Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Dead Woman's Crossing

Dead Woman's Crossing
the ghost of a night bloom, for Shay

When the moon was a witchboat small and tossing
in the fade-time where night can see day as her twin,
down the rough blacktop to Dead Woman's Crossing
came the carnival rolling on a dustbowl wind.
They spindled the midway, freakshow and toss-ring,
before they spiked twenty ripe melons with gin
for Harvest Home in the dark of September,      
so the marks can do what they won't remember.

There was Jacko the clown, stringy as a rat,
Ma's name and a snake his tattoo valentine,
Rudy the barker in a ten dollar hat,
talking apple butter, smiling turpentine.
The Doll from Philly worked the striped gypsy-tent;
her brown eyes had just the right mad dog shine.
Then night seemed to give a coyote-moon cough
that shook her gold earrings, and Katie showed up

with her deathrattle tale of carnival past,
how she, the schoolteacher, met the Fallen Dove
Miss Fannie, too red-haired, too ruined, too fast,
on a September midway, bent moon above;
how love like a cloudburst caught her at last      
a kiss-whisper in place of the stone cold shove,
a granite fist traded for a velvet hand
and a five dollar ring for her wedding band.

The Dove blew out of Texas like a broken branch            
running  from Jesus, Daddy Jim and the law.
When she hit Mrs. Hamm's Saloon and Hog Ranch
she knew she had almost no time left at all
but still more than Katie, hellbound for a ditch,
face pale through the water where the black crows caw.
Thru plugged ears Doll could hear the walking night moan,
thru shut eyes see the bridge where Katie talked on:

The heat lightning flickered as midnight slammed shut,
Katie in a nightmare where she was the wheat
waiting dry in the dirt for the thresher's cut;
too many whiskey hard times in tangled sheets,
one scar too many from a cheap White Owl blunt
while the tumbleweeds wrote her name in the street.
She put on her bonnet, she packed up her grip,
met the Dove smiling with her child on her hip.

They sat down stiff as strangers on the noon train,
the nights and the men left behind in the dust.
They got off at Clinton in the quick July rain
with the last of the wheat burning red as rust.
When the moon was a witchboat sailing the plains,
as diamond eyes came home to lily-white trust
in the carnival night, storm in the willow,
the teacher slept sweet with her red-haired pillow.

The next day at midday, two girls and a child      
left town in a buggy to laugh and laugh last.
Fannie screamed like a bobcat, the wind went wild
when Katie's man came up through the tall sawgrass.
The Dove saw the buck-knife draw a cutthroat smile;
all she knew was to make the scared horse run fast
from the man who had Katie back, all his, dead.
All the Dove had was poison and a red dirt bed.

When the moon's a hook, a witchboat, a sickle
when the last of the wheat stands brown in the ground
while Orion runs after Hecate the fickle
above the dwindling lights of a dying town,
the Dove does her dance to a penny whistle
and a dead woman calls her child with that sound.
The next fall, when Doll's carnival topped the ridge
it rolled without stopping past Dead Woman's bridge.

~September 2014

This was written as a personal challenge, issued to me by Magaly Guerrero, to write a poem dealing with a carnival taking place during the Autumn Equinox, for my favorite poetry website, Imaginary Gardens With Real Toads. More information about it appears there, and in the notes below.

Process notes: Dead Woman's Crossing, also called Dead Women Crossing, refers both to a small community by that name in Custer County, Oklahoma near Weatherford, and the nearby bridge over Deer Creek where the decapitated body of schoolteacher Katie De Witt James was found in August of 1905. The events (other than my imaginary carnival) described in this story are factual up to a point, with completely fictitious biographical details and explanations of my own invention. You can get the details (as far as actually known) of the unsolved murder of Katie De Witt James and the poisoning of Fannie Norton at the link to real toads above, and also from this wikipedia article.

 'Grip' is an archaic word for a small traveling bag. Prostitutes of that era were often referred to euphemistically as 'Soiled Doves,' while 'fast,' 'fallen' and 'ruined' were terms used to describe women who had lost their virginity, were free with their sexual favors or considered  loose morally. White Owl cigars, including 'blunts' are an inexpensive brand that has been made in the South since 1887. They have about the same place in cigar hierarchy as Swisher Sweets (once my own occasional brand.)

Fannie Norton did use the name 'Mrs Ham,' but the eponymous Saloon and Hog Ranch is a flight of my fancy taken loosely from the life of Calamity Jane, who in her youth is reputed to have been a working girl at the infamous Fort Laramie Three Mile Hog Ranch, a 19th century 'military brothel' and stage coach stop near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, also said, like Dead Woman's Crossing, to be haunted.

This poem is written in the ottava rima form, with lines of eleven syllables.

Images: Circus arriving in Seligman, Missouri, late 19th century
Public domain via wikimedia commons 
Dead Woman's Crossing, by Nathan Gunter on flick'r
Shared under a Creative Commons license


  1. I love the poem... and I'm mesmerized by the research that went into it. Wow.

    1. Thanks so much for this challenge, Magaly--I have lived and breathed this story for almost two weeks, and I can't say it hasn't chilled me to the bone, but I also felt an incredible connection to the events, which I might never have known about without your help.

