Section 1 Gentlemen of the Virginia Company Council in London
They are strangers to the waiting land,
suitable young women we are sending
to remedy the vital and homely
privations of our planters in the colony
and to anchor the men to our enterprise
in Virginia through voluntary ties
to wives and issue of their own.
A few women are genteel-bred
of well-esteemed gentry.
Some are left as widows
while others, orphaned.
They each hold their own
diverse reasons for disclosing
their ambition to dwell elsewhere,
and in wedlock.
All maids are certified by others
for their honest upbringing,
good carriage and behavior.
Known for their sobriety
and hard work, some spin,
are skilled in needlework,
while others bake and brew.
In our hearts we pray that each
good woman will confer herself
earnestly in marriage to such man
as presents himself with payment
of one hundred fifty pounds
of the best Virginia leaf tobacco
to our esteemed Company in London
for safe passage and provisioning
of each aforementioned maid.
Of this venture, we of the council
strongly hope it bears fruit.
Section 2 Allice
Strong hope survives and bears fruit
to those who do the necessary work,
my father rattled like catechism.
His moralizing, stern enough
to employ switches and full
of the coldness of a stone well,
was the measure of his rage
against his lot of meager crops
and too many daughters.
I prayed for release, as if death
or marriage were all I could crave,
and memorized the precepts
of survival: how not to make soap
when the sallow moon is new
lest it boil over and how burdock roots
collected under the waning crescent,
dried and strung on red thread,
protect against all things evil.
An onion cut in half and placed
under an ailing person's bed
draws off fevers and poisons
while to dream of white flowers
foretells death, as do the doleful
howls of dogs at night.
I schooled myself in the signs.
When Father succumbed,
I grasped his toes and asked
his fresh corpse to free me.
My wish was for a new-made life.
Section 3 Ann
This wish for a new-made life
flows back only in deep sleep,
buoyed to a less contentious place,
as unlike any day or night in London
as fine Rhenish wine is to waste water.
Because the ruffians and brawlers,
untiring and everywhere,
have overpowered and overturned
grace and goodness from all corners,
an explosive ferocity rules the city.
From Clerkenwell to Westminster,
cock-fighting on Shrove Tuesday,
and in the bear garden by Bankside
horses and dogs or bulls and bears
baited together as sport.
On any corner where a conflict brews,
the cry flares, A ring! A ring!
and, quick as boys street quarrels,
a circle forms to watch the fists fly.
Even women air their accusations
and challenges in advance to entice
an eager audience to watch them
box and scratch like she-devils
until their faces run with blood,
bosoms bare and clothes nearly
torn from their bodies. Spectators
rarely raise a hand to stop the row.
Not a fit home for a temperate soul,
Londons become a place of nightmares
playing out in daytime lanes and alleys
as gangs of insolent youths rise up
in sudden wrath like dark clouds
loaded down with lightning and
head-cracking hail. Even pickpockets,
who used to be content with filching,
now bash their victims with cudgels.
Full of fury, scarred and scarring,
there is no landscape more savage.
Section 4 Marie
There is no landscape more savage
than a widows heart weighed down
by fragrances of former times.
Memory, like an old pomander
of crushed leaves from a flower
once promising to promote love,
does nothing to allay the waiting
in the silent house where everything
grows cutting edges and repeats
its slash and stabs of recognition.
He often said The seeds I plant
today I hope will outlast me
as if the future pushed up
from the earth and the crops
remained a dream hed waken to.
Now the hay waits, wasted,
in the field and the green
of the meadows is gone.
Nothing but hawthorn and
bramble rife along the breaks
between forest and field.
The unbridgeable distance
between his faith in the future
and the clamoring stillness
which opens each morning
is not like a hand that chooses
to let go a reaping hook or plough
but more an emptiness that jabs
the earth, the sky, the day,
and every corner of the heart.
Winnowed, is any of this a choice
of my own making?
Section 5 Catherine
Of my own making, bitterness consumed me
when the churchwarden handed me over
to my brother and his indignant wife.
