blackbirdonline journalFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Goodbye, Rosalita

1 Life and the Memory of It
I knew the name Woody Guthrie before I could read. In the early seventies, my parents only had a few albums around our apartment—Cat Stevens, Paul Simon—but one of them was a four-record set of folk singers Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in concert together. Among the songs they sang were some by Arlo’s father, Woody. Woody’s song “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” also called “Deportee,” about a plane crash of migrant workers, was unforgettable, tragic even to a child who couldn’t really grasp the song’s political dimensions. Guthrie had read a New York Times article about the crash that, in listing the dead, named the pilot and others working on the plane, but said the Mexicans were “just deportees.” Angry at the prejudice, Guthrie wrote his lyrics from the point of view of the migrants.

Sometimes, I’d lift the needle and skip over the song; it was too painful for my five-year-old self. Perhaps it was the way that the narration of the story of the plane crash mixed with the chorus, in which a worker—still alive—bids goodbye to his family.

Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita
Adios, mis amigos Jesus y Maria

Woody wasn’t singing the song, of course. Arlo sang his father’s words, “My father’s own father / he waded that river.” Arlo was the one who was making the audience on the record laugh about Nixon’s shenanigans; he was the one who made me tear up by singing. And years later, when I was in college, it wasn’t Woody, but folk singer Toshi Reagon who made me tear up at the Clearwater Folk Festival as she sang:

You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be “deportees.”

At that time, I still hadn’t heard Guthrie’s rough, nasally voice. I knew him only through others.

Between songs on that album, Pete Seeger spoke of Woody Guthrie as if he was the source of folk music and folk wisdom; he shared Woody’s quips, both wise and witty: “Oh, he just stole from me,” Woody said of another singer, “I steal from everybody.” Woody Guthrie, to me, was already removed, legendary. He was as mythic as the “ribbon of highway” and the “redwood forest” from his most famous song. Although I couldn’t have articulated it when I was five, or even when I was twenty, “Deportee” felt less like a song composed by a man than a cry from the country’s tortured soul.


It was not until graduate school that I learned the name Elizabeth Bishop. I probably had come across it a few times in my undergraduate days, and in my own reading of poetry anthologies once I started to get engrossed in the art, but she didn’t leave a mark. Back then, I was taken with tough-guy poets, ones who wrote about violence and struggle, personal and political. When my poetry professor assigned Bishop in graduate school, I slowly came around—“In the Waiting Room,” her poem about being a child and experiencing a deep sense of dislocation, shook me. I knew that feeling of being alien, the sudden shock of our mortality, the wonder at our distances from and connections to others. Still, in a paper that I wrote about her, I said a “friend” found her “boring.” That friend was me.

I have come to appreciate Bishop more and more, and now count her among my favorite poets, but her piece, “Poem,” was one that I had always avoided. When it was included in anthologies, I would never assign it. I hadn’t taken the time to experience it. It felt like a ramble, some good description about a tiny old painting made by someone the author never met. My cursory reading made me feel that it was, as Bishop put it in a letter to Robert Lowell, “very old-fashioned and umpty-umpty.”

Now though, it is the poem of hers that I like the most. In it, the speaker is looking at a very small sketch of a landscape painted some seventy years ago by a great-uncle whom she never knew. While examining it, she suddenly realizes that she knows the landscape detailed. It is a spot in Nova Scotia where she spent some of her early life. The realization leads her to ruminate on the curious fact that she and her great-uncle George both “knew this place” and “looked at it long enough to memorize it.” Bishop doesn’t sentimentalize this connection; “How strange,” she says instead, and she rejects the idea that their “visions coincided,” saying “‘visions’ is / too serious a word.”

Still, she is moved by the small painting and the feelings it stirs in her, the way it blends life, art, and memory in her mind. The work embodies what little we keep of our lives, and how art can link us to others. This link, as she says, is “Not much.” But it is “our earthly trust.” Art is what we pass down to each other; it is how we share “a look.” Here’s the ending:

Our visions coincided—“visions” is
too serious a word—our looks, two looks:
art “copying from life” and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
—the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

How small our inheritance, and yet “how touching.” Our lives zip by, time ceaselessly obliterating what was, and our only solace is art, which not only memorializes places and moments, but connects us to each other, lets us know “I, too. . . .” I, too, saw this place, those elms, that meadow. I, too, worked in the fields, said goodbye to my family. I, too, am an alcoholic. I, too, had a mother who went insane. I, too, sing America.

