BROOK FARM POEMS
Introduction: Brook Farm, A Sacred Place
I first visited Brook Farm when I was 19 years old, over 40 years ago. There is much social and literary history associated with this former commune in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. My encounters were very simple, however. As I got older and learned more about its purpose, the story of the commune’s development, fulfillment, and fall seemed to indicate that innocence, idealism, and experience both tragic and commonplace were connected.
When George and Sophia Ripley began the Brook Farm experiment in the early 1840s, they were offering an alternative to the mainstream materialistic culture that was already developing in America. They called themselves Transcendentalists at first, but gradually identified themselves as Associationists, following the model of Charles Fourier, (1722-1837) an 18th Century thinker who believed that spiritual growth and development were the products of both physical toil on the land and intellectual education brought together. He saw himself as someone trying to create a more peaceful society. Many known literary figures visited Brook Farm, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was one of the community’s investors, lived there for three months and left.
The Phalanstery was to be the central house or unitary building. The Brook Farmers had begun building this house that was supposed to encompass a small, cohesive community, with everyone living in apartments, and sharing all the labor. On March 3, 1846, the unfinished structure burned to the ground. After the tragic fire, the Community was put into bankruptcy, and later dissolved. The effective dates of the Brook Farm experiment were 1845-1847.
During the Civil War, Brook Farm became the site of Camp Andrew where the Massachusetts 2nd Infantry was recruited, drilled and mustered out. Robert Gould Shaw, Colonel of the Massachusetts 54th, the first group of fighting Black soldiers, was a member of the Massachusetts 2nd. The site also became the site of the Lutheran Works of Mercy which built an orphanage on the original grounds. Today, one tastes only echoes and a chance artifact, but the Lutheran cemetery is still very much in existence.
1. Brook Farm
we rummage the blazing redness
of the leaves for any sign
--my son nudges them
he does not know the word
the leaves whir
then parachute to earth
sand trucks grovel up the hill
leading to Gethsemane Cemetery
we exchange hellos – then
they are gone
Come my son
take off your socks
walk with me into the battered field
where intellectuals harvested stunted corn
where soldiers from Camp Andrew
drilled in the rubble of transcendence
It is autumn--
and the fiery leaf
strains for breath
--it does not know
of its dying
it cannot surmise its birth
2. Brook Farm 1977 After the Burning
there are spirals
in the white birch bark
and acorns uprooted for a dance
Thoreau's birds calling olit olit olit
it is like a green leitmotif
songs of a thousand generations
rt. t. t. t.
bszz bszz bszz
enter the still beat
the hills of the cemetery
to accept the dead
and the orphans who lived
in the main house
and lie under it
a willow hangs upside down
and a vision of boys cycling
they enter this world
3. At the Ruins of the Hive
Like an epicurean, Easter Day is a festival of sun,
and of Civil War stones, of history and myth
all vacillating between crucifixion and renewal.
Think of the witnesses on silent hills,
of spirits in the shallow running brooks.
When today's utterances fade into the smoky green
of the Roxbury hills,
when the witnesses are forgotten,
then the world’s purpose will be revealed.
I think of spring burials and the rising
of mists from the fields now wild
with cattails and wands.
The sun goldens thought
like an artesian well
with water so blindingly pure--
it is the mind’s blessing
and its ultimate cure.
April 13, 1998
4. Brook Farm, September 15, 1998
It is a political day,
an unimpeachable day.
The dampness and humidity
test the temper.
The dirge of the 2nd Massachusetts
is heard as echo among these hills.
How nature has resisted
our long held expectations.
Mist rises up from the fields.
These are not patriots,
but boys parading
in the drill fields of Camp Andrew,
later bored and tired, spitting tobacco,
lying around. White tents, wisps of smoke
curl up from terraced hills.
These bugles are borne
on the wind
that drives toward
5.Dusk at Gethsemane
We drive nimbly over the asphalt road--
headstones and obelisks nested
in the twilit hills above Brook Farm.
Cottontails dart across the fields;
the curious deer approaches from the brush
and tolerates us long enough to get a look.
They do not sleep a chilly sleep
the dead of Gethsemane;
these graves are only temporary.
How often have I pulled off the road
to catch a breath of their serenity,
to break stones like bread.
We carry no guilt, for the Puritan is no more.
Throughout the hushed late fields,
our self-imposed morals can no longer harm.
This is the place where Hawthorne shoveled muck
for three months, then quit in disgust. The commune
lasted seven years until it fell in flames from grace.
forests oily after a long rainfall
sludged with ancient fossils.
It is another sodden afternoon
when the days get longer.
The mothering blue of the far sky lies beyond deceits.
My hand receives air.
It was here that the Phalanstery burned in 1846
where the Associationists lost heart
and the cause of Fourier fell back into capital
and infernal cities.
They live in the crystal lilies
not quite gone from this earth.
April 9, 2003, Boston
Back to a private place in New England
there are only markers in a wilderness
though I still can hear the Brook Farmers
swinging their sickles
the soldiers in the drill fields of Camp Andrew
and the orphans who used to run free
from the main house.
Butter and eggs on the lost roads,
bees suck the yoke of that flower,
goldenrod are sentinels.
A trek through the woods into a clearing:
the Margaret Fuller Cottage.
I do not hear the utterance of a bird--
charcoaled wood standing like phalli,
a rusted Ford pickup truck,
rods running through rusty concrete.
Today is for the people of the unseen world
whose roots are at one with growing things
wherever I walk in penitence
under an overcast day in autumn.
Nakedness surrounds me,
my breathing beats to a slow metronome
back and forth
my garments growing shallow--
and I now belong to those brief manifestations.
Hawthorne was here sensing a theme
He saw the Commune of Ripley echoing
discord. Neither Associationist
he later wrote The Blithedale Romance.
Atop the hill there is a Revolutionary War cannon.
There are no salvos as they keep watch
over the Lutheran cemetery spread on
rolling hills of neat stones and mausoleums.
No wars here, not among the bent trees
the chokecherries lavender asters--
all seems safe.
And make a solution for tomorrow
here in my own retrospective
as my thoughts are written
by this sacred place.
This is the autumn of a century ago
and those to come
--reading the words of the wind
and the notes of the staves.
What is perpetuated is unheard
footsteps are broken
interrupted by my loud despairs.
Walking the pleasant earth
I am reminded of the dead who are here
in the autumn of a century dislocated
from the root.
Here I write my biographical truths
in my beginnings.
1. Copyright 1988 Northwoods Press. Middle Journeys
2. Copyright 1988, Northwoods Press Middle Journeys