No more than one wilted morning
from when both my parents were sewn
into their linen shrouds and settled
into fresh-made graves to when I found
myself in service in my brothers house.
For many seasons, I transposed sorrows
into an alchemy of turning flour into bread,
water into beer and hillocks of wool
into strong thread. I cleaned kettles, clothes
and boots, and mopped an ever-filthy floor
but my brothers scowl remained immovable
and his wife became daily more disparaging.
When not a burden, I was nothing to them.
While I mended by the front window,
I saw her squander money on silk ribbons
for her hair and sweets to stuff the greedy
mouths of her ungainly sons. She feigned
looking through me but a smile, full of
smugness, sliced across her face. Her eyes,
direct as arrows, watched for my mistakes.
I knew the world was segmented but held firm
to hopes I could recast the tide of my own life.
I promised Id inhabit a happy far-off place
where Id reinvent myself and become
a proper mistress in my own well-kept house,
and nothing less.
Section 6 Barbara
And nothing less as an inheritance
than old stories my mother saved
for that strange domain she called
the middling time, not quite the end
of day nor fully night.
as if disclosing secrets, shed whisper
about a treacherous woman contrived
out of nine kinds of wildflowers
and later transformed into an owl
or the trained crow sent to bring back
the brothers to rescue a lady enslaved
in a country across the sea.
At the end
of each tale, shed take my face
between her hands and make me
swear to remember, in usure times,
people believe not in what is real
but in the way things appear.
Whats certain is a womans as good
as her own good name and nothing
less will safeguard her.
In her sagas,
magical birds that belonged to
a magnificent queen awakened
the dead and made the living fall
into a sleep for seven blissful years
flew to intercede as fever engulfed her.
By morning, my mothers skin was blue
as any corpse. Now and for all time,
she stays in her enchanted land.
Remembering the old stories
seems like such a holy thing
when Im the one wholl steal away,
with my good name.
Section 7 Cecily
My good name and genteel birthright
were revered in our rustic corner
of the realm when I was a child.
This perspective kept me protected
and provided for in my primary years
when I was coached how our connection
to like-landed families resembled
feathery stitches essential to intricate
embroidery. My needlework, like a mirror,
turned me inward where Id dream one day
Id transform into the most important person
in someones world. Waiting to invest myself
was like living suspended, languishing
between deference and my secret hopes.
A kinsman held forth often that our ordained
world contracts with each coming year.
He said minds set on expanding horizons now
look across the sea to where the land promises
to give up its gold freely and rivers run
with pearls. Even tall tales about the place
thrilled me and I begged to go. Denying me
sufferance to seek those prime prospects
of a man of future means sounded to me
like being refused the significant portion
of the suns warmth. With my pedigree,
I understood the weight of destiny, not as
a little sparrow of a woman in modest dress,
but as a future bride of unblemished dignity.
All of my training told me to take the valiant
path that goes toward encounter, even though
I knew so little of what was coming.
Section 8 Supply Officer of the Warwick
Knowing little of whats coming suits me.
With each elapsed season, I appreciate all of us
are where we were always going in this life,
although when I glance at the straggle
of passengers in simple dress and new shoes,
I see a sorry lot of women lost in mens schemes.
Giddy, at first, with sudden friendship,
but with the green sea in every direction,
they say little to each other.
Some days before dawn, mist drifts in
and blankets everything. Nothing happens
except waves slap against the ship like dreams
shattering on unforseen events. The women
grow anxious to see land. Their fear of being
abandoned is visible on days of persistent mist.
These women with their waistcoats and smocks,
their coifs and white gloves, petticoats and aprons,
expect to bring an old order to the unbridled land.
They are ill-prepared for August insects, fierce
November nor-east winds, and winters ice
and snow. They appear to have all the time
they need, and more, but the weight of their sad
futures, stronger than their lost pasts, presses
around them. These fine women have not begun
to grasp how much of home theyll have to forget
in order to survive, but the land knows
they are strangers, and waits.