When you arrive, they put your name in the church ledger. Baptism, marriage, death. Find yourself a nice plain girl. Have 18 children who each have 18 children. Welcome to the colony, now take your religion to the woods. What do we inherit? Where we hold our weight, the dreams we have at night, a fear of thunder and rivers flooding, how we count on our fingers, look both ways then look both ways before we cross the street. The shape of our face, the hair on our arms, this sense that something is coming, go get ready for church, my stomach hurts. I feel sadness in my throat and anxiety in the back of my neck and fear like a cider press on my chest. Babies under headstones. Language we decide doesn’t keep us safe anymore—move to where the jobs are, change churches, assimilate and get on with it. Men die young clutching at their hearts, just drop dead like a thunder crack, and women go on and on. Sow’s stomach and sauerkraut. Put some spittle on that burn.
Chasing up the aphids from the Queen Anne’s lace. The horse kicking at the pony as it passes. Abrupt as a gun barrel. Straw musty and mold. Mistakes’ vines creeping towards horizons. They’ll reach my blood before I’m born. My hands chapped white against the stiff wind. Noise moving through the cemetery past the hay bales. This is a long car ride with someone waiting to betray me. In each farm house a secret scroll, a coffin nail, a broom above the doorway. I can’t stop what I don’t feel coming. Chicory swaying by the highway. Who can know what years are gathering, the geese on ponds. Can you see time moving through the cornfield like a wild yellow dog? All the shotgun shells scratched from mud and tucked in coat pockets. A sunfish snagged through the gill. I’m just waiting to be thrown back into the stream.
And All is Gone
Scum thick and tree stumps at the reaches of the pond. We paddle watchful for beavers between long-drowned trees. Bearwallow fed by Swamp Run. The Hoagland swimming hole. The Loyalsock. Search the ground for quills shaken loose from porcupines, for raccoons watching us from pine trees. We bridge jump into trout streams, slip cross-armed down rocks algae slick. The water cold like memory. It cuts you. I hold my knife out towards the storm. I’m crying from the far shore, and dad’s screaming mad, it didn’t kill ya, so quit. There’s a stranger whooping from the surface of a dark pool and when he shouts come on, girlscout, jump! I jump. No one’s ever touched the bottom. I stick my knife into the ground.
Babies die like days break. For every one of us there is a brother, sister dead. I never heard the word curse, uncross me, uttered. You can’t brauche a heart half formed, a spine grown weird, there weren’t words for it, God’s will. My mother skipping church on Christmas Eve. Where can we place our sorrows besides gravesites, inside ourselves and children. We are all always losing. A daughter. A son. Fathers saying stern and weeping, I can’t go through it again. The rivers dark with factory dye, swim across and see what you come out as, a wild red boy, dyed as wool. Our mothers silent, waiting for the pastor to arrive. Small blue babies, unraveled as a shoelace. Feel his presence in this room? Shaved once a week on Sunday. When I hear saws buzzing wood, I’m every barn we ever built. I make spaetzle but it’s not enough, pork and sauerkraut, metzelsupp, it’s not enough. There’s no forcing the dead to dinner, to ask our grandfather what’s waiting when we’re gone. I’m the weight of the wide river above me, I cannot help. We are each alone and childless. I will never edge so close to mothers’ vast sorrow. Younger sister. Here I am, selfish as the day God made us.
Healing is trying, is working, is need. I tried to find my way back but muscle memory atrophies—I need to be picked up, I’d like to go home. I can’t excavate myself, I know. Digging through records looking for my name. Melchior and Jacob and Jacob and Henry and Magdalena, Margaretha, Henrich. A signature on a census from the Rheinland-Pflaz, a himmelsbrief, enlistment papers from WWI, WWII, the Revolution, Vietnam. My dad sitting up in his recliner at night. A few centuries pile up quick. The weeds are growing high and the water level is dropping and the river doesn’t freeze—I haven’t walked on ice since when. We were just trying to keep to ourselves out here. Marry our neighbors, marry in the church, marry our cousins and have 8 kids, put food on the table and stay out of affairs—this is between us and God. Men become reverends. Women die from complications. Families move from Switzerland to Germany to here. At last some peace and quiet. But time moves fast—bridges wash out and mills shut down then factories shut down. Men build towns so I can leave them. I’m years away. I can’t put flowers on this grave, but boy I’m trying.
There exists this idea, this theory that trauma can be passed down through generations. Ancestral trauma or transgenerational trauma, it’s called. Trauma from war, from famine, from sudden loss and violent death. These poems ask: what do we inherit? How do we become who we are and is there any curing it? Any fixing what has happened in the past or what is waiting in the future? And what about the trauma of a place? Does land hold and pass on memories too?
Over the winter of 2018/2019 I began obsessively tracing my family tree, digging through digital archives, linking the web of names further and further back. My heritage is mostly Pennsylvania Dutch—largely rooted in the Mennonite community to be exact, though my families shed the Mennonite religion for Lutheranism a few generations ago.
I lived in Pennsylvania until my early 20s. I grew up in the area (though not exact town) my parents were from and their parents and their parents, so on, back until the first wave of Mennonites came to Pennsylvania to escape religious persecution in Europe. The actual narrative is not so tidy, there are threads looping in and out, gaps in the tree, untraceable ends—I simplify in order to get to my point. I am of this place. I live in the southwest now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever move back to where I’m from, but I am still of Pennsylvania, of red barns and muddy cricks and whitetails butchered in the driveway.
So, this is what these poems are about. Things poets have written about forever: place and family and memory.
Through learning about the past, sifting through memory and linking into the memory-stream of the family, there is an attempt to cure something. The speaker is at once herself and everyone in her family. A conduit for voices and memories, conflating past with present, slipping in and out of time. Yes, there is trauma and darkness, but there is also such fondness, longing, and beauty here.
I write in this form of prose poetry because I like how they feel like pressure cookers. How they spill and build and there is no escape. They are like how I experience memory, a snowball of association, dense with weight. If you put my poems in water they’d sink.
Also swirling in the poetry potions that I’m brewing is a great deal of research into Braucherei, the Pennsylvania Dutch folk medicine tradition. Part magic, part prayer. I’ve been reading voraciously about the folklore and folkcultural traditions of this place and people, and as someone with an interest in the occult, in witchcraft, learning about Braucherei cracked the whole project open for me. In its final form, the collection will be part poetry as you see above and part incantations, charms, and recipes for cures.
I anticipate the project these poems are from will grow into a book-length collection. Though, I am not a disciplined writer. I write like lightning strikes—a sudden deluge possesses me. I write like a channel in a trance. So, here’s hoping the spirit moves me, so to speak, and I can complete the manuscript sooner than later.