I have been exploring my ancestral lineage on my mother’s side and have felt compelled to give voice to the women who gave me life and whose sacrifices and survival have led to my being right here, right now, humbled and privileged. I am trying to create an opening, a channel, through which their voices, along with those of other women to whom I may be unrelated by blood but am nevertheless connected, can flow.
“We are not souls but systems, and we move in clouds of our unknowing like great nebulae.”
—Stanley Kunitz, The Science of the Night
It’s happening again,
the falling dream. I plummet
through the pinhole shaft,
hurtling feet first.
I was born breech, heels
conjunct my sister’s crown—
a perilous passage. I kicked her out
into the dark of the moon:
ours was a balsamic birth,
under the waning
Twinning, it’s in my blood,
my family line. I teeter
atop generations of shoulders, heady
with retrograde legacies,
tiptoeing on ancestral fields
sown with bones and teeth, thrumming
with blood, lunar
through the tunnel
of trees strung with fireflies.
Feverish with the twinkling, I grasp
at spinning orbits, swiping
at fistfuls of night.
Listen to the grandmothers’
whispers: Cup your hands
in supplication, a prayer
to the night.
Opening wide, I swallow
the sparks one by one,
filling myself with light,
belly glowing, eyes like beacons
scanning black depths
of sea and sky,
as my guide.
Projecting the signal
from my solar plexus, I radiate
inward and outward
with all my might
to birth a star,
slipping the confines
of body and time.
Lift your thousand faces
skyward, sight Gemini,
and fleet of foot.
All hail the divine messenger!
Postpartum: Dorchester, 1650
“Why did you not put in the story of… H. LAKE’s wife, of Dorchester, whom, as I have heard, the
Devil deceived by appearing to her in the likeness, and acting the part of a child of hers then lately
dead on whom her heart was much set.”
—Nathaniel Mather, in a letter dated December 31, 1684 to his brother, Increase Mather, author of Remarkable Providences: Illustrative of the Earlier Days of American Colonisation, 1684).
“With wayward cries, I did disturb her rest,
Who sought still to appease me with her breast;
With weary arms, she danc’d, and By, By, sung,
When wretched I (ungrate) had done the wrong.”
—Anne Bradstreet, The Four Ages of Man
Hear you not
the pitiful babe,
his cries tinny, circling
the inner spiral,
over ears, fly
to the barren
hooded cradle, rocking—
bereft. Inhale, catch
to killing cold,
bare feet stumbling
to the field,
on frozen ground, shelter
the tiny wood box.
Press ear to earth,
cheek to stone. Milk pricks
into the mound of dirt,
a futile offering.
a wail shatters the stars
into shards, scarring
the inexorable sky.
Original Sin: The Ballad of Alice Lake
Another that suffered on that account some time after was a Dorchester Woman. And upon the day of her Execution Mr. Thompson Minister at Brantry, and J.P. her former Master took pains with her to bring her to repentance And she utterly denyed her guilt of Witchcraft; yet justifyed God for bringing her to that punishment: For she had when a single woman played the harlot, and being with Child used means to destroy the fruit of her body to conceal her sin & shame, and although she did not effect it, yet she was a Murderer in the sight of God for her endeavours, and showed great penitency for that sin; but owned nothing of the crime laid to her charge.
—Reverend John Hale, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (1697)
Oil of Tansy,
herb of Rue,
or Savin Juniper?
Tell me true.
On Boston Common
where the Great Elm stood,
there the hangman
placed her hood.
swung from the tree
till her neck did break.
The minister exhorted
in her time of duress
admit to your witchcraft
but she never confessed.
They might be lenient,
they might relent,
yet Alice Lake
would not consent.
Instead she maintained
from her stinking dank cell,
I am a woman of God
in a self-made hell.
It is mine own fault
this sorry fate,
the noose that awaits me
I did create: I alone
wrought my own damnation
when I succumbed
to wanton temptation.
Before I was wed,
after carnal passion,
life bloomed in my womb
in unholy fashion,
and though with the devil
I ne’er did consort,
my own first babe
I tried to abort.
My dear girl survived
I did not succeed,
but God’s righteous wrath
hath punished my deed.