    2. …and it reads like you put a lot of time and heart into it. Well done!

  2. A spectacular write, Hedge, a dark tale told as only you can tell it. I am especially taken with the witchboat, the dark mood, and those fantastic closing lines. What a sad story. Sigh.

    1. Thanks, Sherry. It is a sad story, and not a happy ending, but life can be that way all too often, especially at that time period--but yes, today, too.

  3. Had to come here as well for well… MORE :) I adore the rhyming and the form - not easy to do with a story-poem. And what a story! Thank you for the process notes… Read this poem three times. It should be a movie!

    1. Thank you Margaret--the story did grab like a movie or a very good book while I was writing it, and I truly did put a lot of time into this one--it took me over for awhile. Today I had to spend all day catching up on the housework I completely ignored for a week. :_)

    2. ha ha. Housework … it gets in the way, doesn't it? :)

  4. Thanks for also posting here. I had picked up on the White Owl blunts, but good to give the process notes, especially a lot of non-U.S. persons--actually, although the parts about the carnival are very vivid, I found all the parts about the cruelty, the most compelling as they are very intense and subtly yet clearly described, and the quietness of them almost makes them worse--life for women pretty lousy. k .

    1. Especially back then. I tried not to over-emphasize the brutality, but I felt it must have taken a LOT to make a woman file for divorce in 1905--it was definitely socially forbidden--that's why I posited the husband as a drunk and a sadist--she came right out and said the grounds were cruelty, not something ambiguous like infidelity-(if that was even considered a legal cause for a woman back then.) We owe a lot to the suffragettes, and I for one will always be grateful for what they and a lot of other brave souls did to make our modern lives as women possible. Thanks, k.

  5. My paternal grandmother divorced my grandfather in 1917, when my late father was five years old. It must have been a scandal at the time. As I said over at Real Toads, this is just beyond excellent writing and story telling, Joy. I'm truly honored to be mentioned in the dedication to such an astounding piece of poetry.

    1. Thank you Shay, I would never have thought of the story having these elements without your writing on the subject--something you do far more eloquently than I ever could.

  6. ha. your descriptions are so alive and fresh joy...smiling turpentine...just one of the cool ones...and finally being caught up in that love...that bit made me smile knowing the feeling...excellent story telling....

  7. I wanted to give this three readings to wind my response up -- Great to see you took the time and effort to craft such a mysterium, so magisterial a gem. This has the vibe of unearthed ballad to it, resonant in the deep dust of the tribal ear. But its essentially shot through with modernist witchiness, Stevens on peyote. Add a shot of postmodernist weariness with the road, its drunkalogue of bum fate; and top with more than a bit of friendly ennui for love possible for a short, short while in the wildest tandem out in the middle of endless Oklahoma. Combine these fraught narratives with taut poetic -- rhymes and beats and counts of stanza lines relentless strict -- and the result for this reader is Okie everclear, a dark ruby twisting in moonlight. Keeping balance throughout such concoction is a wonder but you stay on course throughout (minor bewitching of the narrative by the demands of the poetic in one or two places). The final stanza winds it all up from the proper distance of history, so the loudest amen can be voiced by carnival wagon-wheel creaking over Dead Woman's bridge. The unforgiving landscape and cursed ways of men who unsmilingly hack and heave their way through life only serve to augment the blood silverings of the witchpen which writes this. Such an honorable gift, perhaps most of all to the writer who belabored it. Bet you slept like a babe after it was finally done. Cheers.

    1. Thanks for a very generous winding up indeed, B. I find meter like this excruciatingly difficult, so I really struggled with that part of it. But the tale--I tell you, I was literally feeling possessed by it, one of those all-consuming moods that makes you believe we have been here before, seen that particular dusty 1905 summer, the wilted, wind-ruffled gowns, the long tight sleeves in the heat to cover the bruises, the creaky livery stable buggy, the hot, terrified horse with its white eye rolling back in its skull at the smell of blood...this is a--I suppose legend is the right word-- that college kids out there in the flat dull western plains of Oklahoma have kept alive(the new bridge is full of their graffiti)--one of them researched it for a paper, and that's where the most coherent version comes from, though it is as full of gaps and holes as you might expect after all the time elapsed.

      I don't know how you do your narrative poems so smoothly yet make them cut so deep, B--telling the story part of this it was almost impossible not to put it on rails, and to keep some glimmer of imagery and nuance attached to the tale. Anyway, thanks for the very kind words, and for knowing and feeling so much of what is in here as well as just being able to hear the moan of Katie's moonsong.

