Mudlark Poster No. 70 (2007)

Walking with Elihu
Poems by Taylor Graham

Author’s Note | Home Economics, 1825 | Seasons in the Smithy
Adolescent Myths | Out of Work | After the Prayer Meeting
A Matter of Pennies | Journey’s End | Sanskrit | Forging Iron with Coal

Taylor Graham is a volunteer search-and-rescue dog handler in the Sierra Nevada, and also helps her husband (a retired wildlife biologist) with his field projects. Her poems have appeared in International Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, The New York Quarterly, Poetry International, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere, including the anthology CALIFORNIA POETRY: FROM THE GOLD RUSH TO THE PRESENT (Heyday Books, 2004). Her latest book, THE DOWNSTAIRS DANCE FLOOR (Texas Review Press, 2006), was awarded the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize. Taylor Graham’s poems, “Cessna Down,” “Last Seen at the ATM,” “3/5, the Andes by proxy,” and her essay, “The Search and the Poem,” appeared as Mudlark Poster No. 1 (1997), inaugurating the Mudlark Poster Series.

Author’s Note

Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith (1810-1879), grew up in a poor family in New Britain, Connecticut, and apprenticed himself to the local blacksmith to help support his family. While working full-time at the forge, he taught himself mathematics, astronomy, geography, and about fifty languages. Even though nearly penniless, he took on humanitarian causes and traveled to Europe, where he helped organize international peace congresses. To learn more about the land and people of Britain, especially farming practices, he walked from London to the northern tip of Scotland and then from London to Land’s End in the south, and published journals of his walks. He was appointed consular agent at Birmingham, England, by President Lincoln. These poems are from a collection in-progress, working title “Walking with Elihu,” which is looking for a publisher.

Home Economics, 1825

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider
the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin. - Matthew 6:28

A poor family, ten children to raise
for the Lord. How many potatoes and turnips
must a woman hoe and store in the cellar?
Your mother churned butter, plucked scalded hens
after they quit laying; tended the white
mulberry in the dooryard
and fed its leaves to silkworms.

She spun and knitted your silk stockings;
loomed your homespun; worked tallow with ash
for soap; kneaded shirts, petticoats, trousers
against the washboard; taught sons and daughters
the chores they could handle. Evenings
while she mended, she’d exhort you to holiness.
And still she found time for a flower garden,

petals fine as threads from a caterpillar’s
cocoon. You could listen to the tremolo of rain
on rose, soft as water-sounds of silkworms
on mulberry leaves, and fill yourself
with the scent of lilac. How morning-
glory’s purple blossoming feeds a child.
How rich you grew up, poor.

Seasons in the Smithy

How black is a coal-stoked chimney lit
by sparks? Blacker than the night sky spun
with stars, planets with their gravitational pull
on any matter within their reach. You reached
for Thomson’s Seasons: Newton’s physics
in blank verse. Here are the rocks, brakes,
and heaths of Scotland, half a world away,
and the Sun that even a smithy roof
in Connecticut couldn’t quite block out.

How black can be the hours of a smith’s
apprentice, when he’s got Nature, vast and detailed,
poetry twined with science on the printed page?
Rivers in spate, and snow-torrents; Africa
and Lapland; history’s progress in arts and arms;
mankind’s evolving vision: verse to exalt the Soul
to solemn Thought. You kept that book close
to hand and eye – as close as any tool.

As close as the Latin grammar in your pocket.
How quick were you to slip such nonsense
out of sight, when the other apprentice-boys
walked by? They’d only burst out laughing.
“Short sips,” you’d say, of beauty.
Just enough to spark – not quench –
your thirst.

Adolescent Myths

The Moon is the reflection
of a young girl’s smile –
looking directly at her golden
tresses will strike you blind

and speechless as a wood thrush
before dawn, in that long
forest-dimming into morning.
By noon, stop your ears, don’t

listen to bees praising the peaches
ripe in someone else’s orchard.
A blacksmith’s apprentice
trudges back home, smelling

of coal smoke and sweat,
and still the earth swells
silken from its furrows. Could
it be sweet Lucy of New Britain

who’s only a girl, after all?
No, yes; a girl like others,
with the scorching gaze.
Walk past them quick, incog.

Dissolve into your own
shadow. Only when you’re
safely out of sight, resume
your self alone.

Out of Work

All week, no one has ordered
a hoe-head, or a plough. At the foundry
there’s no employment, none
in the whole neighborhood.

What leisure in an idle afternoon,
when you can’t see
how you’ll pay your board?
What recreation in your books,

when you haven’t done day-labor?
After an hour of Greek
your head is heavy, it needs clearing
with a good hammer-stroke

on iron; the hot breath
of bellows and the flare in the forge,
the ache of muscles
to engage the mind’s gears.

