A May Poem

by Sarah Kennedy

Under a roof of rhododendron, in
nearly-summer, and the soft rain sounded
on the leaves, slight fever of storm above
the oaks, but down against the ground it was
all shiver and cool earth, damp legs and yes
again, it was close your eyes and sleep some
in the filigreed green, branches arching
dirtward and the dirt clinging, the body

wanting that bed and its long memory
(of the petals rotting into its lap
of the sweet little deaths of animals)
even as it wants to awaken now,
fingers seeking earrings, a button, loosed,
rising again just as the sun comes clean.

The Home Front

by Sarah Kennedy

            Bess of Hardwick was the richest woman, after the queen, in Tudor England

But why next door to the last house?  Unless
            she liked to stand upstairs in the new one,

the larger mansion, and see her progress
            from middle-class comfort to wealth marked out

by the path from door to door, from “Hardwick
            Hall,” old style, to “more glass than wall.”  The pair

of stately chairs with their huffy arms, raised
            at the far end of a receiving room

whisper throne under their canopy, designed
            to honor the queen, who never showed.  Bess:

not much diminished from Elizabeth,
            who was always down at her own court, not

a woman who liked to travel as far
            north as Derbyshire.  A transparency,

a permeable skin of window, one
            widow’s looking glass during those winter

evenings when the sparse and faint stars lingered
            as points of light along her brow, where she

supervised the laying of the gardens,
            how the sunlight flayed the workers’ backs all

summer, a perfection just possible
            in peacetime, the heart of a new empire.

Her initials in stone are only topped
            by the filigreed crowns colonizing

the sky, lest anyone approaching make
            the error of misjudging her power.

The portrait hall holds royal relatives,
            instruments of leisure, a piano,

an old lute or two, a roll-out of rug.
            And where are the husbands and sons these days?—

Spreading the word of God, of investment,
            around the known world, and she imagines

she can hear ships in the distance, their squeak
            and roll, she can almost see those people

in those far-off lands brought closer—heathen,
            grotesque as the carvings in the poorer

home that stand now open to all weathers,
            their heads low, under her improving eye.

American Revolutions

by Sarah Kennedy

1.  Monticello

Well, no one would mistake it for a farm
            house—Ash Lawn down the road or, God forbid,
                        an ordinary mansion.  And wonders
            abound from the antlers and bones to maps
and Old Masters.  Picture him on the floor

with a book, says the guide, papers paying
            court in their piles around him while his man
                        servant tries to straighten up.  Here he caged
            his mockingbirds, talking between themselves
while he rested from writing by working

“keys and locks and small chains, iron and brass.”
            The alcove bed divides the private rooms
                        from themselves, the polygraph always poised
            for his doubled words, revolving bookstand
always at attention, awash with light

from the mirrored walls.  Windows serve the cause
            from one side or the other all day; fields
                        fall away in every direction from
            this seat of “more freedom, more ease, and less
misery.”  Of course it is dark below,

a passage from the kitchen plowed beneath
            the heart of the famed circular floor plan
                        to a dumbwaiter that invisibly
            lifted wine to the dining room.  And look
at the clocks and weathervanes and the way

the roundabout roads and fences kept
            his time and his boundaries, his daily
                        cycle of work and respite unsullied
            by danger of chaos.  You wouldn’t make
the error of thinking it’s not unique,

not with the dome hovering above you,
            not with all of the novel ideas it
                        enthrones, but from a distance it’s only
            a big house, with tourists steered around and
around, going through those same old motions.  


2.  The House, the Church, the Mall

And what’s the word on Paul Revere these days?
Still in Charlestown watching for the light, still
ringing in the belltower of King’s Chapel.

He’s still lying, down in the Granary,
with Sam Adams, James Otis, John Hancock,
our many founding fathers all revered

under the cover of their stately stones.
In the portrait by John Copley, the Son
of Liberty sits as though he’s musing

on independence, patriotic chin
in portly hand: he’s the American
dream.  The historical home, with his spoons,

his Windsor chairs, the sad tale of his dead
wife, his live wife, his sixteen children, tells
the whole domestic story in four dark

rooms.  It’s a small house for the busy smith:
pounding and etching and polishing, now
engraving a scene on copper: redcoats

gunning down innocent, unarmed local
citizens!  The Freedom Trail’s crimson line
runs through the streets, the mall, toward the Old North

church, passing a make-shift memorial:
hundreds of blank dogtags dangling from walls
of strung wire.  But where is Paul Revere?  He

is above it all, grimacing earthward
from his pedestal, astride his bronze steed,
shouting at air—oh, his one-if-by-land,

two-if-by-sea, his British-are-coming,
who doesn’t want to believe it?  Look how
fabled he is, how lyric, hair whipping

back, horse beneath him always already
in flight, the one hand flung out as he calls
on all insurgents to wake up and fight.


3.  Mount Vernon

Begin again:  at the dining room door
and through into the dark: the plaster sheaves
and rakes decorating the walls, marble
fireplace, the river outside the essence

of freedom within limits.  And from here
the great general husbanded his fields
and his widow with her many slaves, her
daughters.  Hard to forget, since you must start

there, the servants’ quarters, though “larger than
many planters’ homes,” the maids, the butlers,
though the porch provides a bucolic view
from which the members of the Mount Vernon

Ladies Association might have sighed—
a slight descent in the various grounds,
the silky, winding river—and dreamed of
his clacking teeth (which were certainly not

made of wood), oh his many gentle ways.
And then there were, of course, the people he
liberated, but only in his will. 
Begin again:  the visitor center

models the home as a dignitaries’
hotel and notes that the plantation grew
from two to eight thousand acres under
our founding father’s governing hand.  How

he insisted on the good country life,
spreading the word of independence! And
here is the very bedroom where he died
of a throat infection, light and airy

and facing the water.  The refusal
to tell a lie comes back, where our reading
began: the Delaware.  His commanding
rejection of a crown, right at the start.