2 Who Are These Friends
These two works, “Deportee” and “Poem,” make me want to weep, yet they also make me want to live, to know the world; they make me want to take a walk, and they make me want to sit and look at the sea, and then at a bustling city street. They make me want to create.

One, heavy with the political, inspired by that public record, the newspaper; the other, wrought from personal history, the deep past, inspired by a relative’s painting. One written by someone more legend than man, a person with little self-consciousness who wrote maniacally, constantly, before Huntington’s disease brought him to be institutionalized; the other written in the last years of a life that ground out poems slowly, a thin book every decade. One a song whose lyrics are never completely stable, the other a poem carved in anthologies and the Library of America. Folk Art vs. High Art. Mexico and Nova Scotia.

I understand the attraction of “Deportee.” Guthrie’s lyrics strum my social conscience, forged in my earliest years, when my family lived in graduate student housing at the University of Massachusetts. In 1970, when I was five, the University’s newspaper ran a photo of me at a peace march, clutching a sign with what may have been the first poem that I composed:

War is stupid
War is bad
All the killing
Makes me sad

For one of my birthdays, my parents had a “Peace Party.” In some photo album in my parents’ house, there’s a shot of five young children standing in a line under a “Make Love, Not War” poster, each holding a balloon with a letter taped on it: P-E-A-C-E. There I am, in a brown striped shirt, my head turned, smiling at a friend. On the stereo, perhaps, Pete Seeger is singing Woody’s song, “Take me riding in the car, car.”

Bishop’s poem? That’s harder. Part of it, though, must be how the poem values art and the artist, how it dismisses money. The uncle’s sketch “never earned any money in its life,” and yet it’s the source of human connection. Like a poem (or a poet?), it is “useless and free.” I’m comfortably (or uncomfortably) bourgeois—I own a house!—but I’ve never suffered from what Whitman calls “the mania of owning things.” In college, when my girlfriend of three years said, “I want a nice house. I want to make money. These things are important to me,” it was the beginning of our breakup.


They were born one year apart in such different parts of the country that they may as well have been different countries. She, to an upper-class family in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911; he in 1912 in the boom town of Okemah in the recently minted state of Oklahoma. Bishop’s father died before she was a year old, sending her mother into deep depression which resulted in her being institutionalized when Bishop was five. An only child, Bishop was raised by relatives, and though she wasn’t particularly wealthy, she attended elite schools and graduated from Vassar College. Guthrie had four siblings. His family was middle class, but fell on hard times. In 1919, Guthrie’s older sister Clara died in a house fire. Eight years later, when Guthrie was fourteen, his father was severely burned in a house fire and his mother, who struggled with mental illness connected to Huntington’s disease, was institutionalized. Woody didn’t graduate high school.

Their respective lives helped forge their view of themselves. Guthrie was a seeker, always looking outward. He couldn’t stay still. Even though he was deeply in love with his second wife, Marjorie, in the 1940s he would just disappear without telling anyone where he was going or when he’d be back. It’s how he ended up riding the rails, or playing songs at a migrant camp. In “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie has the lines, “Nobody living can ever stop me, / As I go walking that freedom highway.” I’ve always seen these lines as straightforward, political. They are against private property, money, government, and bosses. But they also seem like the cry of the individual, a resistance to obligations of family and community—Guthrie will light out for the territories, wife and children be damned. He did it often.

Although Bishop, like Guthrie, traveled a great deal, she was reticent about revealing herself. Raised in intellectual circles, but without ever feeling like she had a home, Bishop was reserved, shy, and her art is reflective and circumspect. She was taken aback by the confessional poets, who wrote about sex and drugs and insanity, saying in an interview, “You just wish they’d kept some of these things to themselves.” By the end of her life, when she wrote “Poem,” she was including the “I” in more of her work, but she never overtly wrote about her lesbianism or alcoholism. There was a self-consciousness in her that restrained and refined her work.

