gladeswhere the hermit thrush
pleaded for a mate—
—those midsummer days thatcouldn’t bring themselves to end, where
are they now?
into the pulsing box of his hands. A husky
warble rises, making the heart quiver
and constrict, drawing it to
the cobalt pane of home. Across the fire
a dove-note wells
from an old bone flute.
In the otherworld, untouchable
as a star, the daughters of the maidens
left behind are pickingseven kinds of flowers to put under their pillow, so they will dream
Holding their heads in their hands, they steal
deep draughts of their palms wood ash
birch and juniper cardamom and aquavit then grind
their knuckles over their cheeks.
Do you remember your grandfather?
Well, my mother was the firstborn girl, and I was the first grandchild, you see, and so a great fuss was made over me.
I pan the video camera over a picture of Adolf holding June high against his shoulder, her matching cap and booties a blinding white, her lids lowered against the sun, her lower lip full and dark as a cherry. His spectacles flash the trees behind us. His work shirt is cuffed above the elbow, the material limp and sweat-creased, and vitality shines forth from the muscular, field-tanned arm.
My mother told me he frightened her to death, tossing me up and catching me again and again, when I was just a baby.
His youngest boy still wears loose curls
of babyhood, the pin-tucked smocks
his mother sews.
Each morning, she puts aside
some small, ongoing labor—today
the paring knife, the berry’s
scarlet heart—to take
him in her lap and hook his leather boots.
But this child of his eldest daughter,
this child’s child wrapped up in a snowy
lambswool bunting, mild as a white pansy
in a sunlit window, she is something else
entirely. She’s as light as the milkweed’s
downy messenger, twirling
across the lawn, so light she wants
to fly out of his arms, and so, to steady
them both, he lays his palm upon her chest.
He’s seen a tree hold
all its children in its shoulders
come harvest time. How a spur
that will bud next season’s fruit
snugs close to the ripening stem.
He’s that tree. And she’s the new fruit
just now set, hidden behind the tender,
wilting petals. He thumbs the blanket
off her cheek, touching with a finger’s
a skin so soft and new
it’s almost vaporous.
The softest thing he’d ever felt
until this day was a young
peach velveted in silvery light.
Alma, his daughter said, and placed her
in his arms. On the upmost slope
where the sun shines longest, where the cold
drains away in early spring,
he’ll plant peaches in her name.
Who Is Alma?
When I first began these poems, I called Adolf’s granddaughter by her given name, June, though she was almost entirely a fiction. June lived with her mother in a yellow cottage on the hill leading up to the orchard. By the time I was an adolescent, I knew the spare outline of her life. That, after a disastrous love affair led to a nervous breakdown, she was lobotomized. She was the other person in my family whose past could not be asked about. I suppose I wanted to understand her, to reach back through the life of the woman I knew as strange, aloof, and brooding, to the child she must have been. To the before.
Later, I realized Alma was more than a character—she had become a reservoir. In Alma, I’ve conserved the few stories my family shared about the past, the haunting details. Adolf chastising Aunt Edna for her handful of pansies. Edna, sent to the fields to tell the men that her grandmother, Anna, had passed away. I make Alma the repository of my earliest memories too, fleshing them out until they are a fully formed fantasy, a way of building a relationship with a man who died before my father’s birth, and whose unspeakable death had made my grandfather harder to know and be close to.
She represents the mysteriousness of girlhood, and its fey power. She also draws together the rumors, the things that could not be asked about: the foreclosing of talents, the illicit drives, the extravagances of feeling that underlie my family’s stoic, pragmatic, exterior.
She represents the secret, which holds its pain and power so long as it is kept.
Everything Will Turn
She woke at dawn, the way he told her,
to see the hares. There be hundreds
he had said. The sheer curtains,
faintly coarse, numb her cheek
like a crust of snow. The late-winter
sun begins to tip and pour white fire
over the blue hill.
She waits by the kitchen door until
his boot stamps rattle the iron latch,
asks, the hares? His laugh
throws his head back. He settles his cap
with a wrist and swings her up, still
with his pruning gauntlets on. They stand
at the window but her mind flies back
to what just passed. She rubbed the curtain
against her cheek as the sun
turned the woods all rosy,
then lit up one by one
the young trees.
Something glittered in the branches.
Her breath fogged the pane. She had tried
to make them be there—white, she saw them
in her mind, dog-sized, sitting
on their haunches
to sniff the sun. She saw them,
yet she knew they were not there.
A pile of cloud drew out into a blanket.
And there he came, walking
between the rows, one hand
cupping his cap to his chest, bundled twigs
in the crook of the other arm.
Then his boots rattled the latch
in her hand. And now she is with him
at the kitchen window, side-saddle
on his arm. She frowns. She twists
the metal buttons of his work coat
and their cold gets in her fingers.
