at Length

Where His Lines Run

—Adam Tavel

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Engagement: Kitturah: 1 September 1833

Dearest Tom, father says that my demand
to write myself with news that he accepts(& I of course)                 your proposal, so standing,
is sure influence of his precepts.How bold I am indeed, that preacher’s fire! It is
so then, a full unransomed YES. Setthe date soon, for I will no doubt tireof waiting now that we shall both be blessed.
& vows! Gray haired foreverseems hardly real!       How

late.   Curtains yawning wide I writedrowsed at midnight: only eager stars & onedim wick light my tableside.  So
goodnight, my love, this chirpingworld fades to dreammy fingers tangled, your raven curls—

Welcome: H.R. Monroe Farm Supply & General Store: 16 May 1834

It is rare for us to extend
credit to our customers regardless
of occupation or community
status but given your recent nuptials, Mr. Thomas,
& your father’s esteem in this great
Dorchester County know seed
& handcraft implements from our shelves
have, for generations, helped hearty
fortunes sprout. This month flaying spades,
cart jacks, steel froes & corn flails straight
from London by way of Baltimore; southern
raids on lingering Nanticoke
brought surplus beads & arrowheads
fashioned from femurs of wild
Assateague ponies; cut petunias freshly
bundled for the Missus make
a splendid housewarming & our raspberries
sweetest on the Shore. Eager are we
to be your general for life & pray
to have the courtesy of your commerce
but for Saturday eventide—we proudly
observe Sabbath at sundown as the good
Lord intended.

Arrival: Kitturah to Candice in Wye Wills: 21 March 1840

Twins, dear sister, twins! Two & forty weeks’
labored waiting, fears a second child
at thirty-five & then this week two
arrive! Of course we chose good Gospel
names, our John all banshee
wail & Jameshis manner meekeven napping
when his brother thrashes wildly.
I tell myself I’ve done all this & thrivedbefore—
night cries & nursings, how like coldmorning fog the early
fond months fade—I try
to let cheer take its place at heart—but nagging
fears, the tiny toes& hands, can I endure while Thomastends log, field & mare, another
season’s start? I praythis birth a part
of heaven’s plan—:

After the Incident: Thomas: 7 July 1853

I won’t deny the scene, out there, the barn—
won’t dare claim you misread the moment’s
lewdness. You saw it as it was, this farm’s
damnable tryst & slender hoodoo bitch—
I’ve sown
my sin. These slaves savage bredlack sense or faith, closer
to beast than man& I the cur who stoopedto share their bed…but
excuseless! Stilled, that urge fanned
to flame—yours alone if fit you findsome spark to warm from this ash-
heap of grief. Fool,scoundrel weak
in will, foul in mind & deed—letgrace redeem the rueful thiefwho begged & bore
his cross beside our Lord’s. Stillpledged, this rootless mustard seedas yours:

Selling the Slave: Thomas to Judge Whitney Brown: 20 July 1853

Because my eldest lacks the goddamn spine
to heed my fierce command regarding
even this requisite affair, Whitney,
let this letter certify my request
that your chamber act on my behalf:
I want her gone the way I want the wind
my wife to ease her ceaseless rustling.
I want to torch the frigate sail that docked
the fiendish cargo of her umber skin
& the trade block gavel that clanged her mine.
Let’s avoid the furrowed brows—wait upon
substantial bid before you sell her south.
& should her heifer’s womb sag with calf
ram your pitchfork tines through the bulging sac.

Note for the Barn Door: Kitturah: 21 January 1854

If you remained the husband father beamed you’d be—
if you had half his warmth & decent honor—
if that infernal sin of yours meant more
to you than another shrew among your stinking
barn that you could scoff & shoo away—
if you spared a single word of kindness
for my table instead of wasting breath
on these thoughtless mares you pet & praise,
brushing their silken coats long after
our youngest lay blissful dreaming—damn it all
Thomas if twenty years of vows could stand
to make you keep our bed—if I had strength
enough to do the Gospel’s will—O Lord
if I had wings to brace against the dust——

Letter to the Undertaker: Thomas: 25 January 1854

Fashion it from marble: crisp burnished dates
in serif script. Marble since wind & frost
wreck our fallow field even when weeds
fail to bury marks of beast & man. My sons

request a chiseled ichthys, that peasant
sign that saved the saved from the Coliseum,
a sign of ardent faith their hands may trace
these long & wearisome years when stark

new moons pass over. Minnows in a tide pool,
these wailing boys ripple muddy shallows
as if some wave will save them from the sun.
Stand it three foot high—cost is no concern

but know that even though my eldest whines
I’ll not harbor a cross upon my land.

A Blessing: Ethan Esgate: 1 February 1854

Dearest Thomas, my last
earthly wish is prolonged suffering
but grace bestowed a waking

miracle to our nightmare. Beloved Victoria
with child after lifelong seasons
barren & Doctor Burnett confirms

the handiwork of Providence. Only one
other such case—a piteous Occohannock
squaw—so this assuredly

an angelic anomaly. For the sake
of preservation we plead to christen the child
Kitturah if indeed she be a girl. Your late

silence understood, brother, so only
respond if our asking strikes too hard
against the anvil. Our hearts

linger open should you want for any
small thing—plod the grim
march of weeks to stitch yourself

whole for your boys if nothing
else gets your hands upon an udder.
I pray these months sprint to bare

Kitturah beaming in our arms.