In his autobiography, Bound for Glory, twelve-year-old Woody returns to Okemah with his family after a year away and discovers that the boom has dried up; it’s a ghost town. He gets beat up by a pack of loitering kids, and then comes across his initials “W.G.” carved in a sidewalk square and watches his blood drip onto them. Walking past a closed-up store window and processing what has happened, he spots his reflection: “Woody who? Huh.”

In perhaps her most famous poem, “In the Waiting Room,”Bishop recalls an incident from childhood when she visits the dentist with her aunt. Upon hearing her aunt’s cry of pain, the young Bishop has a disorienting experience, a moment of acute self-consciousness, like catching a glimpse of oneself in the unusual angles of a fitting room mirror:

But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.

Woody who? Elizabeth who? What it was I was.

Woody’s question looks outward. Who will Guthrie be in this world, what will those initials mean? Will he be more than a bullied boy? He doesn’t answer by self-reflection, but by thrusting himself forward, into his life. He romps through his town, seeking out new people to connect to, new discoveries. It’s a curiosity about the self, but not one that circles in on itself in a spiral of self-consciousness. He has carved his initials, but what will the legacy of those initials be?

In Bishop’s account of her childhood experience, she becomes so overwhelmed with self-consciousness that she struggles to look at anything. She “scarcely dared to look” at herself, and she keeps her eyes down to avoid looking at others in the waiting room. By the end of the poem, she is no longer so lost in her own mind—“Then I was back in it. / The war was on,” but the sense of Elizabeth that we get is of a girl who becomes so reflective that she is nearly paralyzed.


My family left Amherst, Massachusetts, for Normal, Illinois, in 1971, when Vietnam was still in the fore of the nation’s consciousness. The war was definitely on. My father, having finished his PhD, had gotten a last-minute teaching position at Illinois State University. We drove through upstate New York, saw Niagara Falls and stayed with relatives in Toronto, then cut through Michigan to our new home in the center of the “Land of Lincoln.” It wasn’t riding the rails, but for my parents, born and bred in Massachusetts, and for my six-year-old self, it felt like a great adventure.

I have blips of memory from that trip—the tunnel under the falls, sheets of water nearly blinding in their force; a park in Toronto with a huge cement wall along one side; and, during the drive itself, my mother inconsolable, weepy, as we left Massachusetts. It was hard for me to understand exactly why she was crying, but I sensed that it had to do with her leaving her family. Lying among sleeping bags in the well of our Volkswagen Bug, I listened to her sobs in my own silent pain.

The first year we lived in Illinois, we were visited by my aunt and uncle, two young academics. At the time, I was entranced with a record of Cat Stevens. I liked dancing to the “fast songs,” like “Tuesday’s Dead,” and I would play them over and over in the living room of our small rented brick house. Earlier that year, at a concert that my parents had taken me to on the university commons, I had started dancing and a college student had lifted me up and put me on stage with the band. The combined thrill of the music’s energy and being the center of attention was almost more than my six-year-old self could handle.

In that living room, with my aunt seated on the sofa, I put on Cat Stevens and started dancing. My aunt sat through a minute or two of my gyrating, my long hair whipping around my head, my legs shimmying and jerking.

“My, Johnny,” she said, “you are a good dancer.”

Harmless in print, yes? A compliment, an encouragement. But my child ears picked up a tone; sarcasm is too strong, perhaps it was the sense of the obligatory indulgence an adult must make to a child who wishes to be praised. Whatever it was, I knew that she could care less about my dancing, that it was an annoyance. And I didn’t want to dance anymore.

I can see in my aunt’s comment the beginnings of my transition from Guthrie to Bishop, from childhood to adulthood, from untrammeled creativity to discreet reflection. Woody Guthrie was that whirling exhibitionist on the cheap bland carpet, Cat Stevens’s chords vibrating through the room. I was moved by art to make art, anticipating applause. Bishop was the boy in the top bunk later that night in the room he shared with his younger siblings, thinking over the look on his aunt’s face, the archness in her voice, the boy who wished he had kept his dancing to himself.