No wonder you go around it again:
you’ve been herded through.  The idea remains
though:  the house as a center, a notion
of order.  But out, beyond the fence, lie

how many unmarked graves—nobody knows.
And Martha mourned in a clean white room marked
out by her on the upper floor and died
under waving, patient fans.  She freed no

one, and the whole place then went to ruin,
opposing walls watching themselves fall.  So
begin again.  It’s a restoration.
It’s all laid out.  It’s almost perfected.

What I Did Not See Driving from Swansea

by Sarah Kennedy

Not the grave of Henry Vaughan, tombed
              by the yew at the top of that

tourists’ churchyard,
                                      not the sheela
              on her half shell of museum

plinth in Llandrindod Wells.
                                            And not
              the ruined round foundation wall

of the tower at Dolforwyn
              (where I stumbled over lovers

in the grass—a mirror to my
              burning, illicit face [record

heat—my trespass]).
                                      Not Dinas Bran,
              where, from the top, the suicide

bridge that cuts through Llangollen was
              visible as highlighter marked

on the map-sized town.
                                            Nor was it
the “largest mill wheel in Wales,”

the badger that slunk from the path,
              my car’s headlamps, one midnight.

Just you—
                      smile across a room or
              a body moving over mine—

though my mind’s eye held you even
              as I watched the kites—
                                            they could not

be missed, wheeling outside my room—
              even as I studied the door

that opened and opened itself—
              though nothing (that I could see) came

through, and no one had stopped off there,
              at that roadside hotel, but me.

The Apprentice Pillar

by Sarah Kennedy

The legend of course involves great desire,
pursuit, a gift from God, predictable,
final violence.  The stone swirls in ropes

around the straight and narrow ridges, stretched
to the crown: a private space more lavish
for worship than even the house’s best

room, the master mason sure of his skill
until that pause, his hand open in air
without a sign, his cold breath ghosting in

the dust.  His gargoyles and green men grin down
at him, sitting in the gap of absent
inspiration, and when his patron gives

him the pattern of a Continental
design, the Virgin, maybe some saint, dives
to his ear to whisper a pilgrimage

to Rome to see the original work.
So off he goes to do God’s will, as all
good quest tales demand, and leaves a young man

in charge, a simple boy, an innocent,
and as in good myths of the artistic
heart, the apprentice is visited by

a dream voice that murmurs the mystery
of invention and he feels the spirit
guide his tools across the pure, hard surface.

A curled dragon emerges from the earth
and gnaws the roots of the winding vines and
the boughs of a sacred Ash leaf out and

the trunk holds floor and roof in one perfect
syntax of creation.  William St. Clair
is pleased because he owns the whole place, and

the mason returns just then, no longer
master but an ordinary human
servant in awe of obvious divine

intervention.  The account might end here,
in a pretty reversal of fortune,
but the older man, bitten by envy,

heaves a nearby mallet into the head
of the startled apprentice, a “rash and
and cruel” murder.  Both faces still stare from

corners of the polluted, deadly spot,
though a swift “reconciliation” saves
the family’s tainted honor.  But wait, it’s

not over yet—now the tourists, unnerved
by a silly novel but all savvy
enough to know there’s no real comeuppance

kindling for them (age of science, after
all, come on), bow in the graveyard, searching
for clues to Jesus’s descendants.  It’s

a sexy story—Mary Magdalene
running off pregnant, a line of godly
kids.  Maybe they’ll chip a little piece off,

there, or there, a tangible narrative
fragment, an excusable souvenir
of their travels in an empty pocket,

the pillar fading into the setting
as blood once faded into the pavers,
now sealed inside the renovated church.

The Sheela-na-Gig at Llandrindod Wells

by Sarah Kennedy

In her glass coffin,
                                                she’s surrounded—

museum walls,
                                    a garden outside—

with copper beeches,
                                                            a sweet little

pool. Not to mention
                                                the dé rigueur

red roses.
                        And the voyeurs gathered

around her shrine,
                                    her vault, and there she

still stands, with her
                                                            grim grin, all teeth. She’s

staring beyond us.
                                                Mica lights up

her cloudy shale skin,
                                                            and there’s a cross

graffitied on her
                                    sinister side.

She’s a marked woman,
                                                she’s bone, she’s hair,

                        top and bottom, from rib to rib.

Saved at last—
                                                            (Buried alive! Naked

woman found
                                                beneath the church doorsill!),

she’s not our idea
                                                            of beauty, her

fingers probing inside
                                                herself, her

skull-cap head,
                                    her wrinkles. Her sisters

hang out under sacred eaves,

at the cemeteries
                                    just outside,

or squat under the rims
                                                of bishops’

tombs. Her lips open,
                                                            she has something

to say, something to show—
                                                she is a

                                                                        she is an offering:

entombed, enshrined
                                                (mother, murderer

mirror). at the end,
                                                            we all come here.