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Letter To Nathaniel Hawthorne

Letter To Nathaniel Hawthorne

by Alison Hawthorne Deming

                                   It's Sunday
and the yachts wave like handkerchiefs
of bon voyage. Only artists and priests
work on days like today, and vendors
who breeze like sails through the park.
I've wanted to write you since I was twelve,
the year I started to menstruate and Mrs. Gorman
asked in English if I had inherited your talent.
I was so unaware of my own fertility
I felt like she'd handed me a surprise test
on the one chapter I'd read and reread
and still couldn't fathom. I believed
to write what one knew would be insufferably dull
like wearing khaki for the rest of your life.
I didn't yet know how distinct each inner cinema
could be, how the love of language could provide
the most extravagant wardrobe. I read
that you wore a heel-length writing gown.
Sophia sewed it--the purple cloth
offset with a gold palmleaf, red lining.
When the left skirt became black with ink
as large as a hand where you wiped your pen,
she added a butterfly patch. I know
by this sign of your dedication
that you get my drift about Sunday.

The professor who came to the house
to discuss an island we have in common,
recognizing the portraits of you and Sophia,
said she was a socialist and you
a timid jack-a-dandy who never trusted fame.
I'm tired of sifting the shards of your life,
waiting to comb the Italian notebooks
for the incoherence that might suggest
unfinished business I'm meant to take up.
Whose business is ever complete?
Though your loved ones had to hope--
"Our friend finished all that God
gave him to do"--the eulogy sealed with
your unfinished romance, a wreath of apple blossoms
laid on your coffin. Your life, till the last,
was touched by the invisible: two years saw
your hair turn white, handwriting change,
manuscripts speckled from nosebleeds and
the roughly embellished figure "64"
written over and over when nothing else came
as if death had already begun to use you
naming the year it would blow into your sleep.

We've become like the family of steeplejacks
I saw on the news--each generation picking up
the trade because it makes sense to climb
jury-rigged scaffolding. It's work
they don't mind getting up to, although you
accomplished enough to face us
with what more we can become--your Puritan
burning to incorporate the wilderness
beyond his parceled yard, the woodland
so dense his improvised path closed
two feet behind him. Who doesn't want a place
unharmed by hands and wheels, where leaf mold
grows into cotyledon, pedicel, and calyx,
and the meaning of generation comes clear.

One inherits too much baggage to ever
step clear of the past. This was plain to you
suffering your great-grandfather,
the Justice who hanged his neighbors
when they denied being witches
and showed none of the signs--vomiting of
nails, bones, and needles--which inspired
carnivals in Europe where hundreds
of the accused were burned while vendors
hawked rosaries to the crowd. In New England
bewitchment was more subtle, execution more refined:
simple hanging by the neck for one Rebecca Nurse
who came a-railing at her neighbor because his pigs
had gotten in her field. The neighbor taken
with fits, struck blind, falling three times
in the doorway, coming to, saw death
sitting at his dining table. When it was done
the husband of Rebecca Nurse was made
to pay the customary fee for hanging.

You read the same accounts and changed
the spelling of your name--how Justice
Hathorne did preside over every hanging
and, though the jurors later published
their "deep sorrow at having acted on such evidence
in condemnation of any person," the name
of our forefather was not among those listed.
How was it possible--his parents had come,
charged with God's will, had dared
the three-month voyage in the grip of fickle weather,
cramped below deck in the shit stench--America was first
the smell of hemlock, ripe gooseberries, swamp roses,
wafting like the din of migrating grackles
off the stone coast. You did accomplish,
if not a pardon, at least a redirection
of the hope for perfection--the tendency,
inherent, of which I hesitate to speak,
not wanting to be dismissed.

The wind is up, white sails flap, flags
of a pacifist nation. From this distance
the yachts seem to move without effort.
At times my life seems touched by the invisible--
when my husband picks a fairy tale to read aloud,
"The Tailor in Heaven," it works like a hexagram
convening my mind. It happens
that a light-fingered old tailor arrives
at Heaven's gate on the day the Lord has gone
to check out the new delphiniums.
St. Peter, a cautious soul, but sympathetic,
knows the old man has snipped cloth away
from his best-dressed, most trusting customers,
but he softens hearing of the tailor's
blisters and lameness from his long journey.

Once inside the gate the tailor forgets
Peter's warning that he should hide
behind the door until God returns.
The tailor snoops through every chamber
of Heaven, finding in one a row of elegant
chairs, one much taller than the rest,
studded with rubies, cast of a higher carat
gold than any found on Earth. The tailor climbs up,
rests his feet on the gold footstool,
sees everything as it happens below:
an old woman washing laundry at the public stream
tucks away two silk veils for herself.
The sight makes the tailor so angry
he grabs the gold footstool from under his feet,
pitches it down at her, then ashamed, scurries to hide.

The Lord returns, having never left,
as only the Divine can do, and calls the tailor
to his feet. "You old fool, if I judged
as you do I would long ago have had no chairs,
benches, not even a knife and fork
to enjoy my supper. And how would you
have escaped so long?" The tailor,
sent to Wait-a-While, for the first time
sees Heaven and Earth as one mansion
built around a thatched cottage heart.

Your way of judging the world,
even at age four, was clear.
The winter your sister gave you
the bust of John Wesley, starched
bib and posture boasting sermons
endless and right, you filled it
with water through a hole in the pedestal
revealing its hollowness, stood the figure
on its head in the cold, waiting
for the juggernaut to freeze and burst.
Paradox came late, when history began
to haunt with--you meant to burst all pretense
by striving for a bigger view. Salvation, never
to be won by faith alone, would flow
from the bronze inkstand on which the infant
Hercules struggled with a goose for its quills.

Once I read a magazine self-help test
designed to cure the perfectionist.
It had me rate various activities--
reading a book, writing a letter,
making love, sewing a skirt--
by the amount of satisfaction
anticipated and realized from each.
I've forgotten exactly how it worked
but I learned that I expected the least
from sewing and therefore got the most.
But what if someone's truth
is a nagging expectation? Then to follow
this mass-market advice is to self-inflict
a wound impossible to heal or die from.
Such a victim burns from inside with guilt
for not going public with what he knows.

                                   I'm trying to grasp
why you passed the day writing stories
and the night burning them, why you paced
the ridge at the Wayside until roots
were laid bare, composing in your head
a way to speak in the marketplace
that would lift the veil of goods.

My aunts and uncles, like my parents,
each have one blue china plate that came
packed in a sea-chest with ruffs and linen,
leather and buckles, seeds, sheepskin
and clothes for four years. Passed
through nine generations, these small
ornate dishes did their stint on your table.
Or perhaps you too hung them on the wall
to study their beautiful, unlikely persistence.

Today the future's an overcrowded National Park--
no room for what should last. Still, I learned
what you learned--talk to a dead man
and no one will answer. You find yourself
the only one talking, hoping everyone listens
to keep alive the desire that inhabits
their hearts. Then your turn is over.
You turn into someone's idea of you.
But what you did, inventing a democracy
of guilt and pardon, still excites an expectation.
The yachts move without friction. I'm finished
feeling so small I envy their effortless pleasure.
They're just yachts, and there's no place
free of history left for them to go.

From Science and Other Poems
By Alison Hawthorne Deming
Louisiana State University Press
Baton Rouge, 1994. Pages 22-26.
ISBN 0-8071-1915-6
Used with permission of the
Louisiana State University Press
Other works by Alison Hawthorne Deming are
available at The World As Home:

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11996/

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