Today you stand in the blacksmith
with empty hands; in shirt-sleeves;
coat and vest put aside. Not
working. Acrid after-

scent of burnt coal and horse hooves.
Can it revive you – lungs,
brain and courage?
Or will you go back to your room

and stare at an open book
like a foreign language?

After the Prayer Meeting

Was it spring, and a full moon
that night, as you
and another fellow walked
the two sisters home?

What were all their names?
The four of you caught up
in the flush
of all that Alleluia fervor,

the soul a-bloom, the revival
spirit that brings color
to a woman’s cheek – not quite
a blush. Did you feel a giddy

rush akin to that devil Rum
you’d never tasted? weed
of sin that roots itself
and sprouts all over a man’s

garden, if he for a minute
puts away his hoe, lets down
his vigilance. “Thank you,”
she said, for the escort home,

and “Goodnight.” Were you
glad to see her
disappear behind that
closing door?

A Matter of Pennies

Here’s a penny on the sidewalk – hardly worth
picking up, except for luck. A penny buys nothing
these days; how many shoppers pass it by?

And you, Elihu: for ten hours a day at the forge,
a journeyman smith earns nearly one hundred thousand
pennies in a year. From that, subtract the sixty

thousand you lost on your literary journal.
Was that ill-advised? Surely a good cause
deserves as many pennies as it begs.

You could translate a history of Florida
from the Spanish, but no one cares
to publish it; or write reasons against war:

how many pennies a column inch, one article per
week – you could pay your board with that!
Might as well say you’re rich,

since “rich” is relative. Remember your father –
didn’t the townsfolk call him good-hearted
but impractical, given to dreams? Did they say,

among themselves, he sowed sound pennies
on barren soil? When he died, how many
pennies did he leave you?

Now you lecture Peace to a full house,
but your fee goes to paying for the hand-
bills, or rental of the hall. Apprentice

to your pen for pennies – doesn’t Providence
watch those who walk penniless but
in their dreams?

Journey’s End

“Pilgrims to the shrine of this famous domicile are liable
to much disappointment at finding so little remaining.”
– Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O’Groats (1864)

They say leaving is better than arriving.
I remember foggy June mornings, the beginning
of summer; our essentials packed
into the 1950 Ford. I’d be singing
as we pulled out of town – I always sang
to be leaving in the fog. What did I know
of Alaska, Havana, Pennsylvania?
Would the streets be paved, the people
understand our language? It didn’t matter,
we were on the road.

But arriving is never as good as
anticipation. I felt it again, turning
your last few pages, Elihu. The Orkneys
glowed across the Firth as if
to call you, but you weren’t going
that far. John O’Groats was enough – even
if its eight-sided legendary hall,
its eight doors and octagonal table
were gone, its stones salvaged
for a granary.

Still, you stuffed your pockets with sea-shells,
and rejoiced. Who could be happy
with a few wave-worn shells? If I listen
to the conch of a childhood summer,
its message is nothing but the song in my own
ear. But you’d walked 700 miles
to find a barren shore with a mythic name.
You were glad to arrive.
Happiness must be a state of mind
and faith.


A delicate chain of charms suspended
from a meniscus; sound-strokes
linked to the proto tongue
from which Greek and Latin parted –
Sanskrit looks so foreign.

Ancient language of hymn and mantra.
Is it true its name means “self-made”?
No wonder, Elihu, you were drawn
to it, as were those school girls
who came to you to learn

its script and spirit.
At the end of eighteen months’ study,
you helped them translate
Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life,” a bridge
between the well-loved poem

and the classic tongue of India –
a gift of mystery
the poet himself
might hold in his hand,
and marvel at its indecipherable

line-dance of exotic characters,
without being able to read
a word of it, or do more
than sense the meaning
transported beyond English.

Forging Iron with Coal

[at the Historical Park]

This 49er smithy swarms today
with fifth graders. A boy in a Harley T-shirt
checks out the treadle grindstone
and points at a bellows by the forge.

Outside, an aproned smith tends the crimson-
orange-black flickers of his coal-fire.
An April breeze swirls coal-smoke
till it fills the smithy with a pungence

I won’t soon forget. I imagine you, Elihu,
carrying that scent long after you gave up
the anvil, after you left London’s filthy air
and your post in the Black Country.

Years later, your lungs were broken
bellows, hemorrhaging with mankind’s Progress.
You recognized a fire-breathing dragon
inside the Iron Horse’s hide.

Tonight our news will be of global
warming, Earth’s illness and ours: carbon-
footprints smudging the seas, soils
and sky. For now, fifth graders tire

of the smithy and move on. I continue
my walk along the prospectors’ trail
where deer-brush still blooms
April-white and fragrant.

Copyright © Mudlark 2007
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