“ . . . But my mind, gone out in tenderness,
Shrinks from its object . . .”
I want to find my way back to her,
to help her, to grab her hand, pull her
up from the wooden floor of the stacks
where she’s reading accounts of the hatchet
murders of Lizzie Borden’s harsh parents
as if she could learn something about
life if she knew all the cuts and slashes;
her essay on Wordsworth or Keats
only a knot in her belly, a faint pressure
at her temples. She’s pale, it’s five years
before the first migraine, but the dreamy
flush has already drained from her face.
I want to lead her out of the library,
to sit with her on a bench under a still
living elm tree, be one who understands,
but even today I don’t understand,
I want to shake her and want to assure her,
to hold her—but love’s not safe for her,
although she craves what she knows
of it, love’s a snare, a closed door,
a dank cell. Maybe she should just leave
the campus, take a train to Fall River,
inspect Lizzie’s room, the rigid corsets
and buttoned shoes, the horsehair sofas,
the kitchen’s rank stew. Hell. Bleak
loyal judgmental journals of a next-door
neighbor—not a friend, Lizzie had no friend.
If only she could follow one trajectory
of thought, a plan, invent a journey
out of this place, a vocation—
but without me to guide her, where
would she go? And what did I ever offer,
what stiffening of spine? What goal?
Rather, stiffening of soul, her soul
cocooned in the library’s trivia.
Soul circling its lessons. What can I say
before she walks like a ghost in white lace
carrying her bouquet of stephanotis,
her father beaming innocently at her side,
a boy waiting, trembling, to shape her?
He’s innocent, too, we are all innocent,
even Lizzie Borden who surely did take
the axe. It was so hot that summer morning.
The hard-hearted stepmother, heavy hand
of the father. There was another daughter
they favored, and Lizzie, stewing at home,
heavy smell of mutton in the pores
of history. But this girl, her story’s
still a mystery—I tell myself she’s a quick
study, a survivor. There’s still time.
Soon she’ll close the bloody book,
slink past the lit carrels, through
the library’s heavy door to the world.
Is it too late to try to touch her,
kneel beside her on the dusty floor
where we’re avoiding her assignment?