They look out at the saplings,
their branches quivering and softly clicking
in the rising wind. Soon,
he will turn and carry her into the hall
and set her down among the Mason jars
so she will learn how balmy-sweet
the cut wood smells
when sap is rising. He will hold out the basket
of dried grass, and inside will be
one so young it has no sense of fear.
The ears lie flat and pink along its head.
Tell the Men
The men haven’t mowed, and Queen
Anne owns the field, her plain
of lace billowing on waves of heat,
the way a white sheet floats
before it settles.
If she could lie down on that high
white bed as on a bank of snow, or creep
under its crocheted canopy.
Her grandmother’s hand
was an old queen’s, lying furled
on the bed.
That was the hand that worked white floss
to snowflakes on her cotton dress
to mark her with this flower.
If only she could be one.
If she could stand under the sun
and be cool as these green stems.
When the sun’s pulse floods them
they never shudder with the heat.
She kneels to stroke a flower along her cheek,
its face soft-grained as warm bread.
Its breath doesn’t burn her. Its lip
A flower can’t walk out to the pasture’s
edge where the men hitch a net of chains
around a boulder, where the horses
arch their heavy necks,
lathering the reins white
A flower cannot hold anything in its hollow
throat—not a name, not a death,
not the word that sounds to her
like the crickets’ song: grief, grief, grief, grief,
bells rolling down a hill.
Their song can’t carry the news
to the men. A chain rings dull against fieldstone,
and she opens her mouth to let
the words fall, a parasol of air
weighted by death’s
Never cut at the growingest time.
His gestures speak: the way he brushes off
the moist crumbs of sawdust
with the heel of his hand, the way
he daubs the cut with powdered lead
and linseed oil he’s boiled for this.
They are babies, babies, more baby
than she. We only give the right shape.
The trees coming into fruit
he prunes more heavily, taking
any shoots that grow straight
toward the sky and bear us
nothing. He trains the trees to open
like a hand. This makes them strong.
He shows her how to take
the dead out, the dead
where blight and canker hide. He holds
her palm against the trunk,
wraps the fingers of her other hand
around the wooden handle,
helps her push the saw away
to form the first clean cut, then draw it
smoothly back. She breathes
the milky freshness
of its blood. He nods for her
to go on by herself.
She knows her hands
are suited to this work
because he claims her:
my beauty, he murmurs, min flicka.
The Pansy: A Meditation
A common bedding plant. A reliable, profuse bloomer. Crossing easily, giving rise to new forms and colors.
A single pansy in a terra cotta pot, pure white, or pale blue with an ultraviolet mask:
what is cliché en masse shows its dignity, its true delicacy, the way an individual of the humblest background can evince great depth of feeling and refinement of thought.
This story of my great-grandfather grew from the seed of a pansy: Edna, chastised for picking a handful of the flowers he was saving for seed, the ones he hoped would produce a new color, a new strain.
Among my people, the unspoken emblem on our shield. In the convalescent home, above June’s bed, a pansy her mother had embroidered in blue floss on an oval field.
When a June shows me her mother’s album of the farm, I find a photograph of five wide pansy beds raying back toward the tree line, the minute white-shirted figure of my great grandfather kneeling in the distance. On the reverse, her mother had written My father’s pansy beds.
Pansy, from the French pensée, thought. In folk medicine, a plant known to calm the heart, so known as heart’s-ease. In spiritual lore, the tripartite flower seemed to join the father, the son, and the holy ghost, so it was called herb trinity. The name love in idleness has been given to the wild form, since the flower has traditionally been an ingredient in love potions. If you put your ear to the blossom you can hear your lover’s thoughts.
Often on the farmhouse table, a handful of pansies in a hobnailed vase.
The horrified wide eyes swim, the lips
wrench, and now she’s angled full tilt
for the weeping willow’s curtain of green,
flashing grass-stained, narrow yellow soles.
The pansy she’d brought to him to show
its lion face lies folded like a dead
moth in his palm. Like a moth
it’s lightly feathered, but there
the likeness ends. The flower
is a violet so rich it enters black
and casts back a blue light, while below
red pools, like elderberry wine. He’d been
But it’s Sunday, Sundayafter all, his one day to sit with coffee
and the papers, his body clean inside
his vested suit, his fob chain threaded
through a buttonhole so the gold watch beats
like a sparrow’s heart against his ribs.
To sit, a landholder on his own
tree-shaded lawn and listen to the towhee
trill out drinkyourtea, the chirp of wicker chair.
Now a child’s sobs trouble the steam
rising off the meadow slopes. Even
the dandelions glitter in reproach.
He’d had such hopes. He pulls the petals forward to inspect
the flower’s nape and see
if the ovule hidden there beneath
the nectar spur begins to swell
where three days ago he’d dabbed pollen
with a sable brush. He’d found this single
blossom in the flower dump, growing among
the tangled clots of root balls, bleached
and hollowed stalks of geranium.
