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R.T. Smith

R.T. Smith

R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University. His In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems was published in summer 2014 by Texas Review Press. Two earlier books received the Library of Virginia Poetry Prize, and he has received the Carole Weinstein Prize for Poetry.

The Spirit in the Wall

for Sarah Kennedy              

According to accounts essential to the lore unveiled
in Williams' Lays and Legends of Gloucestershire,
one Elizabeth Croft, age almost eighteen summers,
did in the year of our Lord 1554 stand upon a scaffold
at Poules Cross all the sermon time and confess
that she had been moved by divers lewd persons
(who came in the night and kept to shadows)
upon 14 March the previous year when yellow
flowers were in blossom and the swallows nesting,
to counterfeit certain speeches outside Aldergate
of London, through the which the full populace
of the city were wonderfully molested and led
to set upon one another, neighbor to neighbor,
spouse to scorned spouse, all effected by a voice
heard clearly but its source never seen, the results:
much bruising and bile unleashed. Some claimed
it an Angel at first, but others averred only the Devil
was possessed of such rich gossip of low intent,
and this event was known as The Spirit in the Wall,
though in truth only a ruse by mistress Elizabeth—
guilty of slander if not sedition—to satisfy evil wights
who assigned her this mission but whose names
she could not recall. Though the public penance
was followed by a sojourn in prison, where she was
shut and suffered for a time, the applied regimen
including pilliwinks and dousing, she was later returned
to her native place (unrecorded) as an accident
of mercy, such being of late in fashion, the entire
time claiming she knew aught of how this wicked
gift had afflicted her, nor how demons who used her
for their ends of dismay, disorder and raw guile
in some means discerned her ability to throw the voice
(a mischief learned as a girl in the wilds of her father's
fields). She was by some called an englottogaster,
in part because it is believed such sorcery arises
from the belly and derives from eating spoiled pork,
red onions and failing to pray earnest and most mild
during the stern rigors of Lent, as do the blessed.
Zealots claim it usual in the harlot's arsenal of wiles.
Or it may just be inflicted, reasonless, upon a child.
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A flock of robins
working the fabric of morning grass early
strike exactly

with speedy beaks
to catch the breakfast inching along, furtive
and oblivious,

and neither less quick
nor precise was my Aunt Hanna's touch
at her scrolled Singer

from Sears & Roebuck,
running a fine seam, stitching two plackets,
the belt and wheels

in exact rapid rhythm,
except that single evening when her needle's
silver caught the late light

and for an instant
blinded her to the swift splinter by which
she made her living,

which is why
the tip of her left index finger was missing,
or so she explained

whenever I'd listen.
It was part of "ancient history," so I never witnessed
the incident but was

eager to believe
the story, as well as her deadpan assertion
that she bled

like a butchered
brood sow for two April weeks, which is how,
she said, such russet

red came to adorn
the breast feathers of every precious
and common robin

with invisible stitches mending the lawn.


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