First Note for the Gravestone: Thomas: 7 February 1854

The river clots with ice.
Whereare your eyes?Snowtracks—mine
& deer’s—mark this wading out,my stagger back to grief I’ve made
my Calvary.
Enough.     Kitturah, I’ve hid a box behind
your marble stone that’s lidwill never know the sting
of nails. Hewn shagbark,your favorite, the one
whose leaves you readbeneath while James & John crawled themselves

to napping. A sound it was their weeping

when I laid it down.
May its hinges holdthis scrap & feeble
scrawl, this litanyof wilt besidemonth-old ivies,four wreaths browned
in snow above your hair

A Beseeching: Judge Whitney Brown to Geoff Williams: 26 May 1854

Thomas, I said, find some means to bind
your tattered threads together—three sons
bereft, farm in disrepair, nothing

planted & summer looms! Kitturah’s blood
was her father’s—no forgiving
that nigger bitch in the hayloft. Rush,

Williams, the first ferry from Baltimore—
these words short of their mark
& our Thomas a jarred light-bug flitting

against the lid. Intrepid friend, he needs
more than this windbag judge
to ease his strain. Christ—how I signed

the death register! What lie
for their good name & progeny! Prayer,
hard as he pushes, a broken barrow!

Esgate’s Weather Diary: August 1854

Tuesday, the 1st
Williams’ barn burnt
last night. Lost 2 plow, 9 spade
& axe, 5 barrel whiskey, countless
bushel apples & 3 good
horse. The roan still breathing
but wrecked—Tom
& I held while Williams
shot to end it. His Margo.
The child sobbed till dawn

Friday, the 4th
Berries, honeysuckle
picked with Tom. Light-
headed—after supper nurse
with brandy. Another suffocation
week. I took to Sarah while mending
stanchions but no she said
you stink always of horse
& still Kitturah
to Kitturah you go kneeling

Sunday, the 13th
Church. Raining. Meadow
a damnable swamp. Tended
grave with loose straw. Sarah
upset another spoilt shirt.
Studious, twins reading
gospels & Tom pens his
doggerel. Why bother Tom
I said your verses can they sing
can they sing her back

Monday, the 22nd
Mrs. Williams—Evelyn—
borrowed plow glistening,
drenched gingham in the swelter,
arms rivering nectar she tilts
her straw brim
back to show a thin
equator of dirt. Bangs
like bean-shoots, their slick
tips out for air

Sunday, the 28th
3 a.m. Margo in nightgown
sat an oak stump
petting her sheltie.
Watched her gaze cloud-drifts
& stars before dreaming
she was my little thin one
nestled under blankets—
grain beneath my hands
her maize-yellow hair

Plea for the Hangover: Sarah Esgate: 5 August 1854

Not your broke-back sparrow of need
all wing & helpless flail, I am your wife now
Thomas, a soul for which
you once took care before you drank
away each cast of stars. I’ll not sit idle
while you turn this life of ours to some
bent trumpet of grief. You’re not
the only man to lose a bride & lest
you lose another heartily I implore
you thaw beneath the sun. My face alone—
O how you healed those early weeks together,
our love a willow’s trunk you knew by touch.
Thomas I swear I won’t abide another dawn
your drunken shuffling in.

Twenty-Second Note for the Gravestone: Thomas: 11 November 1854

I’ve downed a whiskey
sea in silentmutiny, Kitturah, drowning in sweet starch

& powdered veils—Christmascrinoline, farthingales & Scots woolstockings I cannot let sink

with the wreck of memory.Most nights I sit our closet floorthumbing seams. What
June breeze dancedthis cotton? What mare
neighing kept my handsfrom worship? This much

I’ve gleaned—your Holy Tailorruns a hem & rips it out & this
our constant
dawning. Like a stitch undoneyour throat a moment seemed
until my shadow redshivered in its pool—

Last Note for the Gravestone: Thomas: 21 January 1855

You called this love a house burning down—

our roof & blistering beams smoldered
to wisp & ash, their slow
melt to the ground—some strange child of smoke
my bottle bled& nursed, our sons a drunkard they must
endure, nights
I stutter your Kthrough marrow, through white souls
of maples. Gustany name but hers, Kitturah, blast the steep
cinder of my folly.
For a time I waded outthe riverbed muck your God& hunched in silt
for His pyrite sheen.But now what sheenremains? What window left
to catch these blind pebbles?
These braying phantoms hungry now at dawn.
Our blade, one blood, forfeit
to frost & grass.

Note for the Suicide Casket: Thomas Junior: 23 January 1855

May the bright unfiltered rays
through winter mapleslead you homeward, no less mightythan glaring snows that cloakyour final dream. Father
what hell you’ve known, lost
moon-pale nights somebottle in your hand, soaked
mind awhirl with visionsthat cooled the spreadingrash of pain. Butjust until another
morrow swirled you back to us& we invisible,our farm brinked on failure. We

three young boysgrew lean each day you drooped
to drench her grave. I’m twentynow, Father. Nosmall joy or smirkingpride at my likeness could save
your end. So greet herghost—for John and James
only I, my charring wick remains.

Dictation: James Esgate: Southern California State Hospital: 20 February 1910

My dear nephew, this California gold
this light awash & trolley clangsure wealth for any soul
who can hold his own & blister palms
till payday. These nights of fading
health I drift from dream to hapless
dream, puzzlingat the rust on what we’ve borne—
our farm blood
orphaned bleak, two soulsslashed, days shufflingtheir gruesome stairs& Cambridge gossip,could I but forget. I mean all this to say

that soon my bones will fail.This state freedfather’s ghost & haunting razor, ‘Esgate’ here

as blank as ‘Jones’ or ‘Smith.’ In the lane below
no strident stallion clops or shakes its mane.

Adam Tavel recently won the 14th Annual Robert Frost Award and was also a finalist for Four Way Books’ 2010 Intro Prize in Poetry, as well as the 2011 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry.  His latest poems appear or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Phoebe, Redivider, Ellipsis, New South, Cave Wall, and Folio, among others.  Tavel is the poetry editor for Conte and an assistant professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he directs the Echoes and Visions Reading Series.