Poetry | March 01, 1999
Poetry Feature: Nicole Cooley
Featuring the Poems:
- An Alphabet of Lessons for Girls
- John Winthrop, “Reasons to be Considered for…the Intended Plantation in England,” 1629
- Witness Tree
- Witch Research: The Essex County Museum
- Testimony: The Parris House
- Testimony: Escape, July 30, 1692
An Alphabet of Lessons for Girls
As long as there is a contrary seed, a seed of the Woman,
and a seed of the Serpent, there will be opposition,
more or less, open or secret.
-Reverend Samuel Parris, Sermon in Salem Village, January 3, 1692
A young girl should always be prepared to die.
Beware of a black man who would make you a handmaiden of the Devil.
Come to God willingly and quietly as if he were your husband.
Disagree with no man for men know the best and truest path.
Egg-in-a-glass will show your future husband’s calling, but this trick is witchcraft.
Fast to find the road of correction on the Sabbath.
Graveyards are a place to remember that the Lord takes all girls’ souls.
Houses where no women be are like deserts or untilled land.
Indians are evil men who will harm you, just as New England was once the Devil’s land.
Judge not a man’s deeds or thoughts, only let him judge you.
Keep silence when in the meetinghouse with men.
Look to your father, brother or master for guidance.
Milk will curdle and butter will turn to wool if you are a witch.
New Jerusalem is our paradise and no place for daughters of the Devil.
Obedience is a good wife’s finest virtue.
Pins mark the hems of dresses and must never be used to prick the skin of men.
Question the Lord’s good work and be cast out of Salem Village.
Reckless speech will lead you into temptation.
Satan is the prince of Lies and witches are his servants.
Tying a woman neck and heels will cure her of the sin of witchcraft.
Unknown to witches is the power and light of God.
Vengeance against witchcraft is justice.
Witches’ daughters must be witches themselves.
eXhort the Lord to save you by your confession of witchcraft.
Your name is blotted out of God’s Book because you are a witch.
Zion will not be our true paradise till we have purged the witches from our land.
John Winthrop, “Reasons to be Considered for…the Intended Plantation in England,” 1629*
Increase and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it
Who is the Author of Disaster?
For an answer, read
The Book of Nature or
a woman’s face.
the whole earth is the Lord’s garden
Who will guide us
out of Egypt, over the Red Sea
the color of shame
into the New Jerusalem?
this land grows weary of her inhabitants
England was the lover
you must leave behind,
the New World is your wife,
her body the City on the Hill.
the church hath no place left to fly but into the wildnerness
Split the trees at the root,
slash the salt grass to clear
a long road to the future.
Lock your wife in the house.
Keep yourself safe.
Remember that the Invisible World is full of women.
*In the original formatting for this poem, the four lines of each quatrain were set at the first four tab stops.
I never did hurt them in my life I never did see these persons before
I am as innocent as the child unborn.
-Bridget Bishop, April 19, 1692
Salem’s first false Spring: the tree
spikes the sky, a split tongue,
an emblem of Grief. Who has lost
a child? The village women whisper,
I saw her stand between the cradle and the bed.
I saw her red dress flash, a candle
flicker when I spoke her name.
Bridget. You, Bridget Bishop, killed my child.
I wait beside the tree; I will her to come back
yet I see nothing beyond the tree, trunk
honed to a point like an old tooth.
Who has never lost a child? Who has never
seen a graveyard bordered with the smallest stones?
Who has never chronicled the body’s
breaking open to reveal its secret?
Here, ice creaks, a whisper, Lies, Lies,
and the ailanthus blooms too soon,
red petals insuring its death. I stood
between the cradle and the bed: the child
was missing. The child was never there.
I covered my breasts with a square
of red, in mourning, pictured the trench
of earth where the men lowered each small coffin.
Snuff out the candle, say her name,
pretend my body is unfamiliar, swelling
beneath my hands, my dress. Of course it’s wrong:
I didn’t see but I imagine.
I want to ask her about the children
or who drove the tree into the earth or
which God could choose these afflictions?
Ice breaks, leaves snake from branches,
bright jade. Water pools in the grass.
She killed my child, the women say. I lean
against the trunk and the tree speaks back:
I remember her as the first body when
body after body was cut down
from me, laid flat in the dirt. No grave was dug.
No prayers were ever whispered.
I have no child. Everyone in this story is dead.
I am a knife cracking open this too blue sky.
Witch Research: The Essex County Museum
1. The Archive, The Bed
Here is a book, the pages
tied together with wire.
Here is a testimony:
how a man gripped his wife’s wrist
to search for teeth marks
or witch pins in her skin.
In the museum, I open
the bottle holding broken finger bones.
I touch the sampler’s edge,
thread spelling Bridget
in a girl’s shaking stitches.
I hold the box of evidence
in my hands. Here is the world
without us. I call to the past,
come back, teach me,
and the voices knock together
like our bodies turning in this room
below The Pilgrim Diner.
