Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Into the Wood, a Poem Inspired by the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery



Recently the Brattleboro Reformer reported on the restoration of the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery. For years while living on Forest Street, I walked on the back trails behind the Retreat and was often moved by the fallen tombstones wondering who these people were, mostly women.

The article about the restoration and dedication is here.

Here is a poem I wrote some years ago selected by Ilya Kaminsky to be published in Poetry International.


Into the Wood

Twilight, I walk toward the wooded retreat graveyard

where mostly women from the Vermont Asylum for the Insane

are buried, final resting place for wanton girls, syphilis cases,

melancholics, or other ailments—

their unclaimed bodies interred over a century ago

now sunken holes beneath my feet.

Perhaps, they worked in the dairy or gardens, exercised, had craft

activities in sun-lit rooms, ate well, or if dangerous, were assigned to locked

dungeons out of view. That solitary citadel of humane architecture just around the bend

its pointy spire heralds token hope for a once wealthy clientele.

The Retreat graveyard's now littered with broken headstones

felled by generations of pranksters, carved names obliterated by moss

but so many died young I notice.

Did they just waste away? Give up? Abandoned?

The year I worked in the Retreat kitchen for minimum wage,

I saw the locked cells while taking the underground passage

to deliver food to wards for elderly patients, food I ground myself

bound for nagahyde recliner trays set up at mealtime

under droopy necks nested into shoulders

roused by cheery nurses on my arrival.

Sometimes, when I pushed my cart alone piled high

with steaming dishes, sweat down my back,

swift images like ciphers of light dart as I roll past

rows and rows of white doors set in lovely stone--

specters animated by my presence, or an imagination

activated down in the basement, my numerical mantra of counted steps

steady against pipe gurgles and the hollowed strangeness of abandoned spaces

like the broken culvert next to my childhood house counting out rocks

I tossed into the torrential brook below where I prayed to make the pain

go away, a string of pearls threaded to bind the fissure between

the present moment and distant future yawning so unattainable--

all of seventeen, how even ordinary life can snap a girl in two

for reasons barely recalled,


Jacqueline Gens
Published in Poetry International, Issue 15/16, 2010,