by Stephen Ronan
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her father forty-one.
—Turn-of-the-century children’s song
My mother pointed out
Your cadmium house one night
As we walked home from mass.
A backyard then,
A trellis of bloodclots.
You were a dark silhouette
Behind a pale curtain of eyelids.
The jumprope song reaches further back.
Photos and paintings of you
In the window of Adams’ bookstore
Through the amber plastic
Hung so they wouldn’t fade.
Today in the gutted storefront
Your images persist.
Past the funereal high school,
The Historical Society
With its granite monoliths,
A church of materialism,
Excommunicated by relics
Of your supernal life.
Then your final house,
Sudden wind from the sunset Bay
Sweeps a lost white glove
From the gleaming granite step
Where "Maplecroft" is carved.
In the sun’s dying rays
An optical illusion of eldern runes.
I prowl behind the carriage house
To look within your veiled rear porch.
Children topple marble obelisks
Over the graves of mill owners.
Scaling the wall of Oak Grove cemetery
I am dizzy in a wave of night vision
of the Negro pallbearers
hoisting your black-draped box over it.
They bury you in a place other
than where your headstone marked
to foil the carnival barkers
who sought to cube your bones for dice
or charge admission to view your mummy.
Dusk escapes from ajar crypts
Bleeding into trees and monuments
Against the mercury sky.
Flaxen bats emerge from wrought iron gates
Of mausoleums, openings
Of vast caverns where the dead reside
Where the Quequechan flows.
And you follow with your entourage
Of gossamer serpents, two flaming wolves,
silk flying foxes, other nameless ones.
To form a canopy over your graceful step
Through the deadly nightshade,
Through bouquets of daggers.
Like Houdini unable to remain chained,
You lead toward a maleficent city risen anew.
I follow at a distance.
Passing your father’s grave,
His skeleton of glowing coral
As if through six feet of sea,
Wears your untarnished ring.
Red smoke stacks of the mills
Emerge from the swollen Bay.
The night doubled by coalsmoke.
We are periodically illumined by streetlamps
To the gaze of smokey faces in widow’s lookouts
Along High Street to Maplecroft.
As you enter to encant your dark evangel
I return to the back porch,
Then steal within to join the convent
of lotus-eaters who attend you.
Actors, dancers, poets
In eroded stage finery,
And your tragic androgyne, Nance,
Shouldering a falcon of animate onyx.
You suddenly dispel this atmosphere
As aromatic as sleep in a burning building
And once again we are in the streets.
Those the ignorant call hell-spawn
Appear and evanesce and we descend
From the hill to the actual inferno
Of granite mill buildings
Bearing your father’s name.
Muffled cries of children at the looms
Escape from within as the night shudders.
Christmas wreaths turn black
In the downtown of phantoms.
You lead into the boarded-up
McWhirrs department store
Where you shoplift undetectably.
Tonight an atomizer
Of Black Widow spider balm.
The salesgirls were told to add
Missing goods to your father’s account,
O perfect criminal!
Outside watery lights undulate.
You greet the Marshal
With a Massassoit war whoop
And stop to vilify a priest
Before St. Mary’s church.
He brandishes his crucifix of dry ice
That vaporizes in his sweating hand.
You decorate his cathedral with contumely.
We reach 92 Second Street under a brass moon
Pierced by a skeletal finger of cloud.
The ring with which you wed your father.
You climb the narrow front stairway
Past the whispering dress closet to the guest room.
She stands between the bed and the mirror.
In an instant the hatchet throws sparks
That ignite the magnesium walls.
Petals of flame drift down
From wallpaper flowers to land
In a pool of petroleum issuing
From her shoulders over
A shattered ceramic doll’s face.
The false hairpiece, a severed rope mooring.
In the dirt floor cellar a player piano
Annuls gravity in the giddy staircase,
Beyond the dark barn,
The druidic stone well,
A pear tree yields biblical fruit.
The past and future occur simultaneously,
You turn to your fate of absent heat.
In the hermetic sitting room
Your father exhales a rancid mutton smell.
The Taunton River rises up to Second Street.
Your drowned suitors, eyes eaten by fish,
Appear in the windows as if in funhouse mirrors.
His sleep removes the air from the room.
Flies incinerate in its furnace.
His breathing is the sound
Of the satin coffin lining tearing
From his couch stuffed with hoarded currency.
His head scatters, a jigsaw puzzle,
Spilling torn up newspapers
The vowel A on each shred
Soaked in his black blood of flies.
I observe from without
Through the missing wall of a doll’s house
As you dance your staccato taboo,
And stand in a boat formed
By the moon’s reflection
Rocking below it as a pendulum.
An immense whalebone corset
Drifts up the roof as the skylight
Of your secret attic room swings open,
And you levitate through it
To board this gondola to float North,
Deaf to the interrogation of stuffed seals
On gelatinous towers and steeples,
As this spectral sea drains uphill
To the subterranean caves of the boneyard.
At this dwarf’s table of dawn
No seats for the pontiffs
Who seek to enlist your signature
For their stagnant guest books.
The recent cornball language
On your "passion"
Missed the desire that flowed
As ultraviolet light.
Desire for the sexual spectre
To blot out the hazy Fall River sun
That filled your father’s
Woolen undertaker’s jacket.
And give life to vampires
That encircle his woman’s
Dreams of millinery,
To rent their cheap fabric.
In the kitchen by the black stone sink
A box of burning glass
With a handleless axe,
Photographs of splintered skulls,
A jar with rusty flakes of his blood
A bedspread stained with his wife’s,
A cardboard echo
Of your silver nitrate smile.
Copyright 1983 by Stephen Ronan. All Rights Reserved
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