The sheets smell like cold dirt.
I want to drop down below
the motel floor, below the ground,
where a death warrant’s red seals
the future of a marriage
like the print of a wax kiss.
predicts the future, all girls know.
Here is how we choose our husbands:
crack the egg against the edge
of the looking glass, spill the white over the mirror.
You’ll see your future husband’s face.
Or the shape of a coffin. Or the body
of a woman whose glance can kill a man,
curdle milk inside a cow,
turn churned butter into a sheet of wool.
3. Spectral Evidence: The Testimony of Samuel Gray, May 30, 1692
I woke to light and a woman
who stood beside my bed.
She was not my wife.
Outside was winter I’d locked
my door against, planked it tight and shut
to keep the wind out.
She Afflicted me.
The Devil brought her in.
Her kiss belonged to him,
her breath cold blistering my mouth.
In the name of God what do you come for?
The baby saw her and screamed in the cradle.
Within three months, my child had died.
The visitor was Bridget Bishop.
Testimony: The Parris House
I press my mouth between
The boards, the floor’s single
Planks above the parlor ceiling,
Watch Father pray
For the safety of the village below.
Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his church and who they are.
Fire blooms in the brick chimney
In the room where Mama sleeps
All day, where I am not allowed.
I play clothespin dolls in the doorway.
I line up the little girls
For church, force their bodies
Face down. I make them pray.
Come this day to the Lord’s table, lest Satan enter more powerfully into you-lest while
the bread be between your teeth the wrath of the Lord come pouring down upon you.
The middle of winter-I am not allowed
To leave the house.
In secret, I’ve touched my tongue
To a clot of ice,
Swallowed snow from the frozen field
Behind the parsonage.
The church consists of good and bad: as a garden that has weeds as well as flowers.
I am not allowed to leave
The house, but I know
How to twist an egg’s split shell
To reveal the future in a glass:
A husband, a man in Black
Who opens his arms
And carries me to the Golden City.
Pray we also that not one true saint may suffer as a devil either in name or body.
In the Golden City, in summer,
All the girls are dolls. Cornstalk
Child. Apple doll. Cloth poppet stuck
With pins. I am the clothespin girl.
I run through the fields all night.
We are either saints or devils: The Scripture gives us no medium.
Strings of egg white swirl
Into the shape of a man’s face.
Mama will sleep all day. Father
Will kneel forever on the parlor floor.
The clothespin girl will run away.
Yea, and in our land-in this and some neighboring places-how many, what multitudes
of witches and wizards, has the devil instigated with utmost violence to attempt the
overthrow of religion?
Testimony: Escape, July 30, 1692
The minister begins with prayer.
The Afflicted sit
together-two of the girls
cannot be more than ten.
Beside me, Elizabeth is still,
her fingers twisted into mine,
into a single fist.
We are here to see
if the Afflicted know her.
The minister begins with prayer.
You woke in the night to describe
the other country
where you’d gone without me:
not England, not the New Jerusalem,
but a world of women
in the wilderness, a family
of mothers, daughters, wives
who belonged to no one.
Then you turned away from me.
3. At the Ordinary
On either side of the pine table we wait.
When the girls enter the alehouse
they tumble on the floor
like swine, they cry out
The name’s sound fills the room,
floats through the roof, out
into Salem Village like smoke,
settles on the fields like ash.
4. The Lord’s Prayer
Forced to stand, her arms stretched out,
she is not allowed to lean
against me. I am forbidden
to hold her hands.
She had strength enough
to torment those persons,
and she should have strength enough
Our Father, Who Art in Heaven.
Hallowed be Thy Name.
Her voice shakes like a tree in the wind.
I cannot touch her.
Outside the meetinghouse I watch the men
huddle together in late-afternoon sun
as they tell their story-
I woke up and the woman
had pressed herself against my chest.
She held me down. She sucked
my breath out of my throat.
I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move.
She was not my wife. She was a witch.
6. Cambridge Jail
As if the body weighed down is safe.
As if she could rise from the dirt floor
to afflict the sleeping town.
As if leg irons eight pounds each
could stop panic, cure the girls.
I am allowed to visit once.
I cannot touch her.
but to speak of their usage of the Prisoners, and their Inhumanity shewn to them, at the
time of their Execution, no sober Christian could bear; they had also tryals of cruel
mockings; which is the more considering what a People for Religion, I mean the profession
of it, we have been.
I acquainted her with her danger.
8. The Lord’s Prayer
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive
those who have trespassed against us.
I close my eyes and she unfolds her body over mine.
Beyond my life without you will be our escape.
Past the thin frame walls of the jail, past
the meetinghouse, the tavern, another world-
Rhode Island wilderness, a house to hold us
made of latched pine branches, bed of leaves
where we will lie down alone together.
Our Father will be nothing but a fist
knocking in the chest of a girl who invents
a terrible story to make herself safe.
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