Each day I must gaze
upon the sweet face
that I did once
take pains to erase.
And now my baby
hath been appearing
in my head.
The empty cradle
sways at night,
when all is quiet
I take fright—
He cries and whimpers
with fevered moans,
that sear me deep
within my bones.
But when I search
he dissolves in dust.
The Almighty took him,
as I knew He must.
For in God’s eyes
I am unworthy
and my other three children
don’t deserve me.
And so Reverend Thompson
A witch I am not
yet well do I know
I have earned this lot.
I will walk to the gallows
with a penitent air,
clutching my Bible
and a lock of his hair.
To all ye about
who loiter agape
to watch my demise—
make no mistake.
The shame that you witness
is not what it seems:
I have met no demons
except in my dreams,
and way down deep
in my Puritan heart,
I have no knowledge
of Satan’s dark art.
So into God’s hands
I commend my spirit,
praying these words
might somehow clear it.
My soul now unburdened
nothing else left to say,
I beg you, kind Sir,
kick the ladder
Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), oil painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1869). Source: Thomas Satterwhite Noble 1835-1907 by James D. Birchfield, Albert Boime, and William J. Hennessey. Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum. Collection of the New York Historical Society Museum and Library website.
This painting represents my 10x great-grandmother, Alice Lake, who was hanged on Boston Common sometime around 1650 for witchcraft. According to the New York Historical Society Museum and Library’s description of this work, the woman who posed for the painting was, like me, a direct descendant of a woman hanged as a witch, though her ancestor perished in the Salem witch trials rather than on Boston Common. Thomas Satterwhite Noble, the artist, grew up in Lexington, KY, where I attended college and graduate school, and studied in Louisville, KY, my hometown.
“Execution of Mrs. Ann Hibbins.” Source: Lynn and Surroundings by Clarence W. Hobbs, Lynn, MA, 1886: 52. Artist: Frank Thayer Merrill. Retrieved from University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.
This illustration shows the execution of Ann Hibbins, who was hanged for witchcraft on Boston Common around 1657, several years after Alice Lake. Ann Hibbins was later fictionalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
I kneel on the cold floor of the death room hard
under my knees head bowing I pray over dust
and bones I pray to the Magdalene to the prostitute
I know her I know Mary knows me forgive me Mary
bless me Mary the other Mary not the virgin but the whore
I pray till the tears roll hot and steady quicker now
I smell the perfume in her hair feel it brush my feet
my face the angel voices float down the ancient stairs
the nuns are singing the nuns are singing
their praises to the sinner to the saint to the sinner
saint to the bones in the small silver box
(originally published in Limestone, then in Libation, Stepping Stones Press, 2006)
(For Faley Baker/Helen “Nellie” Harrington)
First it was papa,
the wild man
shoulders broad as the west,
flashing blue and brown
in a pauper’s grave.
He wrote letters
burned to ash
that mama never read,
words disappearing as the quill scraped
cheap paper tinged
Grandfather did not approve.
When the telegram came
Mama sat down
at the front door.
Her milk dried up
and Elliott Jr. wailed for days
curled fists clawing
For weeks after, in wordless dreams
I flew, suspended
above outstretched arms
waiting to land in the warmth
of whiskey sweat tobacco
But it was the end of days.
Tiny blood flowers
bloomed in my chest,
burning the fields to fallow.
At the fever’s peak
they cropped my hair
like a novitiate.
It was the beginning of the end
and the end of the beginning.
It all started in the big house,
my haven and curse.
There I bore her,
there I gave her away,
three years old
with a shorn head and a basket
of threadbare clothes,
washed and folded—
a mean estate, but not devoid
They stripped her
her Sunday best
in a christening of flames,
scrubbed her skin, her name,
You could say
Faley died that day,
“Nellie” rising from the ashes
of her lice ridden rags,
bald as a newborn.
If I hadn’t taken
in my daughter’s tiny lungs
etching a death’s head
disguised as a cherub.
If I hadn’t staked my claim
among delicate bronchial
tendrils and sprigs.
In church, Nellie sings the verse
‘And I will raise you up
on the last day.’ In response,
a whisper near her heart
intones ‘Forgive me.’
