The Charter for Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations.

My maternal grandmother, Marjorie Burgess Perry, was a funny woman.

I remember one story she told about her friend Ruthie, who got her hand caught in a meat grinder. I think the lesson there was about paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment.

Another time, she was sitting in her kitchen in East Providence, and had some advice to impart.

“I know I shouldn’t smoke,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “But my doctor said I need to stop drinking. And at my age, I can’t have sex anymore.”

She took a deep drag, exhaled, and quipped, “You have to have one vice.”

After she died, inevitably, at the hands of that one vice of hers, I found a few of her journals and a draft of a letter she wrote to me.

I’m not sure any of us knew the side of her that she poured into her writings. She was passionate, profound, and philosophical.

One of the phrases in her journals that struck me was “Years are not a life.”

A short time later I was working on a long poetic sequence called “Providence,” which attempts to tell the story of the European settling of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, King Philip’s War, the arrival of Portuguese in southern New England, and a bit of my family’s history there, which extends to 1637 in Sandwich, Massachusetts.

I used the phrase in one of the poems from the sequence, which was later published in Terrain.

Here is my poem, “Hope Against Hope”:

 

My mind is a slate gray sky

about to open up over the capitol.  In the distance,

electricity grounds itself to Rhode Island’s terminal moraine,

and Narragansett Bay is alive with activity.

The city is like a tree, grafted to increase yield:

the scion of this hybrid is Freedom and the stock, Hope.

Did Roger Williams have this in mind, on the day

he was expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony

and exiled to “Rogue’s Island?”

 

My mind is bent to the future

like a fly buzzing against a table lamp,

guided by some unknown power to the light.

Spruce-trees freckle Rhode Island’s low hills,

like “Indians” on horseback overlooking a settlement

in some old western.  Years are not a life,

trees come down with heavy snow or summer storms,

others are cut to fuel fires in cast-iron stoves,

or are cleared for houses on subdivided acres.

 

Providence is an article of faith

as much as of divinity.  Maybe a life is determined

in the balance of past, present, and future.

Providence, in the immutable language of trees:

Tulip-trees heavy-laden with their “magnolia” blossoms;

post oaks, twisted and stunted, like worried warriors;

ash, hickory, hope; willow, red spruce, blood;

poplar, pine, providence; sandy loam, eelgrass, freedom;

arrow-arum, water weed, Wampanoag; hope against hope.

Scott Edward Anderson
 
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“David Playing the Harp,” by Jan de Bray, 1670

My partner Samantha and  her family are in Jerusalem today, visiting the Tower of David among other significant sites in that city. They’ve been on tour in Israel all week, in advance of her nephew’s bar mitzvah on Monday.

David, the “warrior-poet,” slayer of Goliath, biblical King of Israel, uniter of the Jewish people, and writer of the Psalms.

He was a remarkable poet, and the Psalms are filled with all the complexities of who he was as a man: a fierce warrior, passionate lover, covenanted with God.

Psalms, which is important to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, is my favorite book of the Bible, along with that other great poetic work, the Song of Songs, written by David’s son, Solomon.

Psalm 23 is perhaps one of the most famous pieces of literature the world over. In this psalm, David portrays God as his shepherd. He uses the shepherd as a metaphor for the godly way his people should cope with fear and anxiety in their lives.

Here is my version of Psalm 23, which I’ve called, “Shepherd,” and which appeared in the journal A New Song nearly 20 years ago.

Shepherd

After Psalm 23

You prepare a table for us

in front of our enemies,

picking the sheepfold clean

with your own hands–

raw with the sting of nettle,

stained the color of sheep laurel.

Your back is stiff from bending,

filling your crooked arm

with lupine and false hellebore,

to keep us from having

one-eyed lambs.

From the bluestem foothills

comes the hush of rustling.

You look to the north,

sighting down landscape,

scenting the wind.

Your breath fills air,

pungent as pipe smoke.

Goodness and mercy, friend,

come forth from you as naturally

as clouds darkening this valley.

We would follow you anywhere,

dear shepherd, putting fears aside,

although you often seem foolhardy

in this green land, this restful pool.

Scott Edward Anderson