Home Economics, 1825
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider
the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin. - Matthew 6:28
A poor family, ten children to raise
for the Lord. How many potatoes and turnips
must a woman hoe and store in the cellar?
Your mother churned butter, plucked scalded hens
after they quit laying; tended the white
mulberry in the dooryard
and fed its leaves to silkworms.
She spun and knitted your silk stockings;
loomed your homespun; worked tallow with ash
for soap; kneaded shirts, petticoats, trousers
against the washboard; taught sons and daughters
the chores they could handle. Evenings
while she mended, shed exhort you to holiness.
And still she found time for a flower garden,
petals fine as threads from a caterpillars
cocoon. You could listen to the tremolo of rain
on rose, soft as water-sounds of silkworms
on mulberry leaves, and fill yourself
with the scent of lilac. How morning-
glorys purple blossoming feeds a child.
How rich you grew up, poor.
Seasons in the Smithy
How black is a coal-stoked chimney lit
by sparks? Blacker than the night sky spun
with stars, planets with their gravitational pull
on any matter within their reach. You reached
for Thomsons Seasons: Newtons physics
in blank verse. Here are the rocks, brakes,
and heaths of Scotland, half a world away,
and the Sun that even a smithy roof
in Connecticut couldnt quite block out.
How black can be the hours of a smiths
apprentice, when hes got Nature, vast and detailed,
poetry twined with science on the printed page?
Rivers in spate, and snow-torrents; Africa
and Lapland; historys progress in arts and arms;
mankinds evolving vision: verse to exalt the Soul
to solemn Thought. You kept that book close
to hand and eye as close as any tool.
As close as the Latin grammar in your pocket.
How quick were you to slip such nonsense
out of sight, when the other apprentice-boys
walked by? Theyd only burst out laughing.
Short sips, youd say, of beauty.
Just enough to spark not quench
The Moon is the reflection
of a young girls smile
looking directly at her golden
tresses will strike you blind
and speechless as a wood thrush
before dawn, in that long
forest-dimming into morning.
By noon, stop your ears, dont
listen to bees praising the peaches
ripe in someone elses orchard.
A blacksmiths apprentice
trudges back home, smelling
of coal smoke and sweat,
and still the earth swells
silken from its furrows. Could
it be sweet Lucy of New Britain
whos only a girl, after all?
No, yes; a girl like others,
with the scorching gaze.
Walk past them quick, incog.
Dissolve into your own
shadow. Only when youre
safely out of sight, resume
your self alone.
Out of Work
All week, no one has ordered
a hoe-head, or a plough. At the foundry
theres no employment, none
in the whole neighborhood.
What leisure in an idle afternoon,
when you cant see
how youll pay your board?
What recreation in your books,
when you havent done day-labor?
After an hour of Greek
your head is heavy, it needs clearing
with a good hammer-stroke
on iron; the hot breath
of bellows and the flare in the forge,
the ache of muscles
to engage the minds gears.
Today you stand in the blacksmith
with empty hands; in shirt-sleeves;
coat and vest put aside. Not
working. Acrid after-
scent of burnt coal and horse hooves.
Can it revive you lungs,
brain and courage?
Or will you go back to your room
and stare at an open book
like a foreign language?
After the Prayer Meeting
Was it spring, and a full moon
that night, as you
and another fellow walked
the two sisters home?
What were all their names?
The four of you caught up
in the flush
of all that Alleluia fervor,
the soul a-bloom, the revival
spirit that brings color
to a womans cheek not quite
a blush. Did you feel a giddy
rush akin to that devil Rum
youd never tasted? weed
of sin that roots itself
and sprouts all over a mans
garden, if he for a minute
puts away his hoe, lets down
his vigilance. Thank you,
she said, for the escort home,
and Goodnight. Were you
glad to see her
disappear behind that
A Matter of Pennies
Heres a penny on the sidewalk hardly worth
picking up, except for luck. A penny buys nothing
these days; how many shoppers pass it by?
And you, Elihu: for ten hours a day at the forge,
a journeyman smith earns nearly one hundred thousand
pennies in a year. From that, subtract the sixty
thousand you lost on your literary journal.
Was that ill-advised? Surely a good cause
deserves as many pennies as it begs.
You could translate a history of Florida
from the Spanish, but no one cares
to publish it; or write reasons against war:
how many pennies a column inch, one article per
week you could pay your board with that!
Might as well say youre rich,
since rich is relative. Remember your father
didnt the townsfolk call him good-hearted
but impractical, given to dreams? Did they say,
among themselves, he sowed sound pennies
on barren soil? When he died, how many
pennies did he leave you?
Now you lecture Peace to a full house,
but your fee goes to paying for the hand-
bills, or rental of the hall. Apprentice
to your pen for pennies doesnt Providence
watch those who walk penniless but
in their dreams?
Pilgrims to the shrine of this famous domicile are liable
to much disappointment at finding so little remaining.
Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John OGroats (1864)
They say leaving is better than arriving.
I remember foggy June mornings, the beginning
of summer; our essentials packed
into the 1950 Ford. Id be singing
as we pulled out of town I always sang
to be leaving in the fog. What did I know
of Alaska, Havana, Pennsylvania?
Would the streets be paved, the people
understand our language? It didnt matter,
we were on the road.
But arriving is never as good as
anticipation. I felt it again, turning
your last few pages, Elihu. The Orkneys
glowed across the Firth as if
to call you, but you werent going
that far. John OGroats was enough even
if its eight-sided legendary hall,
its eight doors and octagonal table
were gone, its stones salvaged
for a granary.
Still, you stuffed your pockets with sea-shells,
and rejoiced. Who could be happy
with a few wave-worn shells? If I listen
to the conch of a childhood summer,
its message is nothing but the song in my own
ear. But youd walked 700 miles
to find a barren shore with a mythic name.
You were glad to arrive.
Happiness must be a state of mind
A delicate chain of charms suspended
from a meniscus; sound-strokes
linked to the proto tongue
from which Greek and Latin parted
Sanskrit looks so foreign.
Ancient language of hymn and mantra.
Is it true its name means self-made?
No wonder, Elihu, you were drawn
to it, as were those school girls
who came to you to learn
its script and spirit.
At the end of eighteen months study,
you helped them translate
Longfellows Psalm of Life, a bridge
between the well-loved poem
and the classic tongue of India
a gift of mystery
the poet himself
might hold in his hand,
and marvel at its indecipherable
line-dance of exotic characters,
without being able to read
a word of it, or do more
than sense the meaning
transported beyond English.
Forging Iron with Coal
[at the Historical Park]
This 49er smithy swarms today
with fifth graders. A boy in a Harley T-shirt
checks out the treadle grindstone
and points at a bellows by the forge.
Outside, an aproned smith tends the crimson-
orange-black flickers of his coal-fire.
An April breeze swirls coal-smoke
till it fills the smithy with a pungence
I wont soon forget. I imagine you, Elihu,
carrying that scent long after you gave up
the anvil, after you left Londons filthy air
and your post in the Black Country.
Years later, your lungs were broken
bellows, hemorrhaging with mankinds Progress.
You recognized a fire-breathing dragon
inside the Iron Horses hide.
Tonight our news will be of global
warming, Earths illness and ours: carbon-
footprints smudging the seas, soils
and sky. For now, fifth graders tire
of the smithy and move on. I continue
my walk along the prospectors trail
where deer-brush still blooms
April-white and fragrant.