Forever and ever
(For Emma Bauknecht Baker)
The child’s (Nellie’s) mother had not revealed to the Harringtons her relationship. She often came to visit her daughter in the Harrington home. She slept with this little girl but never mentioned the fact that she (Nellie) was her own child. The mother of Nellie had another child, George, age six months, at the time of Nellie’s coming to the Harrington home. He was reared by a Mrs. Rank of Lafayette. The father of these children had gone west for employment and expected to send for his wife and children, but apparently the father met with misfortune and never returned. Since the mother was unable to work and care for her children at the same time, the children were given for adoption.
—“The Eva (Harrington) Reigelsberger Story,” Wetli World family newsletter (1959).
rough with work
plait ropes of hair.
Separating the waves
into three sections,
she weaves her truth
into the wisps slipping
through her hands.
“Faley,” she breathes,
inhaling the scent
of the girl’s scalp—
remembered, longed for,
The child’s small body
drowsy and warm
leans into her chest, crushing
her starched apron.
She is nearly finished now.
Over, under, over, twist—
the braid coils around her heart:
a stranglehold. Gasping,
she chokes on the bloody pulp
rising in her throat,
lips clamped together,
mouth a vise.
I hold in my hands a bloody mass:
I coughed it up last night and I don’t know
what to do with it.
Part of me wants to bury it like a placenta.
Or maybe I should eat it, put it back inside.
I didn’t know I had it in me, such gore.
I heaved it up with one long groan.
The dogs can smell it, the iron scent sweet in their snouts,
a mute metallic murmur. My white nightgown
bears a red gash, a crimson splotch.
I’m a maiden on her wedding night.
I’d rather die than let him unwrap
the gift swaddled between my legs
in rustling silk and satin.
You think I hold my heart in my hands,
but you are wrong. I cup a wounded bird
in my palms, all feathers and flapping.
(originally published in Libation, Stepping Stones Press, 2006)
Last night I dreamed of your gold
hoop earrings but I didn’t see your face
this morning I stood over your grave
while Nana Kwame poured libation on your bones
and the dirt that ate your skin and muscles
and drank your cooling blood
he looked up at the sky and down at the earth
and spoke to you
we didn’t mean to uncover you
and so we water you with akpeteshi
clear alcohol that burns my throat when I drink
from the orange plastic cup in your name
I don’t know your name but you are woman and young
they buried you flex-kneed and fetal
with your legs curled and your arms folded under your cheek
they buried you under your bed
like you were sleeping like before you were born
when you swam inside an ocean of warm waters
encased in a skin within a skin that has fallen away
I didn’t know what naked meant until I saw your brown bones
delicate and crumbling not white and clean like in books
seeing your outline in the earth feels more secret
than the inside of another person’s body
and I want to protect the fragile pieces of you
I want to caress them and stroke them
the femur and bits of kneecap
the rusty ulna and radius
the sponge-like pieces of your spine
your skull is missing and your hands too
and I wonder what your lips looked like your breasts
your bones are out of order
crushed and eaten by the heavy red clay
I want to gather you together in my arms
and whisper to you that I know you are beautiful
I want to re-string all the green glass seeds
from your waist beads for you
and tie them around your brown firm navel
I want to take your hand in mine
and run into the bush with you
into the wetness and animal sounds
of the shade from the flat-topped trees
that used to be here before
they cut them down and burnt the red clay to orange rock
before they laid you down
and bent your arms and legs
(originally published in Plainsongs, then in Libation, Stepping Stones Press, 2006)
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?
My identities as a woman and a writer are inseparable, and inform my work both consciously and on a more instinctual level. I see myself as a woman writer in the recurrent themes of my work—the “key images,” as Stanley Kunitz called them—that bubble up from my childhood and the experiences I have collected walking around this planet in a woman’s body for the past 43 years. Formative aspects of my journey include grappling with the repression of the sacred feminine/female body in the Catholic faith in which I was raised, as well as ‘balancing’ motherhood and work: not only my writing, but also making a meaningful contribution to my community and providing financial support for my family.