A cold spring, yet a bud
caught his eye, frosted with silver. He’d thought
it was a bit of coal. He had never seen
purple reach such depths and still in sunlight
glow with ruddy sheen, like blood
hardened into garnets, like the moleskin
fineness of a blooded horse’s neck.
In the center, a golden eye, a droplet sun
for a honey guide. When he closes his eyes,
the sun reverses to a dot of summer sky.
He’d been whipped onceas a boy for letting the master’s horse,
turned out in parade rosettes, with gold
satin ribbons braided in his mane,
be set upon by deerflies, their brassy lancets
vicious as a priest’s pen nib. Vicious as the spire
that had snapped off who knows how,
piercing the greasy clay, the ice-held
soil still dense as frozen bread that June. You felt
the curse of it, a stake driven
in the clearing’s palm. And later that day
the winch ropes failed, and his brother’s hand
was crushed between the church stones. It swelled
to a bag of blood pudding.
Fifty years gone by, how many thousandsof miles, he’s still that boy and feels
the priest’s fine fingers bite the channels
of his nape to force his eyes
to the catechism page.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with
respect and fear and with sincerity
of heart. The priest dipped the gold nib,
then slowly drew it out. Suspended
in the heart-shaped reservoir, a sunken
violet membrane of ink. I cannot read it
he had lied. And so the measure
of his failure was scratched into
the census book, the fine italic
f f f for reading, understanding, knowledge of
the catechism. So he was never confirmed: confirmed
for what? A half-starved life. Rye flour mixed with
bark to last the winter out. Half
his labor taken so he’d have the right to farm
some stump-cursed hillside, its soil still
so dear he’d never own
He’d watched the quiet feeding, the clinging abdomens plumping
with blood. Then the stamp and tossing neck
awoke him and he saw the veins
puffed with poison, weals rising hard as coins
under shuddering skin. The nostrils trickled.
Little melt-water streams ran down
the dusty muzzle. And he’d been told
to stand there with the whisk
and flick off anything that landed. He went
after them then, to crumple those wings
and crush the blood out,
but a groan of brute suffering
sent him to his knees, scratching up
straw, manure, earth, anything to pack his ears.
Dragged, dragged then, to his father, kneeling among
the fine things in the cutting bed, opening spires
of delphinium, dahlias all honeycomb
like paper wedding bells, you cut him sir
the master said with sneering rage, thrusting
at his father the lead-handled crop.
His father’s hands were so encrusted
with callus they looked just pulled from a trough
of mortar, the fingertips split to bloody
little smiles that gaped more when he gripped
the thing, cracked to the meat from hauling
on hemp ropes, winching the church stones
onto ox-drawn sledges. The old parish
church would be rebuilt, enlarged and modern
on the hill that had been his father’s croft,
and those fields he’d helped him muscle clear
of stone and stumps the manor families
would sow in mahogany coffins now,
marking rows with marble monuments
touched with gold lettering. And the rope
gave, and the stone toppled down
on his eldest’s hand.
Sometimes in the evening,coming famished from the fields, his thighs
trembling, he still feels the master’s hand
on his shoulder drive him to his knees,
the way a boot drives a shovel into earth.
Failure is still the feel of his father’s clumsy hand
bringing the crop to rest
between his shoulders dully, once, and again,
until the master said You’re sparing him,
and stung him well, burying
the bee in his nape. A coal still
smoldered there. Slaves, obey
your earthly masters with respect
and fear and with sincerity of heart
He should go after her, he thinks, remembering the silver sheen
along her temples, petal-like, and the fine
pale hairs merging somehow into waves
dark and transparent, a night sea,
then with clarity so brutal he shuts
his eyes—he’s falling like a dead weight
headfirst through time—
the bear paw of his brother’s hand, a putrid
salty bulb about to bud out and bloom
raging flowers of delirium.
His mother’s chapped lips bloodless with agony,
the prayer clicking in her throat O Lord, save
your servant, O Lord save as she scalds
red-gold calendula petals
pinches the coins for the too-late
surgeon from their velvet pouch.
In the cove’s giant eye, she loses time. The flaws
in the ice are tilted galaxies, planets with air-
bubble moons, comets trailing
ribbons of fissure. In the dry cold’s
utter silence, her lids part lips
with a tiny snap. She presses her chest
to the ice, strains her arms
to hold the all of it. The fibers
of her red wool mittens
heal into the ice. She turns
her ear. It sings as whales
are said to sing, as all
things cleaving sing, the tide
winching inch by inch
the breastwork of ice.