    2. I know what you mean about the strange resonance of things that sometimes get picked up on our vatic radar. Almost booming from way back when. I got that vibe thinking about No Man's Land in Flanders during WW2 and the abyss that the missing Malaysian jet fell into. Sometimes this stuff is seance. And the balancing act of bringing it forth is somehow stepping aside to allow the dictation of the tale, then stepping back in to weave it afresh. You kicked britches on both accounts. Also, for me I often feel so dried up and done, nothing more I could ever say: And then there comes a booming louder than ever. Keeps me sticking around.

    3. Yes, sometimes it is very much about just being the best conduit you can, and using whatever you have handy to keep the flow as it wants to be. I did get that feeling of deep involvement from your war poems, B. It showed, as I guess it shows here--you become sensitized to details, see things differently, or emphasized differently so you *can* see them. Anyway, thanks for getting it. It was a huge relief to lay this one down, but a huge satisfaction as well(and I did sleep like a baby.;_) )

  8. *Whistles* Wow. Simply incredible. Woven with gusto and sighs, rising and falling, speeding and slowing - all entrancing. Afterward, I thought of "Carnivale" with twists of 1932's Freaks... Eerie! and haunting.

  9. Another triple ground you weave here combines the historical (ballad) and contemporary (where lesbian love accepted, at least in the conversation) and mythic (the deep Wiccan background). A very different Oklahoma, perhaps, at least a much more complex one where history, the Present's middle C and blue mystery whip up some wild, wild twistery. (Sorry.) What I was puzzling this morning as I drove in to work was how to place a poem like this, into what canon. It's not temporal or thematic or even structural -- octava rima, yes, but more importantly its the polyphonic key it's written in, a facile handling of the multitude of voices, poetics, forms that is the complexity of life in 2014. Mark might call it bricolage, but I like penumbral, that is, using a third eye to see between the brightness and shadow. Adding that third element to create 3d heft. Charms wind up in threes, perhaps too our poetics. Maybe it was simply a device, but it strikes me that our language -- and our poetry -- has to grow up in order voice an ever more complicate and yes, amassing harmony. Just sayin'.

    1. Well, I had to change my tag, after that one, B. History is twistery, indeed, especially in tornado alley, where events often seem to mimic the low and high pressure effects that shape the land and we who crawl briefly over it. I have to agree that coming from so far away in time is like looking with the third(innermost/universal-most) eye--outside the physical and temporal, but caught somewhere in its resultant sticky web of aftershock--or whatever makes one thing echo over others in our bemused brains. It seems as much chiaroscuro as penumbral to me--making/deciphering something from darkness and brightness, shadow and highlight, because we don't see that world like a polaroid, all neatly code-a-chromed(my turn to apologize) but as a textual mystery as if written in our own blood. And I do think poetry in our time is changing, shifting, growing up into something that will fit this very different present and even more different future, and in doing so both gains and loses, but unlike a lot of other aspects of our lives as humans, it still draws from the same deep well it always has--this form I used was a favorite of Boccaccio's, for instance, yet to me it doesn't seem out of place to pluck it up and use it, any more than it did for Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium, not that I am comparing my little scribble to that--just that the medium is elastic, and alive. And so we scribble on. I often wonder if poets of a hundred or four hundred years ago could get the same feeling of connection with our work as we do with theirs--I like to think so, anyway

      Best of weekends to you, B.

  10. Joy, my apologies for coming in so late. Actually had work this week (it's been scarce) and my already dimmed energy for all things poetic have been further diverted. That, and inhaling Jasco stripper and lacquer thinner for several days straight seems to have damped my ability to string words together, or read them.

    I can add nothing novel or intelligent but will echo, brava - it seems the turn of the calendar, into autumn, into your season, has coaxed out this master pen.

    (Oh, btw, your music video is blocked on youtube, I guess it infringed somewhere.) ~

    1. Yeesh, M--no need to apologize! I am the last one to your poems many times. AFA the vid--Yes, I just noticed--shame, as it was a song that was unavailable forever. I've been unable to embed from YT in Firefox since the last two 'updates' and have to use the godawful marketing tool which is IE to get the embed codes--exosing myself to unremitting ads and who knows what virus-bearing scripts--also, I hate windows 8. Your sojourn into the solvents sounds like a more than sufficient reason to feel unconnected to the muse and her offspring--I hope the fumes clear, and thanks for visiting my haunted bridge,

    2. I've forsaken that god-forsaken Windows many moons gone, and have mostly used Chrome as browser (rather than Safari or Firefox), it seems mostly stable.

      Another few days of fumes - late start today (7 in a row, on the way to 10) since it is the day of rest. I'll call it the partial morning of rest. :) ~

    3. 10 in a row is about four too many for coherence and logical thought, even without the chemicals luring you into a buzzed dreamstate. But work is work--if it were different they would call it fun instead. Good for you on ditching windows--this is absolutely my last Dell. The whole machine/OS is now designed to try to sell me things, and not to do its work, at which it is totally incompetent. But I did get Firefox to work for an embed code, so life is not all computer hell. It does look like Backslider's Wine is gone, but I have it on vinyl. Sometimes old is good. ;_)


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats