The Works of Taylor Graham

Taylor Graham is a volunteer search-and-rescue dog handler in the Sierra Nevada and has had poems appear in the International Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, The New York Quarterly, Poetry International, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere and has also been included in the anthology, California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Santa Clara University, 2004). The Downstairs Dance Floor (Texas Review Press, 2006) was awarded the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize.


All Poems © Taylor Graham

1863


Landscape and locomotive move at cross-

purposes. Iron oppresses grass. A man

on foot waits till the earth steadies

herself again, after the trembling,

as coal-smoke hangs then dissipates.


No, it stays, a dark burden on sky

and soil, fire roiling water to steam,

to unimaginable forward

motion, whistle/roar/scream

which must be the voice


of progress. Pick and rock-drill,

black powder to cliffside, cutting spiral

gains; laying and hammering of cross-

ties and rails. How Mankind enjoys

taking the scenery apart.


Later, in his lone room’s silence

echoing still with lark-song,

the man who crossed on foot

commits to journal that landscape’s

memory, slow and careful as creation.



An Olive Tree Grows In London

"whether, indeed, it was nothing less than a dove
from your own American woods that dropt one of your 
Olive Leaves in my cab."
        - Douglass Jerrold to Elihu Burritt, 1846

Elihu, how did your Olive Leaf find its way
into the cab of Douglass Jerrod, editor
of the Schilling Magazine? Did English Friends
place your “healing leaf” at his disposal?

Brotherhood earns many friends; some
have never shaken hands or looked each other
in the eye. But they can see, beyond oceans,
that it wasn’t fiery swords of angels

that slaughtered nine thousand Sikhs in India,
but “the cold iron of the English infantry.”
And now the Oregon Question threatens war.
But Jerrod trusts your Olive Leaves

to cool the “glory fever.” “Learned Blacksmith”
indeed. Peace-loving Britons are keen to ride
the horse you’ve shod, and wield
your words to “weld men’s hearts together.”


“Aunt Sarah”

sits in the best chair,
the one closest to the fire.
Outside, an icy wind
sweeps the hour between lighting
of the candles to warm a church
as cold as Calvin, and its sermon.

Deaf in one ear, halt, not quite
right in the brain
but warbling thanks – each town
has its Sarahs. This one
occupies the best chair in a room
not meant to hold so many

children, plus mother (offering
tea in the unchipped cup to Sarah)
and father, who brings in
another unrelated uncle
to join the paters, sisters, cousins
in the nameless brotherhood

of man, a family so broad
and misty,
surely it would drive
a census-taker – or a housewife
counting mouths to feed –
quite mad.


Foothill Snow


We woke to our old world

white’d out. No phone, no power. No radio

alarm. We became the breaking

news: hurricane, a war-zone?


Road and fields a fallout

of snow. Rifle-cracks

of great limbs crashing

across the drive,


live-oaks crushed by the unexpected

winter-weight of snow.

Our escape-route blocked

by the bodies of trees.


At last, the drive was cleared.

Snow melted, power

and phone restored. Everything

returned to normal.


But the trees –

How does a tree begin

again?

I search the ground


for an acorn.

How long till it grows shade

and shelter? A new

year needs to believe in trees.



Futures in Fieldstone


Elihu Burritt, 1857

Words don’t pay. A husk bed
costs two dollars.
Sixteen cents a day to eat
sawdust pudding.
Who could sleep on good-

will when everyone wants
a reason for war? Brother
against brother breeds
profit in shovels to dig
the graves deeper.

Better to join your pen
to the plough. Hard
field-labor, ten hours
a day; and then you write
your peace-thoughts

on the top of a lime cask.
Those words don’t sell. Still
you believe, Peace
won’t always get buried
in a warmonger’s grave.


Googling Your Image

The tip of your crown appears first
on the screen. Waves of hair on top and wings
at temple – you don’t bother to tame
such things. Time is flying, the thin ranks
failing. "Courage and faith!"
Your locks recede, your brow’s exposed.
A raptor profile, eyes deeper
by the year, dark wells of Baca.

