Beauty and Fear


Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear . . .
—William Wordsworth


And then I was. A thing called me. A slight
abbreviation of the air, a clotted wet,
coddled and red. I was the woman wearing white
bent over me, picking us up, the milk’s duet,
a hefty, humming rhythm curdling in the dark.
I was the whirlwind of a draining bath, the oozy
coil of kettle-steam, a shadow’s arc.
Until I wasn’t: one by one things fell away from me,
becoming they: warm lamplight, stars, the screeching
crows, the calm perfected chaos of the cat.
The wind’s persuasion showed my shape to me, teaching
me what I was, that this was this, and that was that,
and in between, a chasm, space, insuperable air,
sheer distance that no lullaby could fix or disavow.
What did I know, huddled in skin? That out there
was the world. That I was here. That it was now.


Once mom rolled flat the disc of dough,
she’d let me take the whiskey glass and twist
the biscuits out, a floury archipelago
of coastlines conjured by my wrist
from scraps and straits of yeasty sea,
which she’d ball up, and roll again,
each time tearing away a taste for me,
chin at her elbow, taking in this silent treatise on
the space between us, part and whole,
on how much nothing huddles in the cracks.
Nothing was everywhere: the marble-hungry hole
under the oven, or the drive from Halifax
to Nan’s house: hours of blank unbroken snow,
of lightless gaps the night sky brewed,
in which each star sat like a crow
caught in the crow’s-nest of its solitude.


My grandpa held the spoon next to the candlelight.
Showed me my face, but not, warped slantwise
in a wrongness that, who knows, was maybe right,
a bright unmasking of all shape, all size:
my grandma, only crooked, spooning stew
made of potatoes tugged that morning from black rows
and scrubbed so coldly that her hands turned blue.
And then, reflected past her shoulder, windows,
Chevys stretched out snake-like, basking in the sun,
ready to shed their skins, their caked terrain
of Utah, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan.
Past them, a smear of cow. Splayed grain.
The truth is what we’re used to, just a weave
of light. Now I could really see: the barbed-wire fence
staved like the hymns we’d hum or hold or heave
into the air. The air’s immense indifference.


No one knew what it was. No chute for coal,
too cramped for wine, though ageless
vintages of shadow ripened in that hole,
that basement in a basement in the house left to us
by my father’s mom, a crumbling Victorian,
complete with secret crypt that let in rain,
a sweaty id hid in that creaking well-bred brain.
Black rats scraped and slobbered in that den,
whose dust and shadows incubated
while I barely breathed, in bed, begging for sleep.
But some mad hag-thing of my making waited,
stewed in the bottom of that fungal deep.
I felt that darkness joined to me, umbilical,
so that if I crept close she’d stir, and blink bright eyes,
burst shrieking from her slimy cell,
and to the top stair, right behind me, rise.


It sat mostly unplayed, and yet the whole house
hummed in orbit around that piano’s gravity,
that cooling star, whose core arrested us
with molten silence, taut-strung possibility.
I skipped my lessons, slept in, aimed
at lazy mastery of good enough, evasions
as elaborate as the melodies I maimed,
distracted by a new theme, and its variations:
Ann, my teacher. She helped pay for school
by watching me make swampland
of a Schubert lied, or sink into a whirlpool
of dissonance. She’d sometimes lay a chiding hand
on mine, and tease mature, more terrifying tones
out of my fingers, stained still with the mire
of the marsh where I once found, under the stones,
two red newts fused like fierce dark fire.