Jana Harris teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is editor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg. Her most recent publications are You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore; Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier (University of Alaska Press) and the memoir, Horses Never Lie About Love (Simon & Schuster). Other poetry books include Oh How Can I Keep on Singing, Voices of Pioneer Women (Ontario); The Dust of Everyday Life, An Epic Poem of the Northwest (Sasquatch); and We Never Speak of It, Idaho-Wyoming Poems 1889-90 (Ontario ) all are available online from Open Road Press as are her two novels, Alaska (Harper & Row) and The Pearl of Ruby City (St. Martin’s). She lives with her husband on a farm in the Cascades.
(Rosa Bonheur, b. 1822)
Maman said the sun
set over the river like a ripe plum
on the day I was born.
When I cut teeth early
Nurse spoon-fed me cream
from our best cow, one she tended
herself, la vache licking my head as if
I were her calf.
Never a time when
I wasn’t crazy for animals, the scent
of stables irresistible. As soon
as I could walk and hold
a stick, I sketched hens and chicks
in warm barnyard dust--
a pig, goat, kittens.
But the alphabet, French, spelling,
wore Mere out. I had no patience
for words unless they made
animal pictures, just as I had no patience
for that steamboat, its wake licking
hungrily at the mud of the Garonne;
each day Pere promised
it would bring my next baby brother.
Mere confined in a room papered
with blue lambs, I splattered walls
with handfuls of Papa’s paints
high up as I could reach
(his cherished reds, my favorite).
I sat Monsieur Punch poupee in a chair,
and drew his portrait.
Appropriating scissors, I cut
paper dolls –a shepherd,
his sheep, dog, a tree. Later
‘Dodore in a cradle beside her,
Maman played harpsicord as tears
leaked from her eyes because
Nurse cuddled me like her own.
Unbeknownst to his children, upstairs
Papa packed his trunk for Paris where
an artist could make his reputation--
where the dust would have an acrid scent,
the bread saltless, the air
a grizzled, mind-numbing slate.
And the animals? Barely a sprinkling
of cows, no sheep, horses only
in harness pulling cannon,
carriages seized by partisans, and slow
flat carts bearing away the dead.
To keep me occupied
Pere would buy me a finch
in a bell-shaped cage, a chipmunk
in a petite commode. Straightaway
I would grant their liberty
to join the subversion in the streets
while I waited, stick in hand,
to sketch on cobbles
mired in sweat and ferric and
the stain of Bordeaux plums.
In an Era of Uncertain Weather,It Falls to Mlle. Natalie Micas to Teach Fledgling Swallows to Fly
(Rosa Bonheur, near Fontainebleau, 1879-80)
Mademoiselle and I agree,
all nature gone awry:
January, every bit of forest wood
torn and mutilated. Not a birch standing,
oaks covered with icicles bent
to the ground. Train accidents—frozen switches.
The cannon-shot of falling ice
the loudest in memory.
In my studio, a starved wren lands
on the sill, eats dead flies, warms herself
atop my paintings. My bedroom festooned
in cages. With a music box
I coach the starvelings to sing.
At dawn the saved greet me
in their own tongue. I sketch them
as they eat asparagus seed.
Like Mlle. Micas, I was born
before railroads, steamships
a new invention. We ponder
what has vanquished
the mild weather of our girlhoods.
First, the fatal burning
of Gaul’s ancient forests, then
the getting of coal, its great consumption,
the factories, domestic chimneys all begin
with fire and end in smoke, matter
changed to spirit has altered
the weight of the globe. How
is the earth to regain its balance?
A cold spring bleeds
into insupportable heat; summer,
our liquid parts run away
leaving only bones.
Nights too hot for sleeping, too hot even
for sketching the memory of rain.
Worse, in the menagerie barn, fledglings
fall from their mud cup nests.
Natalie collects truffle-sized chicks,
places beaks-and-bright-eyes on wool
tufts in the raspberry canes. Overhead
the flock swarms, swoops, drops
insects into gaping mouths while
Mademoiselle patrols, calling:
cats away, hawks away, crows...
Before nightfall the Great Nana gathers
her chicks in a wicker hamper, placed
in the loft. Her day framed: up at first light,
truffle tots into the open air;
one by one she lifts each to a branch
of the espaliered pear.
It launches itself, but
can’t flap long or far and,
fetched from the dust,
the Great Nana replaces it on its perch;
come night, again the hamper.
Finally the last fledgling of August;
a low branch, a higher branch,
his wings clap-clap to the fence.
Hours later and still there, she fetches
him back to the pear,
he falls, she finds him
at sundown; five days of fetch, lift off,
flap, fall, fetch again.
On a morning when
a vague possibility of rain scented the air,
God—in whom I do not believe—Be Praised!
He rose, high, higher over
the barn, the hay field,
the menagerie pens of hind
and horse and sheep. Hundreds
of swallows congregating in a mad
choreography of flight, the skyway
a perfect marriage of matter and spirit.
But, Mademoiselle ponders, will her last charge
make it to the Arabian Sea? The question
threatens to encage her in melancholy.
At dusk, we lie in tor-grass, stare
at the heavens awash in swallow spin
and dive; she points up, uttering
small round sounds,
“Is that him? Is that him?”
A massive onion-of-a-moon rises
shining indifferently. I spread the flat
of my hand on Natalie’s chest, feel
the drum of her magnificent heart.
By schooling the starving to sing
and fledglings to fly, the Great Nana and I,
for thirty years,
have worked in concert to counterbalance
the changing weight of the earth.