Over the river from the old brick mills,
Love-apples ripen on the window-sills,
And in the garden by the cucumber tree:
A tomato Eden, and it's all scot-free.
Seeds and promises in each bite,
Mulberries blush red and blanch white;
Currents wax plump where the arbor peels,
Gooseberries gleam where the shade conceals
Green wood-sorrel and its sour shrift;
Thimbleberries are baubles of thrift;
Lie-locks shared with the bee and bird
Yield their nectar — and not a word.
Piebald pippins are weapons of war
When the Garden Street boys come 'round for more
Over the hill and down the lane;
Crow and cherries on a weathervane
Whirl in the wind, while the grey fish-spines
Milk the sky through their snaking lines
For a Mayflower daughter with snow-white hair,
Pilgrim's Progress, and a rocking chair,
Touched by the shadow of the Judgment Throne,
For by its fruit each tree is known.
Into this Eden of days long dead,
One May morning, came Little Fred.
His hard-drinking master, lean and tan,
Coaxed his namesake from the cattle van
With many a shout, and a long hard pull,
And we all had a look at the young black bull.
He was tethered — but who could blame
The neighbors for thinking that he was tame
When he carried the children round and round,
Steel chain sweeping a disk of ground
Where buttercups shorn of a golden head
Might leave still brighter gold garlanded.
Dandelions and the white ox-eye
Daisy — a laurel to cipher by —
Became his fodder. As each week
Grew hotter, he grew fat and sleek
In sable. Gleaming as with sweat,
He turned a sparkling pirouette
Of joy, for Alfred's Ma and brood,
Angels of morning who brought his food.
The manger, filled with fragrant hay;
Glass eggs, to get the hens to lay;
The sunlit barn, the cozy stall —
Through golden dust, I see it all.
Sisters and brothers, round the track,
Cling to each other, and his back
As pictured on some lovely loom;
Helms felled across the living room
At glint of light — the bronze and blonde
Held fast in sleep, as morning dawned,
And I, on pink pyjama-feet,
Tiptoeing by, to be discrete,
And so, to share my safer cage
With next door's storm of drink and rage.
From trouble comes a seed of wit:
That sharing sorrow doubles it,
But drinking to it lights a wick
That makes both lord and manor sick —
A fever melding fume and flame,
The blue of gloom, the red of shame.
Yet how could Temperance abide
When Alfred, sad and sick inside,
Had worked until his hands wore stains
Of black, above the turquoise veins;
Until the unforgiving sun
Had tanned his skin a rosy dun
So deeply, it retained that hue
All summer, and all winter, too;
And yet, for all his daily strife
To win his daily bread, his wife
Had bolted like a common thief
And left him there to souse his grief:
Had bolted like a thief, I say,
Because she stole his heart away.
Yet she had dealt a hand of six
Wild hearts, whose simple balm might fix
The workings of a broken soul,
And oil its springs, to make it whole.
So if Dollinda proved to be
"No better than a cat" (said he),
No cat has borne her frisky blades
A sweeter set of marmalades.
But when they ran to play and purr
Around him, he just thought of her,
And at such moments, to indict
Dollinda, for her errant flight —
A deed that nothing could excuse —
His Ma declared: "You gave her shoes."
Behind my curtains, I could snoop
And see him staring from the stoop
Towards New Hampshire, where this djinn
Had gone back north, to join her kin.
And as he gazed beyond the spears
Of balsam, his eyes welled with tears
In concert with a whiskey glow
Of hope, as if he thought the snow
That veils Franconia might part,
And show him his absconded heart.
In some deep lake of memory,
The waters clear, and I can see
Dollinda, as she hung the clothes,
Or stopped to pick a wild white rose;
The moccasins she used to wear,
Her blonde cascade of unbound hair,
And lively eyes of vivid blue
That started merrily at you
Like sparkly chips of azure glass,
Or jets of propane-burner gas.
And when Dollinda was long gone,
Her moccasins lay rotting on
The steps, to shed their colored beads
Like pods dispensing magic seeds.
Imagination tips the scales
For one well-schooled in fairy tales,
And being easy to convince
Of Melusine, and Falcon-Prince,
I guessed that if you found a rare
Blonde catamount, or golden bear,
Or snowy deer, or almond fox,
Who was to say its platinum locks
Had not adorned the day, and shed
Their glory from a human head?
With such a will, Fate may bestow
Upon the changeling buck or doe
Foreknowledge of each word and deed,
The very thoughts their flesh will feed.
But hexed or not, the code's the same:
A beast of service, wild or tame,
Will only stay in cage or stall
Because he wants to — that is all.
And so it was with Little Fred:
However kindly housed and fed,
He didn't want to any more,
And battered down the stable door.
For Love's sake (since the world began)
Mornings break for the working man:
Blue and rose meet the gold of day:
Hues of glory to light his way.
Near the fields that the goodman sowed
By the river that was a road,
Sunshine touches those still abed
Like a kiss for each pillowed head.
Then one day, with the hour still blue,
And no petal of rose blown through
Layers of shadow and river-mist,
Thick with waiting, and not yet kissed,
Sparrows belling from sweet June weeds,
Ever telling the same bright beads,
All fell silent of call or tweet
When Fred ran bawling down River Street!
Not since Dawes and his friend Revere
Cried that the Redcoats were marching here
Had there risen a fiercer shout
From house to house: "Little Fred got out!"
Hoofbeats clattering on the tar
Drew pale faces from doors ajar,
And I hopped from my bed to see
How much trouble a bull can be.
Through the dusk, with the East aglow,
Dads were staggering to and fro
In a candlepin spectacle
Starring Fred as the bowling-bull.
Clothes may tell you who's poor or rich;
Work-shirts told me which dad was which:
Streetlights glimmered on long white sleeves,
Styled for business — not catching beeves;
Cotton billowed out like a sail
Dragged along by the bull's stiff tail.
Alfred hollered at Fred to stop,
Lunged and swore, and I saw him drop;
Morning broke, and the bull saw red,
Mooed and bellowed and tossed his head,
As if he'd seen his own life's end
Glow carmine like the river-bend.
At the gift shop, he made a stand,
Sniffing flowers like Ferdinand;
Out of the door stepped Velma Rue —
Little Fred roared, and he chased her, too.
Fencing the moon with a budded horn,
He wolfed pink roses, petal and thorn;
Tore up pansies, and turned to barge
Through the hedge for a final charge
Down the street — where the waning gloom
Held a lit cigar like a star in bloom.
"Dan! Dan!" It was Dan O'Shea,
Who lived in the red house over the way
Like an Irish chief come back to life,
With a herd of cows, and a beautiful wife.
Showing calm no clamor could disturb,
He set his cigar on the asphalt curb,
As the dawn's first light struck Erin's charm:
The shamrock tattoo on his huge right arm.
Fred stood there frozen, to behold
A cattleman so big and bold,
And he dropped the scraps of a stolen rose
As Dan snapped the bull-tongs into his nose.
Sunlight melted the mists of faerie;
Morning felt quite ordinary:
Northbound cars from the wooded ridge
Echoed softly across the bridge.
Fred clopped off to an unknown fate;
Alfred sat by the garden gate
With his head bowed low, and his cap thrown down
Near the spent cigar, now dead and brown.
But the dads from the plant walked by to whack
Their droopy neighbor on the back,
Or shook his hand, and went inside
To eat before their morning ride.
Soon I caught the scent of bacon,
And, if other hints were taken,
Other tidbits choice and rare,
For change was in the fresh June air.
The dads from the plant — blue shirts and white —
Found work for Alfred overnight.
No longer would he dig the street,
But every day, he donned his neat
Blue coveralls, and punched a clock
Down at the plant, as Clerk of Stock.
And change went deeper than you'd think:
He never touched another drink,
While Fred's liberatory caper
Found its end in butcher-paper.
Alfred was quite proud to share
From freezer-shelves a bit less bare,
And Velma, of purloined bouquet,
Ate sirloin clear through Labor Day.