3 Our Abidance
I have always felt uncomfortable and self-conscious about being named in this poem by my father, James Scrimgeour. Part of me is embarrassed to be described singing, the way I was embarrassed to dance so long ago. Still, it’s better to be named than to be nameless:

“V” Formation

There is a gap in the “v” formation
of autumn geese heading south.

The foliage glistens with radiant sunlight;
J.D. is singing Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees”

The crops are all in; the peaches are rotting,
the oranges piled in their creosol dung.

The reds, the yellows, the oranges mix
with the remaining green—the leaves,
breathtaking, hanging on, refusing to fall.

Who are those friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says they are just deportees.

Was it twenty years ago he serenaded us
from the well of the old VW as we drove
along these same roads, through these same leaves
from graduate student housing to visit Yiayia?

Now, J.D., following Arlo’s rendition—yes
 . . . scattered like dry leaves
all over the topsoil . . .

Woody, Arlo; J.D., me; red, orange; green, yellow—
swirling, blended in an autumn rainbow.

My father’s own father,
he waded that river. . . .

“Hey, that’s a great line,” says J.D.
“Ya, I know,” says I.

We look up and the gap is closed.
The “v” formation is solid—heading
into the twenty-first century and beyond.

4 It Must Be Broke Down and Said
When I went on iTunes to purchase a copy of “Deportee,” sung by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, I discovered that the album I mentioned listening to as a young child was released in 1975, when I was ten, and well after my family had moved from Massachusetts to Illinois. The bit that opened this essay about listening to “Deportee” before I could read was untrue. Apologies. I had thought it true, and I do have memories of lifting the needle to skip songs on the album. Still, in such disregard for facts, I guess I’m more like Guthrie than Bishop.

Bound for Glory, Guthrie’s autobiography, is a very good read, with touching scenes, particularly about his mother, but it is clearly embellished, more myth than fact. Guthrie doesn’t even mention marrying his first wife and abandoning her and the kids, though he devotes a chapter to a romantic tryst between him and a migrant worker’s daughter, and another few pages to a battle of amoebas that he supposedly watched through a microscope when he was a boy. He doesn’t acknowledge how his early radio shows were right-wing populism, vilifying Mexicans and blacks. There’s little of the regret that comes with self-reflection. The vivid descriptions of riding the rails, the fresh, colorful phrasing that avoided the hokeyness often found when writers attempt written dialect, was all very entertaining, but facts? Self-awareness? Who cares whether I was five or ten when I heard “Deportee”? It was a way into this essay, a good show.

Bishop, on the other hand, was known for her accuracy. In some notes to a talk she gave, Bishop says that the qualities she admires in poems are “accuracy, spontaneity, mystery,” still the best expression of poetry I’ve heard. And she discovered in therapy that she had an uncanny ability to sharply recall events from her early childhood.

In fact, Bishop’s technique in her best poems can be summed up in two words: look closer. What first appears to be a grungy gas station actually doubles as a family’s home—notice the doily on the little greasy taboret; someone embroidered it. What appears to be a “useless” sketch becomes, on further inspection, Mrs. Gillespie’s house. The longer we look, the more we discover. In “Poem,” the longer we look, the more familiar the world becomes, the more we “recognize it.”

For Bishop, this act of looking closer is her aesthetic, and it’s an aesthetic with a moral component. Only in looking closely does she come to care about not just the painting, but her relative. We sense that, by the end of the poem, even the geese are loved. For Bishop, determining how to think and feel about a subject begins and ends in careful observation.

When I look closer, I look behind the obvious differences in Bishop and Guthrie for places the two artists’ visions may have “coincided,” where they might have shared a “look.” They both suffered from alcoholism. They both were attracted to women. They were both in New York City in the early 1940s. Guthrie already had hosted a radio show in Los Angeles and was becoming famous; Bishop was a promising young writer who had yet to publish a book. Perhaps they crossed paths in Manhattan as the United States was entering World War II. Perhaps they drank from the same glass on different nights at a cheap bar in Greenwich Village.