I have also chosen, or perhaps been chosen by, projects about women’s lives and experiences. Most recently, I have been exploring my ancestral lineage on my mother’s side and have felt compelled to give voice to the women who gave me life and whose sacrifices and survival have led to my being right here, right now, humbled and privileged. I am trying to create an opening, a channel, through which their voices, along with those of other women to whom I may be unrelated by blood but am nevertheless connected, can flow. Their stories, like those of all women, are full of the heroic and the quotidian, at once extraordinary and ordinary, personal and universal: they include a hanged ‘witch,’ a wife widowed with two children under the age of three, an adoptee, a young mother dead of tuberculosis just after her daughter’s first birthday, a prostitute, a saint, a girl buried in an abandoned village in Ghana. These are my grandmothers, my mothers, my sisters, my daughters, my friends, my neighbors, my students, my teachers, my leaders. Their voices are more important now than ever in a world desperate for transformation and healing, those creative and regenerative forces that have always been the natural province of women.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
My initiation into the writing life included both male and female mentors in Kentucky, a state with a rich literary tradition. Jane Gentry Vance first recognized me as a poet when I was an undergraduate in her poetry workshop, which I took on a whim, or thought so at the time. To be seen as an artist, my heart’s desire before I even knew it, when I was drowning in what I thought were others’ expectations of me and my own ego-fueled desire to ‘achieve’ in a more conventional manner, was deeply empowering. In her English and classics classes, I thrilled at the archetypal hero’s journey in the Odyssey, to which Penelope held the ultimate key; the brilliance of Sappho’s fragments; and the fearless truth-telling in Sylvia Plath’s unabashedly emotional poems.
James Baker Hall, another Kentucky poet, was my teacher and mentor during my Masters program in English. Jim introduced me, and so many others, to the spiritual work of writing, the potential of art to transform and heal. Jim used to say, only half-joking, that he’d teach all his workshops in the intensive care unit of a hospital if he could, right on the razor’s edge between life and death. He believed that language had the power to truth tell and redeem, to go back in time and “show up” for you during moments you had not fully processed and integrated due to pain, fear, trauma, or awe. As Jim explained, in an interview in Wind magazine, reasons for writing poems include “trying to understand something of importance, for instance. Wanting to celebrate, for another. Wanting to be compassionate. Trying to face your fears, no mirrors allowed” (80). Most of all, Jim trained our ears, taught us to listen not just to what the words of a poem “say,” but how they sound—their incantatory effect and the psychic impact and import they conjure—above all, their music.
Kwame Dawes and Ed Madden have also been important teachers and mentors for me. With tremendous generosity, artfulness, and skill, they sponsored the South Carolina Poetry Initiative’s First Book Project, a series of workshops for writers with unpublished poetry manuscripts. Their work, designing and hosting innovative programs engaging children and the general public, has shown me what a potent gift it can be to share poetry with the wider community. Some of the poets and writers whose voices have sustained, inspired, and challenged me over the years include Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Stanley Kunitz, Maya Angelou, Kwame Dawes, Ed Madden, Nikki Finney, Toi Derricotte, James Baker Hall, Jane Gentry Vance, and Joseph Campbell. Most of all, I always carry the voices of my grandmothers, mother, sisters, and daughters with me in my heart.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
In my personal experience, creativity originates from a deep well that is somehow both body and spirit. I have learned over time that my writing process is cyclical and operates from a mysterious, subterranean place. I can’t force this process but rather need to flow with it, harnessing the energies when they present themselves as gifts from the unconscious. Given my life choice to have children, becoming a writer has brought the challenge of reconciling the deep desire for motherhood with the necessary (alone) time and space to create. Nurturing the self plays a key role in making art: one must gather the courage to claim one’s power and distinguish the inner voice from the “madding crowd” within and without. For me, this entails ample, or at least enough, time to stare at the ceiling or take long walks or sit in silence with myself. Yet at the same time, in addition to my role as mother, I have a strong desire to engage with my community and, in some small way, ‘make the world a better place.’ It seems that poets, like the shamans and heroes of old, must learn to traverse between the inner and outer realms of life, frequently existing in the liminal spaces of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’—this is no easy feat. The way Stanley Kunitz describes the role of poets in society resonates with me and illuminates the path:
The truth is that poets in this country have lost connection with the dominant myth, the mystique of success and power. Whether or not we find it comfortable, our significant identification is with the American subculture and the disenfranchised of this earth. I don’t know what stronger political statement we can make than to choose to live from day to day as vessels of the compassionate imagination, telling as honestly as we can how it feels to be alive in our time (Ljungquist, 159).
