|Jan/Feb 2011 Poetry Special Feature|
Mary Sweeney's Song
In the 1890s, Mary Sweeney, a schoolteacher and mother of two, was detained in an asylum, after years of breaking windows in towns around the state of Wisconsin. (Source: Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy).
My name is polished clean,
my name shines clear. I knew
what they could never know—the cold,
the dry wells, bare attics,
the unvarying grey light.
In the schoolroom, I looked up to find
the twenty faces blank, almost
translucent, and so quiet. I felt
they could see through me.
The surface cracked: outside,
a bareback horse with riffling mane.
And then the trampled street was empty.
There will be nothing now unless
I make it happen. So, I make it, watch
as great blades rise like gulls, slashing
lights the size of fingernails
and dust—the finest, sharpest dust—
that breaks like waves, like foam, like surf.
The dread, the shattering silence;
then the crash—
immense, metallic, irrevocable.
Disintegration is my peace,
my blessed break, release.
So ask me why. They always ask me,
time and time again—
as if a world in bits
admits of empty reason.
Shooting stars don't help: dumb behind the clouds,
silenced by daylight, but pain can speak, or a stiff joint,
the way on stairs a knee will take the strain. Sometimes
I'll catch that sharp, metallic scent and know of hailstones
days before they come, or thunder longer still. Sometimes
I hear it in the air, like mice on an attic floor, an early warning—
unmistakeable: next day, white fields, a stream to trample on.
For coming change, count the skites of a flat stone on water,
watch the flight of gulls, the angle of leaf-lift in the wind.
Everybody knows of coloured skies, licked fingers, assurance
coded into rhyme; but to see a week ahead in animal spoor,
or know how long a squall will last, by tasting rain?
Or sometimes lightning strikes, wired out of cold, dark nerves,
deaf and blind to elements. There is no signal for that storm.