The closer that I look at Bishop and Guthrie’s lives, all the paint and rhythms and words, what emerges is the figure, the shadow, really, of the absent mother. Although the circumstances were very different, they each had a mother who went insane, lit fires, and was eventually institutionalized for life.

Bishop hardly knew her mother. Her father, a successful businessman, died of Bright’s disease before Bishop was a year old, and his death unhinged her mother. Over the next five years, while Gertrude Bishop was in and out of sanatoriums, Elizabeth was raised mainly by relatives. But her fullest memory of her mother is from when Bishop was five, staying with Gertrude’s parents in Nova Scotia, and Gertrude came to visit for a few weeks and had a breakdown. After that, Gertrude was sent to a public sanatorium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Although Gertrude lived for eighteen more years, Elizabeth never saw her again.

Bishop wrote about that last visit in “In the Village,” an autobiographical short story, and the distance she felt from her mother is reflected in the story. Told in an oddly detached way, opening in third person and shifting to a distant first person, “In the Village” never refers to the mother as “my mother,” only as “she.” The mother, like Guthrie’s deportee, is nameless.

The story begins with a scream: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever, a slight stain on those pure blue skies.” The child in the story is clearly scarred by this scream from the mother, which occurs when the village dressmaker has her try on a new dress, one that isn’t black, as a way to ease her out of mourning. No one hears it, but it “hangs like that, unheard, in memory—in the past, in the present, and those years between.”

Still, for the child, the world about her offers such sights and sounds, something beyond fear and grief. Life calls to her, whether it’s the cow flops—“fine dark-green and lacy and watery at the edges”—or the clang of the village blacksmith, and it is the blacksmith’s smelted horseshoes tossed through the shadows of his shop—perhaps more than the mother’s scream—that stay with the reader, the way they sail through the shop’s darkness “like bloody little moons” and “drown in the black water, hissing, protesting.”

For Elizabeth, her mother never really had a name. She was someone locked away, a myth flitting through her early childhood that, like some nursery tale, faded as life moved ceaselessly forward. When she returned to her, to write about her, she had a few fragmented memories, but nothing to piece together a person. A scream and a grandmother’s tears. Not much.

Bishop “never knew” her great-uncle George either, the artist of the sketch. She never saw him face-to-face. But the picture that she holds connects her to this man from a different generation who lived a very different life (we learn he was in the military, an “R.A.”). As “Poem” suggests, this connection is no great correspondence, but the art tells her that, for a moment, the two coincided. What art did she take from her mother? None, unless one counts that scream—something primal and unshaped, lacking music or control.


Guthrie knew his mother, knew her too well. He paints a sympathetic portrait of her in Bound for Glory. She is playing with him, holding him close. She calls him affectionate names—“my little question box,” “young sprout”—and she gives him art, a way they can share a look; she sings to him. In one episode the Guthrie family has crawled into a storm cellar with some neighbors as a cyclone approaches:

I was just as wet as any catfish in any creek ever was or ever will be when Papa finally got into the cellar.

Mama grabbed me up into her lap where she was setting down on a case of canned fruit. A lantern or two shot a little gleam of light through the shadows of ten or fifteen people packed into the cellar.

“Boy! You know, Mama, me an’ Papa is really Cyclone Fighters!” I jabbered off and shook my head around at everybody. . . .

Everybody laughed and hollered under the ground.

“Sing to me,” I whispered to Mama.

She had already been rocking me back and forth, humming the tune to an old song.

“What do you want me to sing?”

“That. That song.”

“The name of that song is ‘The Sherman Cyclone.’”

“Sing that.”

And so she sang it.

Nora Guthrie left her son songs, not screams. With such a gift, how could Guthrie not go easy on his mother in Bound for Glory? In his account of her final breakdown, Guthrie fictionalizes by setting himself alone with her—he was actually at school. Woody senses his mother is breaking down and runs to alert his father, who hurries home and ends up nearly burning to death when he rushes into the house and the furnace explodes. According to biographers, though, Charlie Guthrie was sleeping on a sofa in the house, and he awoke in flames. Nora may have set the fire.