On backyard grills, to thrill the nose,
The smoke of gratitude arose,
And it was not for me to hate
The fact that Fred was on my plate.
The key to Alfred's turnabout
And zeal for shipping gadgets out
(Small circuitries, whose wires curled
To signal words heard 'round the world
On cables reaching near and far)
Was not a secret to his Ma,
Who shook her snowy head: alack!
And said, "He thinks she's coming back."
But under Grandma's ice-blue gaze,
The shadow of red schoolhouse days
Fell on the children, who were quick
To learn, as by a hickory stick,
For homework held no sting or smart
Compared to growing up apart
From one enclosed in mountain fold
Where waters tumbled, swift and cold.
And while I learned, in thankless cell,
That tedium was born of Hell,
They worked to build a honeycomb
Whose sweetness just might bring her home
To smile upon their industry
Towards some rich finality.
The day that Alfred traveled north
And asked their mother to come forth,
No gloss was needed to anoint
A rifle's exclamation point.
In any case, the point was made,
And as we lined up, grade by grade,
"She doesn't want to" — thus I heard
From miles afar, the final word.
Alfred labored on — a score
Of years, while school ran evermore
With tears, for those who never learned
To bear the strokes they never earned.
And should his heart remain unknown,
With none to carve on graven stone,
"Here lies John Alfred Merrillee —
He died for beauty — R.I.P.,"
Six patterns of Dollinda, the
Blonde beauty of Franconia
Lived on, as fair and satin-skinned
As flaxen pods ripe for the wind.
The wind blew sparkles on the sea,
And led the way to Barbary
For Alfred's son, who loved the land.
The men of war at his command
Are sworn to chase the pirate foe
And leave them dangling in a row.
Supernal zephyrs that immerse
The axle of the universe
Carried the second eldest down
To navigate the starry crown
Where science makes, with lights and gears,
The music of celestial spheres.
No other Venus twinkles from
The private planetarium
Of one who rules with Southern grace,
Than Alfred's daughter, fair of face.
And where enchanted breezes blow
Magnolia silk and cherry snow,
She prospers, as a queen of life,
The Governor's wild Yankee wife.
But never a Nor'easter gale
Of howling winds, and driving hail,
Could drive three pairs of little feet
Far from the house on River Street.
Bright shadows of the Golden Rule
Still fall on our old village school,
Like sunbeams parting leaves of beech,
When Alfred's youngest daughters teach.
And at the place where Little Fred
Made buttercups his daily bread,
He lives to serve, and keep the peace:
Jack Merrillee, Chief of Police.
If you would live in town, and thrive:
When he's around, don't drink and drive.
Rivers churn as they hurry by,
Still reflecting a tranquil sky;
This world changes, and fails us all,
As the winter must fail the fall.
Is there anything more to say?
I just withered and blew away,
Far away from the riverside,
On the breezes that dead leaves ride.
And I followed the course I chose,
Past the peak where it always snows,
To a region of pastures green
Where the bull is king, and the cow is queen.
I don't notice the days grown cold,
I don't notice my ways grown old;
Thrushes sing me a song so sweet
For my bread, I forget to eat.
And before I am laid to rest,
Made to learn I am just a guest:
Take the heart that I must align
With a beauty I can't define.
Little Fred made it up this way:
I just saw him the other day,
When his lowing had called me out
Through the rain — and if you should doubt
That he frolics in far green lands,
This poem's real, and it's in your hands.
When the workers don't make a thing,
When the poets have ceased to sing,
When the thrushes lie stiff and dead,
Think of me, and of Little Fred.
You who dwell by the riverside
At the swell of some future tide,
Don't look now — but despite the rain
Marking time on your window-pane,
We've come home to admire the view
Through the glass — and we see you, too.
Don't look now — but the gang's all here
Out in back, to enjoy a beer,
Making merry to wake the dead,
As we read about Little Fred.
In the silence of old brick mills,
In the shadows of once-green hills,
Where the hearts of the poets bled:
We hope you like what you got instead.
"June" by James Russell Lowell (1819 – 1891)
"And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days....." (more)