I have also learned that there are seasons for my writing, as in everything. There have been periods of months and even years when I have not written a single line, not to mention a poem, particularly when my children were infants and toddlers. I used to despair at these ‘dry spells’ and feel a sense of anxiety and loss at being disconnected from my creativity. Now I look back and recognize these stretches as periods of growth where I was accumulating the life experiences and doing the internal creative work required to ‘birth’ new art. As Etty Hillesum wrote so eloquently in her diary before her death in Auschwitz: “…I do believe it is possible to create, even without ever writing a word or painting a picture, by simply molding one’s inner life. And that too is a deed.”
As a practice, writing for me requires a delicate combination of discipline and dreaming, structure and surrender. I used to subscribe to the notion that being a writer included withdrawing from the world and writing every day at the same time like clockwork. While this may work for some artists and still sounds great to me in theory, it is not only impossible (with three school-age kids and a day job) but also stifling for me. I now do most of my writing “off the margins,” during the in-between and liminal spaces that make up the majority of my life: scrawling a few lines in the morning while remembering a dream; stealing half an hour between dinner and bath time; luxuriating in the quiet darkness when everyone else is asleep.
Two things I have realized are critical to my writing: reading and community. Reading other poets and writers inspires me and, I hope, elevates my own art. Spending time with other artists, my tribe of poets and writers, also feeds my soul and my craft: there comes a time when I need to share my writing in the light of day and receive feedback from others. This not only refines the work but also makes it come alive: somehow, a poem doesn’t feel like a poem until it has been read with others, preferably out loud.
Therese Gleason Carr is the author of the chapbook Libation, published by Stepping Stones Press (2006) under her birth name, Therese Gleason. Libation was a co-winner of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Chapbook competition, selected by contest judge and series editor Kwame Dawes. Her poetry has also appeared in Limestone, Plainsongs, and as part of an exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Garden at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. As an undergraduate, she received the Wilhelmina Barrett Award for Poetry from the University of Kentucky Honors Program.
Therese was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and has lived in Spain, Ghana, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. She has worked in the field of education for nearly 20 years as a teacher, grant coordinator, and program manager for state and federal assessment and accountability programs. For 12 years, she managed grant projects on technology-based assessments designed to increase equity and access to testing for English learners and students with disabilities. Therese has taught writing and ESL at the University of Kentucky, Saint Louis University–Madrid, and the University of South Carolina. Most recently, she has taught Spanish as a world language and multisensory structured literacy to students in grades K-6. Currently, Therese lives in Worcester, Massachusetts with her husband and three children, where she works as a reading teacher, certified dyslexia therapist, and educational consultant. She is a member of the Worcester County Poetry Association and serves on the advisory boards of the Clemente Course in the Humanities and ArtReach’s Artists in the Schools afterschool program, as well as the Community Impact Committee of the United Way of Central Massachusetts Women’s Initiative.
Beard, Alice Marie. “Alice (Mrs. Henry) Lake, Executed as a Witch.” Retrieved from Alice Marie Beard website, December 17, 2018.
Black, Sarah K. “Women & Witchcraft in Colonial Dorchester: The Tragic & Mysterious Story of Alice Lake.” Archives & Public History at UMass Boston. Retrieved from Archives & Public History at UMass Boston, December 17, 2018.
Hale, John. “A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft,” in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, ed. Charles Lincoln Burr. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1946, p. 408-409.
Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-43 and Letters from Westerbork. New York: Picador, 1996.
Kendrick, Leatha. “Imagination and the Intellect: An Interview with James Baker Hall. Wind. 75(1995): 68-84.
Ljungquist, Kent P., Ed. Conversations with Stanley Kunitz. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2013.
Woelfel, Helen Reigelsberger. Indiana’s Eva Buscher Reigelsberger, Her Ancestors, and Descendants. Edina, MN: 2013.