While Guthrie goes easy on his mother, he goes hard on himself. Guthrie has his mother snap just after he has shared a touching, intimate moment with her as the two work digging up the backyard of their new home, insinuating that he helped trigger his mother’s breakdown. In the midst of a conversation, the young Guthrie sees the smoky fumes from fumigating the house. “Looks like it’s on fire!” he comments, and his mother’s mouth and face change “into a stare that was still and cold and stiff.” We sense she’s transported to the day of her daughter’s death.

By staging his mother’s collapse this way, Guthrie seems to be taking some of the blame for it. His unthinking comment takes his mother out of the present and into the past—the memory of her lost daughter, the lure of the flame. In a book that celebrates his vitality and pluck, a book that isn’t self-reflective, in this moment, Guthrie flagellates himself.

And in an unusually self-referential paragraph, Guthrie apologizes for the art that he’s making, apologizes for writing about his mother. His words haunt me:

I hate a hundred times more to describe my own mother in any such words as these. You hate to read about a mother described in any such words as these. I know. I understand you. I hope you can understand me, for it must be broke down and said.

In these words, Guthrie abandons the childlike energy that drives the book. He writes tenderly, from one experienced soul to another. He can’t help himself. To tell the story of his mother’s disintegration, to face it, he needs to be an adult.

I wonder if the line between child and adult is where madness resides. And I wonder if writers, if artists, are more likely to experience mental breaks because they must keep crossing over, revisiting the past to make something for the future. I don’t mean to romanticize it. It’s really not brave work. It’s not sane work. I’m not sure if it’s even work. Maybe it’s a dance. A mad dance.

Woody Guthrie did see his mother once more after the fire, though he doesn’t write about it in Bound for Glory. A year after his mother was taken away, Woody convinced the family that he lived with at the time to drive him sixty miles out into the prairie to a lonesome red brick building. According to Guthrie’s biographer, Joe Klein, “doctors took him through corridors of ravers and screamers, a great wash of crumpled and smelly humanity, through locked doors and into a room where his mother was sitting in a formless hospital smock, shaking and fidgeting. She didn’t recognize him.”

For Woody, Nora had a name, she had a voice that carried the music of childhood, she had a lap he curled up on.

When she broke down, she lost her name. She lost his name. She was just a crazy woman. She went on the big airplane, and died in our desert.


When I was ten (not five), listening to “Deportee,” I didn’t realize my father’s own mother, Alice LePoer, was suffering from some sort of mental illness, perhaps agoraphobia. It only dawned on me gradually, especially after my grandfather died, that my grandmother didn’t live like other people; that she stayed in bed most of the day in her house in West Boylston, just outside of Worcester; that she told stories she believed were true, but which were obviously not. One time I sat in on a conversation with her and my parents. I was excited to hear that someone in our family had been good friends with Franklin Roosevelt. Only in the car afterward, when I heard my parents say that they “hadn’t heard that story before,” did I realize that much of what she said was fantasy.

And it was the adult me, the one who had begun reading Bishop, that learned about the madness on my mother’s side. My mother’s grandmother, Hariklia Mitsakos, spent twenty-one years institutionalized in the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts. Once admitted, Hariklia was never released, and she died in the institution. Removed from her household, she left behind her husband and seven children.

Between 1912–15, Bishop’s mother, Gertrude, was in and out of sanatoriums in the Boston area. I wonder if she, too, stayed at Metropolitan State Hospital, before her final breakdown in Nova Scotia. The two women may have walked the same corridors, though not at the same time. Hariklia was institutionalized in 1928. The rooms and hallways Gertrude may have inhabited were, as “Poem” puts it, “before her time.”

When I ask my mother about Hariklia, she doesn’t recall much. She never met her. She remembers hearing something about Hariklia setting fires.


Apparently, it’s not easy to get medical records of mental patients, if any exist. Neither Guthrie nor Bishop’s biographer has many details of the mothers’ institutionalizations, and I’m having difficulty finding out about Hariklia. Her life is so distant; she died over sixty years ago. What kind of records did they even keep back then? Who would have preserved them? The hospital shut down twenty years ago. Even if I got lucky, got permission, and found something—some treatment notes—what would it amount to?

