The New England Book of the Dead


The New England Book of the Dead 1830 left us
with not a tree in sight. Houses big as caverns with a room
for everyone to freeze to death in at night. Fireplace heat
up the chimney, fire in the chimney. You don’t die

of darkness but too much light. Old hearths lean
like gravestones in a field of pines. Every forest
a cemetery, tree limbs encasing rusted tools not left behind;
the woods grew to them, through them as time creeps

into cellar holes swallowed by pigweed and poke.
Blackberry brambles ripping at your coat. You don’t
want to fight it but the fight has been there all along.
Decades later coming out of the woods you are still in

the woods. Moose maple stripped inches above your head.
A path kitted for skids. Thunder cloud of gnats. Wait for me
at the bridge. A keystone’s weight has kept the others
in place since Peregrine and Pliny first cleared this land

behind barns like washed-up whales that settle and sink.
A collapsing spine connects the ribs curving around lofts
once high with hay. Now porcupines chew the sill.
Skunks mate under a desiccated shed. When they let go

they let go and you breathe it in. Horse dust and sheep dust.
Must and mites. Wind gnaws at shingles, knocking at
the same doors again and again. Crossroads named after
a certain twist of lane, milestones, millstones, and whistle stops.

At the end, a steep slope that leads to a steeper trail.
Stonier than anyone thought possible. Leaner. The recipe
for venison boiled in vinegar says to cover the pot with ashes
and let the fire go out. And so you let the fire go out.

Susan Johnson received her MFA and PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches writing. Poems of hers have recently appeared in The Kerf, The Meadow, Connecticut River Review, 3 Nations Anthology, and North American Review. She lives in South Hadley MA, and is a commentator on