Poems from Cracked Piano

THE LUNATIC BALL

after “Dance in a Madhouse,” by George Bellows, 1882-1925

Furious dancing gives way to screams;
five men stare, ghoulish, at the wall.
This is the lunatic ball.

The best student Yale had ever seen:
three months after graduation, typhoid—
brain swelled inside his skull.

They dosed out calomel—five ghosts appeared
in a mercury dream, headaches unbearable.
This is the lunatic ball.

Married one year, baby the next, his wife
filed for release; the medical textbooks
he gleaned: futile, endless stall.

A woman names her baby doll Christ, lurches,
leans, a building in an earthquake, then
she crawls. This is the lunatic ball.

One man plays a flute, calls himself Faunus;
another uses an invisible latrine.

Attendants haul out a wildman in a straitjacket
on a wooden beam; a woman growls like a bear.
This is the lunatic ball.

Behind a glass wall, well-dressed spectators, riveted,
sit amused. Looking at them looking, the patients

know they are through. Spectacled
men sport greatcoats, and laced-up
women make jokes in the shimmering hall.

 

First published in cahoodaling Literary Journal and also published in The Lunatic Ball, Kattywompus Press, 2015, and in Cracked Piano, CavanKerry Press, 2019.

As part of a humanistic movement in the treatment of mental patients in the latter half of the nineteenth century, superintendents at insane asylums frequently held balls, considered therapeutic for their patients. Spectators were sometimes invited.

Because my great grandfather, Peter Rawson Taft, was institutionalized in the Cincinnati Hospital for the Insane and because of the scourge of such hospitalization, he became a disappeared person. During my childhood, the only statement that I ever heard about him was from my mother who said that while his half-brother, William Howard Taft, became a U.S. president, Peter was the first American to get a divorce, which, of course, was untrue.

After graduating from Yale as valedictorian of his class and the best student from Yale to that date (the story was in the newspapers), Peter contracted typhoid fever three months after he graduated. By all accounts, he almost died, never fully recovered, and suffered from terrible headaches for the rest of his life. It is unclear whether his problems emanated from ingestion of calomel, the mercury compound that was given in large doses to patients, from brain swelling resulting from lack of antibiotics, or from some other cause.

In reading the William Howard Taft Papers, which contain family letters, I uncovered details of Peter’s short and mysterious life from his childhood to his death from tuberculosis at forty-four. Because trauma reverts back to those who do not address it, Peter’s disappearance from our family caused a perceptible, continuing, and subliminal disruption.

 

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MY MOTHER IS DYING

In the place where she belongs,

suffering erases itself, doves

bring her seeds, horses sleep

next to her in the straw,

 

where she belongs; a welcoming

place holds her, keeps her

from running away—the green

greenness of the hay turning to gold.

 

Already, the rain’s restless

trajectory. My mother is busy dying;

she no longer knows my name.

This is the wind of Eden,

 

the wand of change, the last slave

of silence, the knave of rain, so quiet

the roving of each vacant quest. Let her

be buried in the sea by the seaberry,

 

the briar rock, the fossil chamber.

Alone, blown, roadside stray,

the flown restless wayward ringing,

bells clang, ocean downcast, rolls.

 

Wandering once again, now I

return to the center, searching

the level earth, calling her name,

remembering that I am lost.

 

The path unfurls before my dog

and me, walking to the rocks, the ocean

on one side, the bay on the other,

eiders blessing the waves.

 

The seagulls’ spontaneous burst,

how it hurts with the radio blaring.

My mother is dying, gone from

a body that has abandoned her.

 

Cry because everything goes haywire,

because this is Apollo’s siren lyre, the field-worn

answer, the childless response, children waiting

for some god to bring them home.

 

First published in Poetry Flash and also in Cracked Piano, CavanKerry Press, 2019, and in the anthologies enskyment Online Anthology of Poetry, edited by Dan Masterson, 2018; and Reflections Pool: Poets and the Creative Process, edited by Laurance Carr, 2018.

More than a decade passed before I could write about my mother’s death. This poem is both an elegy for my mother and for nature itself. In the Dark Ages, individuals mourned the death of nation states. We live in the darkest age. This poem mourns the death of the natural world as we precipitate the sixth extinction, the greatest mass extinction in the history of the earth. We must not turn our backs to the demise of countless species—the butterfly, the turtle, the frog, the bee, the tiger, the giraffe, the snow leopard, the elephant, the polar bear, and on and on. We must now act forcefully in the short time we have left to mitigate the apocalyptic effects of climate change and species destruction.

 

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Poems from Ghost Moose

DOLLS

The dolls wait for the children
to wake up. They lie on their backs,
staring upwards as though

the ceiling were a resting place.
For them, love is what counts—
holding them, talking softly,

making certain they sleep
comfortably in their beds.
Knowing how to dress dolls

is an art—just what color socks
each takes, like pouring tea, how
many gowns, where the shoes go.

Dressing could take all day, or
just a second. Dirt sticks
to a doll. Remember, rain

is not right for her. Exposure
to the elements breaks down
a doll’s resistance. Wait

until storms abate before leaving
with your doll. Time means nothing
to her. She will wonder

about rain, about everything
trains bring. Tree flowers drape
light strands like spider babies

in soft wind. Dolls are restless
on their feet all day, listening
for helicopters. They gather

on roads after rainfall to smell
the concrete getting wet,
the newly soaked pavement almost

drunk after a dry spell. Dolls
on boats head for rocks
in high winds. How many times

they wished the boat could reverse,
but before motors were invented,
everyone jumped ship. Each day,

supermarket racks sport headlines—
dolls gone sour, dolls born with beards,
hair grown with snakes, Medusa-like.

 

First published in Plume Literary Journal and also in Ghost Moose, Kattywompus Press, 2019.

Some of my poems emerge over decades, sometimes over forty years, but I have written others in one sitting with no revisions. Most of my poems fall in between the extremes, and “Dolls” is one of those. My latter childhood was spent as one of fifteen children and step-children, an amalgam of three families. I was an avowed tom-boy, but I always thought that I would have liked to spend more time with dolls. For instance, I yearned for a carrying case for my imaginary doll’s clothes. “Dolls,” is about the doll that I would have most liked to own, a poem that finds cholera in water rather than in miasma. It is a poem of witness for all things, animate and inanimate, and the necessity we share in caring for the entirety.

 

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