What am I hoping for? Do I really expect to find some poem she scribbled? Some comment from the staff about how she sang every evening after supper? Or even evidence of the madness—the scream, not the song; an account of a tantrum, a day she no longer remembered her name?

Those women who were locked up—and a larger story is that they were mostly women—are gone from us. Research can only recover so much. The asylums are shuttered. Metropolitan State Hospital was closed in 1992, and the buildings were gradually taken down. All that remains is the old administration building. I read online that there was a graveyard—MetFern Cemetery—on the grounds where they buried the patients. The graves were concrete posts or blocks; some were cinder blocks. The hospital didn’t bother with the expense of engraving the names—just put a “P” or “C” for Protestant or Catholic, and a number: P6, P7, P8 . . . You won’t have a name.

The cemetery was in use beginning in 1947. Hariklia died in 1949. Waltham is less than an hour from my home in Salem. I could visit her.

I called my mother, but even as the phone started ringing, I knew the answer. Hariklia had not been buried at one of those anonymous gravesites. She had family. Her daughter—my grandmother, Mary—would visit her.

My mother told me that she had gone to Hariklia’s funeral, which, she said after thinking it over, was held in Webster, Hariklia’s hometown. She remembered the funeral because it was the first she ever attended, the first time she saw a dead person. Like Bishop’s character in “In the Village,” my mother was so young that she was drawn to the details of a new experience—the blue dress she wore, the incense—more than any specific emotion.

So much for a trip to the old cemetery in Waltham. So much for a good story.

5 MetFern
Sometimes I see a path back to the lyrics, back to the poem. Sometimes, a path opens and I know that if I take it I will never get back. Sometimes I want simply to sit where I am, stop seeking, and just look.

Off there, where I’ve been, I see smoke billowing over a train heading west out of Chitown, covering Woody and the two boys he’s befriended who are lighting out for someplace other than home, if they ever had a home. They’re lying on the roof of a car in a stinging rain, the wetness mixing with the heat from the smoke. Guthrie’s guided them up here because there were too many fists flying and bottles breaking down below. When the storm blows over, he’ll sing for them. In his own way, he’ll mother them.

And through that smoke, I see, too, young Elizabeth, not more than three, watching her mother on their lawn in Marblehead, Massachusetts, just two miles—but a few social classes—from my own house in Salem. It’s an early memory of Bishop’s, one she drafted a poem about, one that she ascribed to her alcoholism. The girl’s silent—shuttled among family, she hardly speaks anyway—as her mother ministers to victims of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, the blaze that destroyed half the city, floating embers glowing red in the night.

That fire swept down Winthrop Street in Salem and destroyed the house that stood on the lot where my house stands now. The house I’m in, built in 1916, is just a few years younger than Guthrie and Bishop. It’s about the same age as my father’s mother, Alice (1909), the woman who slowly lost herself in a small house outside of Worcester, and my mother’s mother, Mary (1914), who raised her six younger siblings when Hariklia was sent away.

Which path was I peering down? I thought I would sit, but something restless in me—Woody, is that you?—keeps me looking for more. Or am I always looking closer?

Outward or inward; the political and the personal; the child, the adult; man and woman; poem song painting scream. Fire.

This search for connections, is that what madness is? Or is it when we give up on connections—when we stop trying to make sense?

The efforts at preservation: in poems, in art, in song. What for? Aren’t those hoarders who keep “useless” scraps from the past some kind of crazy? When I talk to my father about his mother, Alice, he says that she “couldn’t let things go,” that in her old age, she still obsessed over a high school student council election.

Some things we must let go if we are to go on, right? To be an adult? The grief over a lost husband, or daughter, or mother. Sometimes, you just want to light it all afire.

But some things we mustn’t let go. Sometimes we need to go backward to go forward. We need to make art, to insist on connection, on naming. Sometimes, we should write a poem. Or sing.


The abandoned administration building for the Metropolitan State Hospital looked like an administration building, brick and boxy, with wide steps and smooth white columns. There was graffiti here and there—“Peace, Love, and Ice Cream” squeezed over the boarded doorway: The windows were also boarded up, and notices warned “Danger: Asbestos.”

