A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 32

Hauntings

First, a little tacky self-promotion: I have a short interview up with the Massachusetts Review.

OK! I’m cheating a bit today and sharing only one reading, a poem that I think is also a story. The narrative motion within the poem swirls like a wind, resisting the resolution we might expect from prose, stirring up a mood that feels fitting to the season, not to mention the particular time of dread we find ourselves in.

We begin with an image of arresting strangeness: a goat’s head singing in a tree. It turns out to have been the result of “a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke,” undertaken by a group of boys. But the joke has the aura of an ancient sacrifice, and the power to shatter the innocence of the girl who kept the goat as her pet. We think our sympathies are fully with her. But then the poem returns to the boys and to the eerie sound we hear in its first lines. It imagines a world in which the perpetrators of violence must listen to the ones they’ve wronged, and are haunted by it, maybe for the rest of their lives. And so their act continues to reverberate, and the story inside the poem is never concluded. “Time moves around poetry,” writes Marianne Boruch in an essay about poetic endings. “How rare and astonishing to keep going past such temptations of closure.”

If you’ve seen the movie “The Witch,” you know who this guy is.

Poem

Song

Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then
They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat's head
Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly
The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away
Beside which the goat's headless body lay. Some boys
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.
The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.
The head called to the body. The body to the head.
They missed each other. The missing grew large between them,
Until it pulled the heart right out of the body, until
The drawn heart flew toward the head, flew as a bird flies
Back to its cage and the familiar perch from which it trills.
Then the heart sang in the head, softly at first and then louder,
Sang long and low until the morning light came up over
The school and over the tree, and then the singing stopped....
The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named
The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after
The night's bush of stars, because the goat's silky hair
Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.
The girl lived near a high railroad track. At night
She heard the trains passing, the sweet sound of the train's horn
Pouring softly over her bed, and each morning she woke
To give the bleating goat his pail of warm milk. She sang
Him songs about girls with ropes and cooks in boats.
She brushed him with a stiff brush. She dreamed daily
That he grew bigger, and he did. She thought her dreaming
Made it so. But one night the girl didn't hear the train's horn,
And the next morning she woke to an empty yard. The goat
Was gone. Everything looked strange. It was as if a storm
Had passed through while she slept, wind and stones, rain
Stripping the branches of fruit. She knew that someone
Had stolen the goat and that he had come to harm. She called
To him. All morning and into the afternoon, she called
And called. She walked and walked. In her chest a bad feeling
Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides
Of her bare feet. Then somebody found the goat's body
By the high tracks, the flies already filling their soft bottles
At the goat's torn neck. Then somebody found the head
Hanging in a tree by the school. They hurried to take
These things away so that the girl would not see them.
They hurried to raise money to buy the girl another goat.
They hurried to find the boys who had done this, to hear
Them say it was a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke....
But listen: here is the point. The boys thought to have
Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they
Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job,
Whistling as they washed their large hands in the dark.
What they didn't know was that the goat's head was already
Singing behind them in the tree. What they didn't know
Was that the goat's head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,
Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother's call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.

—Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Who is this lady?

Born in Palo Alto, Brigit Pegeen Kelly wrote several poetry collections and chapbooks, and was the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a number of other honors. She worked as a professor of English at UC-Irvine and other colleges and universities, where she had a reputation as a gifted and inspiring teacher. Carl Phillips wrote that her poems “investigate why the world is so protean, pitching our human desire to empirically know a thing against a very real—and in the world of Kelly’s poems—an otherworldly resistance to so-called rational thinking.” She died in 2016.

Prompt

Write about an episode from childhood that continues to haunt the person who experienced it. This could be a literal haunting, firmly in the horror genre, or a more metaphorical one.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com