You’re getting older. Brother Edmund Fry
is gone, swept mid-sentence heavenward, "peace"
still on his lips – a year younger than you.
In the picture, your lips are set, worry-lines
at the corners; headache. A bleak time
for brotherhood: the Crimea; Denmark and
Germany at war, again. At home,
North and South both calling on God

to aid their slaughter.
(That old hourglass – we’re still down-
loading.) A strong chin. Collar high
at the throat. The very plainest fashion;
your pennies go for pamphlets,
not for style. Cravat above the pale
triangle of decent white shirt
discreet under a black frock coat.

And here the computer image stops.
No smithy-muscled arms, no
chest with its troubling coal-smoke cough;
no long legs to bear you seven hundred miles
on a wish. But at the bottom, your neat-
penned letters. High curves and
uplift peaks: your signature.
Your image stands on your name.



High Sierra


Way up here

we listen for angels bringing news

from places too high for

us to breathe. Even the spirits

of the aspen grove

shiver with burdens in their wings.

Raven and ground squirrel,

comet and alpenglow,

each keeps its story.

Listen to the gnawing of earth

underfoot, lift and yearning

of subduction and fault, river

and rock on the way to becoming

something else.

Way up here we balance between

blue sky and thunder.



How Many Stars


"There was only one inn... and since the old coaching time, it had
contracted itself into the fag-end of a large, dark, seedy-looking
building, where it lived by selling beer and other sharp and cheap
drinks to the villagers."
        - Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O’Groats (1864)

Darkness coming on, too many miles
to the next town. This village
would have to do – what used to be a stop
on the stage-coach line. Was that before
they ranked establishments with stars?

These days, the inn of Landlord Rufus
just sells beer to local farmhands. No bed,
no breakfast. You have to beg him for supper.
But here you sit in the kitchen,
in a corner of the great fire-place,

faggots kindled before you, tea-kettle singing.
On all sides, Elizabethan pots
and spits, hooks and trammels, polished
tin and burnished copper
arranged for use, not fashion.

You sit at a three-legged table,
single guest of the house, awaiting your tea
as you gaze up through the huge black
tunnel of chimney, at the stately circle-
dance of too many stars to count.



Olive Leaves

for Elihu Burritt (1810-1879)

In Boston and Baltimore, ladies gather
for their needlework, embroidering handkerchiefs
they’ll exchange for pennies
to pay for your next Olive Leaf for peace.

In Bristol, English ladies in a circle
stitch green silk in linen, intricate designs
to garner pennies for the olive-work
of peace. Their talk

comes soft as words sent across an ocean,
mother to son, asking
how he does in the New World;
and has he got a wife yet, and a child?

What of his neighbors – do they bear arms
against the Motherland, or –
when a British ship sinks off Nantucket,
do the good folk risk their lives

to save a sailor
they might otherwise call enemy?
In Bristol as in Baltimore, the ladies
thread their hopeful needles,

sewing seeds into clean white fabric.
Seeds of olive trees whose leaves
might cross oceans 
and the borders stitched with blood.



Practical Lessons

"How many barley-corns, at three to the inch, will it take to go around 

the earth at the equator?"
        - Elihu Burritt, a problem to be solved in the head while blacksmithing

Did your sum prove right, Elihu,
when your brother worked it out that evening
on a slate? How many barleycorns
to measure the circumference of earth?

You had your proof of honest labor,
so much ore in the smelting pot;
iron formed into hoe-heads and wheel-rims,
brass keys to match their locks.

You merely sweetened the work
with lines from Thomson’s Seasons, that book
of poetry you balanced against the chimney
of the forge;

and sharpened your wits
with mathematical puzzles and Greek
conjugations, as you strengthened the muscles
of your arms.

A store of facts amassed
one by one like barleycorns, hour
upon hour, till they might
circumnavigate a world.



Private

Few of my American and English friends can read German.
        - Elihu Burritt

So, you write things
about yourself in German that you won’t
confess in English:
how you worked with a smith’s tools;
traveled with wares, tried shopkeeping,
made your way as a common man.

What difference between a farmer
or an artisan in any tongue?
Surely the hand of a Parisian
is fashioned very like a New Yorker’s;
a baker in Brussels sweats at his oven
like a Harborne wife over her stove.

Whether you call it Hufeisen,
horseshoe, or fer à cheval, it takes
just as many strokes
to hammer into useful shape.
And yet, there’s a camaraderie
in the shared word.