I came anyway, even though Hariklia was not buried here, even though Gertrude Bishop may never have even spent time here. Somewhere on these wooded grounds was a cemetery with gravestones marked with a P or a C. I came to see them. I came to go backward before going forward.

No one knew where the cemetery was. The attendant at the condominium complex that has been built on the grounds had never seen or heard of it. “You got a hot date there?” he joked.

Finally, I found the old wooded trail near the administration building and began the twenty-minute walk to MetFern Cemetery, where 363 people had been buried without their names. They were, like Hariklia, patients at Metropolitan State Hospital, or they were students at the nearby Fernald School, a school for children with mental disabilities, called “The School for Idiotic Children” back in the nineteenth century.

It was fall, and the leaves were at their brightest, an autumn rainbow; the sky a blue as crisp as the October air.

A cyclist passed me as I was walking, “Is there a cemetery around here?”

“Up ahead, on the right,” he said over his shoulder.

He was right. There, in the middle of the forest, at the foot of a hill, sat a sunny patch about half the size of a football field, bordered by a stone wall. One huge tree rose near the center of the field, and a few others dotted the outskirts. Much of the graveyard was covered with thigh-high brown reeds, the rest with thick uncut green grass that fell over itself in clumps. Some of this grass was so heavy it completely hid the grave markers. I yanked a few clumps out to make the markers visible, but there were so many hidden markers, and such a lot of grass.

I saw some Ps and Cs, along with the numbers. C26 had a spooky looking hole beside it, as if someone had been digging a while ago. Grasses grew over the edges, and dead leaves sat on the bottom. The hole angled downward a few feet, into what looked like an underground hollow. Had someone broken into a coffin? I couldn’t really make out where the hole ended, and I didn’t jump in to find out.

How am I connected to these anonymous dead? I came because of Guthrie and Bishop. These people weren’t related to me, but perhaps, in this spot, if only for a moment, our looks might have coincided. Maybe on a walk down the carriage path they had stopped to marvel, as I marveled, at that huge tree draping itself over the graves. Perhaps they looked up at a poplar twirling its last leaves and heard the hint of a song in the slight wind.

In the back of the cemetery, in the shade of the encroaching wood, was a rectangular platform made of mortared rocks. It was the size of a small coffin. Atop it were some faded fake flowers and the bottom half of a stone statue that might have once been a human; now it was just stone robes. A metal spine curved out its top a few inches.

“All those other things,” writes Bishop at the end of “In the Village,” “—clothes, crumbling postcards, broken china; things damaged and lost, sickened or destroyed; even the frail, almost-lost scream—are they too frail for us to hear their voices long, too mortal?”

Beside the broken statue was a worn white bust of Jesus, his face gone beige from peeling paint. Jesus was pulling his shirt open, and his chest too. In the center of his chest was a pink heart with yellow flames shooting out. His hands had small holes daubed red. And across the base of the bust in thin capital letters ran the words:


All these dead without names. And me, with Guthrie’s song and Bishop’s poem in my head. Thinking of lost mothers, and George; of loneliness, and people treated badly. Of being exposed and venerated.

Ever since I began thinking about “Deportee,” I had carried around a copy of the lyrics. Now, I opened my backpack, removed my notebook, and pulled out the paper with Guthrie’s words. I’d made a few scribbles on it, marks that meant something only to me. I folded it twice, then put my palm on Jesus’s forehead, like a parent feeling his child for a fever. I tipped him backward, slid the lyrics underneath, and eased him back down, then stood and looked over the grounds, over where I had been: the waving reeds, the heavy grass, the bumps of concrete and stone.

The song came easily as I walked back, though I couldn’t have said why I was singing. Was it for Hariklia, who walked these grounds over sixty years ago? Was it for all those nameless buried back there? Or the nameless who died in Los Gatos? For Woody and his constant jabbering? Or Elizabeth—for being so accurate? Maybe it was for any child who lost their mother too soon, or maybe it was just something to contrast the afternoon’s sunny silence, something to say that I was there.  

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