Whatever the tide asks,
the ice gives, expanding
with a groan. Once a fault
opened between her skates, and
a peal of otherworldly thunder
ricocheted beneath her, scattered
to muffled chirps and squeals. She put
her eye to its lips to watch the water’s
tongue inch and flicker. She tongued
it back for its vague, soft salt. She loses
time, tracing figure eights until the lacquer
is lost under a haze of shavings. Skating out
on slush to where the stream hides
in the cove’s core, she listens
for the child carried back to that tight silence.
All winter, their starving time, she’s worked
to get close, sitting on a flat boulder
near their trail, mimicking
its stillness, leaving offerings
she’s held against her skin—piles
of acorns, beechnuts, rosehips
gathered in the summer—so they’ll connect
her scent to oil and sugar.
She’s held an apple on her palm
for hours while a young doe paced
the transparent boundary
of her fear, lifting and lowering her head
to look, to look again
from her pond-like eye.
She wants to join
the most mysterious thing she knows:
the single file of their silhouettes threading between
the bars of distant trees, hesitant, listening,
about to cross over
into the orchard’s sparser forest.
There is no single word
for their color—the muddled
gray-green-brown of shadow—against
an eastern sky, wan silver
in dusk’s after light.
Kneeling by the spring, she presses
her forefingers to the hoof-print
taken in clay, looking past healed
triangles of ice to the golden sand,
a world holy in its stillness
where the oak leaves lie so light
upon each other.
In that meadow, once, her eye
was caught as one and then another
stalk of grass unkinked, drew tall again.
A basket, unmaking now, which gave
to her hand the doe’s blood heat,
the closest she could ever be
to what sailed now
in scalloping leaps, almost
beyond her hearing, almost silent
through wild grape and hemlock.
He Saved Him
The summer after my grandfather dies, the complete silence about my great-grandfather’s life, his way of being, is broken. My grandmother tells me Adolf suffered terribly from depression. Her openness startles me. Were people aware–
Oh yes, they all knew about it. He once tried to drown himself in the cove, but my grandfather dragged him out.
I imagine my grandfather wrestling his father back out of the water; how his coming of age was inextricably bound to a terrible vigilance, then the torment of failure. Now I understand why he couldn’t bear to speak of him.
I almost believe humans have antennae that can detect the suffering of long ago. That there are ghosts, after all: these persisting echoes of pain. A face has always gazed out through the cove at me, its anguish softened into peace.
The first time I dreamed of my great-grandfather, years and years ago, he was standing in its waters.
Already his father’s half
blanked out. Snow plasters
his windward side,
blending him into a matte expanse
so pure his eye brims, squinting out
any texture. Over the cove, the flakes
ride on parallel planes of descent,
as if the light north wind was lining
a transparent page. The far shore returns
the muted konk of broadaxe blows, then
the stuttering ricochet and baffled squeal
as echo’s bullet burrows up
through a leaden weight of water and ice.
He steps off the stone dock, walk-sliding,
his boot toes nosing up
balls of snow, and he glances
quickly behind at stripes
the lusterless black of magnet
after a score of nights
still and bright sent the mercury
cringing into the bulb. The head’s
wedged, and his father wrenches
the helve back with unrestrained
brutality, as if to snap
a neck. He lets go to shrug
and fling away his coat—
and now he’s hacking at the ice
in shirtsleeves, sledging as if
to save a man slipped just now
under the ice, as if a life depends
on this one task.
Chips creamy-white as marble
spray off the angled bites
recalling the white-hot sparks
his father always made
for skating parties, dragging out
a mound of brush, feeding in
cedar and hemlock, roots and all, the pitch
adding pistol crack
to the groan of tide-heaved ice.
A resurrected trunk arose
to skate around, a voracious shaft
through which you’d glimpse
the faces of your friends made strange, masked
in fire’s shine. And then, when the skin of ice
could no longer heal itself from below
at the height of dazzle
the fire and all the glowing ruby
bones would hang a moment, then chute down
the cove’s throat. Arose
the hissing billows of steam. A moment
of absolute blackness, then the blooming
phosphor of the stars, the red core
of his pipe bowl lighting up
his ambiguous, contracted smile.
Over and over he will replay
the lurching turn, his father holding
the axe by its battered nape to prod
him back, then stepping back
into the rocking slush.
There had been
no look, no connect at all. No gigs,
no tackle, no spear. His father became
transparent, a single muscle
with one intent
to save itself, to drill back through
the gelid shelves of water,
and his son
the line that sung but did not break.
Editor’s Note: “Black Pansies” was previously published in New Madrid and “Famine Bread” in Alimentum.
Karen Holmberg’s second book of poems, Axis Mundi, won the John Ciardi Prize and was published in 2013 by BkMk Press. Recent poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such magazines as Southern Poetry Review, New England Review, West Branch, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, and Poetry East. She teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at Oregon State University.