When you confide to German readers,
your voice comes cozy as winter
evenings beside a fire.
You skip all those pages of florid prose,
you get to the point as directly
as German grammar allows.

Why must you hide behind a stilted
English style? Why so bashful
to speak of yourself to friends
and neighbors?
Just tell your life
as you lived it; let that speak.



The Angel Inn, Pershore

"In this little out-of- the-way town, I set on foot a movement
which carried me in directions and into enterprises I had
never dreamed of."

        - Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to Lands End (1865)

What better place for good tidings? This neat white inn in Pershore,
The Angel. You might have stopped, instead, at The Quiet Woman.
But as you say, an Angel has higher aspirations.

At the bay window you sit, writing out your creed – abstinence
from war, The League of Universal Brotherhood – when, by chance,
three young college men recognize you from a portrait in the paper.

Brotherhood indeed: they come right in and introduce themselves,
and before you can say “angel” you’re in a stranger’s upper room
full of attentive young men. For hours you preach brotherhood

and peace. Seventeen sign the pledge and get down on their knees
to pray. It’s after midnight when you walk back to your inn.
Don’t you know, an Angel’s good tidings are likely to change

a person’s life? You meant to walk from one end of England
to the other; that walk just ended in Pershore. Instead,
you’ve got The League of Brotherhood, International Peace

Congresses, the Olive-Leaf Mission. How many miles
by foot and steam you’ll travel, how many speeches,
letters, and petitions. Angels mean hard work.


The Cost of Service


Elihu Burritt, Consular Agent at Birmingham, 1868-9

What does Washington know
of things in Birmingham, England? Coal-
smoke hub of industry and commerce, surely
it rates a full Consul – not just an Agent.

What can Washington know of Birmingham?
Your Walks in the Black Country
should have told them. The miners
and nail-makers, the girls at the brick works.

What does Washington care for your
charities? Not to mention the sick sailor,
your countryman from Norfolk, Virginia,
stranded so far from home –

of course you help him. And then
the wealthy New York merchant drops in
at tea-time – what does Washington
care for the cost of tea?

You’ve always known how to scrimp.
But here you have the dignity of your post
to uphold. How many letters does it take
to explain simple arithmetic,

not to mention justice? When Washington
at last takes note, a new President will relieve
you of your post, and raise your successor
to full Consul with a living wage.



Traveling Light

I had traveled nearly the whole distance incog, 

without hearing my own name on a pair of human
lips for weeks.
        - Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O’Groats (1864)

Who wouldn’t want to leave his name
behind, and travel incognito?
Become the mysterious stranger
with all roads and options open?
There’s the story of a man over-

burdened by his life, not to mention
wife and kids; he left his car
with the door wide open, by the shore
at Malibu; resurfaced as someone
else, in Bangor, Maine.

But you, Elihu, journeyed simply
for enlightenment, 700 miles by staff
with a Hebrew psalter and a change
of linen in your knapsack. Did you find
the load easier without your name?

And when at last you resumed your life
and obligations, and boarded
the coach for London, did you feel
heavier or lighter by the weight
of a dream accomplished?



Vinca


Not to talk about the dead in that way -
          -Dave Eggers


What used to be a periwinkle slope

before the sheep came through


nothing but dust and dead stubble

and then the rain; mud.


Today, all these green fingers reaching,

signing in their own language


telling me who they were

in their old life


what they’re going to be.



War-Flowers


"as if War must have the flowers, and Peace the weeds"

        - Elihu Burritt, The Learned Blacksmith

Fifty thousand working men’s sons –
the best and strongest, the ones
raised in English family love –
are chosen by their government
and vetted by the military surgeon.

On the other side, fifty thousand
working men’s sons – brought up
French by loving families –
are similarly called, and sent
against them into battle.

Of these twice-fifty thousand
fine young men, one twentieth are
killed outright in a single day
and left lying on the field; three
times that many maimed for life.

Elihu, when you practiced numbers
to the beat of hammer against plow-
share, calculating barley-corns
and the circumference of Earth,
did you ever think it must

work out to such grim
mathematics, these magnitudes
that mankind sows and reaps
and buries
in his earthly garden?