Silence Fell
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Silence Fell

by Josephine Dickinson

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A serious illness at the age of six left Josephine Dickinson deaf overnight. She nonetheless built an astounding career as a musician, composer, and teacher while also writing poetry filled with sound and rhythm. During a reading tour in England, Galway Kinnell was given two of Dickinson's books. Her poems made such an impression on him that he passed the books on


A serious illness at the age of six left Josephine Dickinson deaf overnight. She nonetheless built an astounding career as a musician, composer, and teacher while also writing poetry filled with sound and rhythm. During a reading tour in England, Galway Kinnell was given two of Dickinson's books. Her poems made such an impression on him that he passed the books on to his publisher. Silence Fell, Dickinson's American debut, draws from her previous collections. The poems are set on a sheep farm in the northern mountains of England and tell the story -- in the form of a modern shepherd's calendar -- of her marriage to a Cumbrian sheep farmer, a man more than twice her age, and their life together, until his death in 2004. As the poet Michael Donaghy wrote, "Hers is a vision edged with mystery and rendered with arresting, occasionally breathtaking craft. She bears, with no small authority, an air of independence reminiscent of Emily Dickinson."

Editorial Reviews

James Longenbach
Dickinson has been deaf since childhood. More than her subject matter, her acute relationship to the physical sensation of language distinguishes these humble, deftly made poems…There’s nothing showy here: the delicate near-rhymes feel as inevitable as the life the poems catalog—an ordinary life driven by extraordinary choices.
—The New York Times

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.40(d)

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Down Two Fields

Down two fields to where, between two woods, a little

house stood, smoke rising silently, I waded through

the grass and weeds, vaulted over a swing gate, there I was.

Through the gate, down the path, knock the door,

you open it, eyes wide, nod me in.

You perch in your high throne like a sparrow, talk in your chirrupy squeak.

I have no idea why I find it so moving.
That’s just life.

We sit in silence, legs crossed, one each side of the fire.

You have your pipe squeezed into your mouth, eyes

clouded, far away, looking down like the crow for scraps

now and again, scraps of looks, affection.
You are loving me.

Sometimes you think about the sheep. Sometimes just sit and think.

The sharp suck of smoke, the nip of lips, is the only sound.

The sudden outpoured light on Scarberry Hill the only drama.

The Lambs Were Still Running with the Ewes

The lambs were still running with the ewes when we killed the fattest male. Three lambs and one ewe had been penned in since the day before (you don’t pen one alone or they fret). “Turn him round!” Then, quickly, as I held his head and collar, Jackson stuck the butcher’s knife into his neck, whereupon torrents of dark red fluid gushed bubbling, frothing into a bucket.
It looked not so much like blood as mulberry juice.
We ’d wondered whether to wait for the rain to fine, then thought, what the hell, and went out straightaway in the blowing rain, which was sculpting itself in the pine needles. We ’d stuffed wool into the eaves of the loose box to keep out the rain only that morning.
(The oils from the wool stuck to our fingers. The dust I blew off the books was precious. Once upon a time they would be sheep vellum. Now they had narrow rims of sheep oil instead at the top of the page.) Jackson had decided on one of two brothers.
(The third was the lamb of the ewe, less fat.) This lamb did not struggle (couldn’t) or utter a sound. He was the fatter of the two brothers. We released the ewe and the two lambs, who went straight to the grass.
Jackson got into the race with the chosen lamb, fastened a collar on his neck, then a rope, and I opened the gate. Out he came, bucking, pulling.
I got behind and pushed him on his way. Jackson went on to the loose box, where the bench and the knives had been made ready. I grabbed him by the back feet.
This was wrong. I was to grab his fleece. Then Jackson got him on his back and bound his front feet, then one hind foot to them. As the blood drained out and the eyes clouded over and closed, the thrashing of his hooves continued. I dodged them and held on to him tight.
Then there came the moment when, with many violent rasps, he breathed his last. He was desperate to breathe.
Then Jackson started to skin him. First one foreleg he slit and broke off at the joint, then the other, then slit to the middle, down with a zipping sound, and the lower legs the same, eased the skin off round his tummy, then hauled him up (didn’t want him on the floor if possible), with a notched bar and rope, to a metal beam. We heaved and pulled, for he was very bulky and heavy, and his head, with its enormous mulberry hole, still dragged on the ground.
Jackson set to work with his skinning knife, slashing bit by bit, working the skin off, pulling between times, exposing the glistening pearly fat and often the rosy pink flesh too. I tugged the skin at the neck, then, with a saw and a knife, we cut the head off. We hauled him onto the bench. Jackson cut off the balls first, left the liver and lights to deal with later, rolled the fleece and stuffed it into a feedbag, cut and tied esophagus and windpipe, then slit him right down the middle and let all the opal-green innards slide out and stomach bag burst its green flood on the floor. Clean and separate.
Beads of black shit. White lace caul. I held back the two thin curtains of his stomach while Jackson foraged round inside with hand and knife. We dragged him next door, still very heavy, but now without the bulge of stomach. Coming back, we were about to go through the gate when Jackson said “Spuds!” Went back for a fork, squelched around in wellies in the spud bed to find a likely forkful. I picked them, knuckle white, from the clarts, and put them in a bread bag. On the way home Jackson emptied them into a torrent of rain by the roadside and let them tumble clean in the water, helped on by his boots and my fingers.

There Were Rainbows Every Day

There were rainbows every day for three or four days afterward.
I sat in the large soft bed with silence and stillness falling around me like snow. Cross Fell was icy white with a shock of frozen cloud on its uppermost tip. The carpet by the bed, washed several times on the last day you were home, took a week to dry to a nubbly paperiness.
The henhouse filled with wind, the roof was ripped away.
Firssssst one side of it split open, then the other.
The garden shed blew apart, the timbers of the frame rattled loose.
Rain lashed the windows.
The trees strained. The back door blew open. Greenhouse glass smashed. You were beautiful.
Your forehead smelled of powdered millstone grits and moss.
Your ruby lips and throat glistened. A red dot stood on your eyebrow. (Did I nick you slightly when I snipped those troublesome hairs you’d swiped me off from trimming?) Your Top Man shirt and navy soft wool waistcoat. A barely visible smudge on your chin where the last few mouthfuls of soup spooned in had dribbled out again.
Your gray eyes dry and sinking, like a Grünewald’s overcome with wonder.

Copyright © 2007 by Josephine Dickinson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

JOSEPHINE DICKINSON, author of Scarberry Hill and The Voice, was born in South London in 1957. She studied classics at Oxford and taught music for many years. She has lived in Alston, a small Cumbrian town high in the Pennines, for more than a decade. The summer 2005 issue of the British literary magazine Staple praised the best “Alt Generation” of British poets (a response to the Guardian’s “Next Gen” contest), and Dickinson was the first choice listed by both judges.

Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014) was a former MacArthur Fellow and state poet of Vermont. In 1982 his Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. For many years he was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, as well as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. For thirty-five years—from The Book of Nightmares to Mortal Acts and most recently, Strong is Your Hold—Galway Kinnell enriched American poetry, not only by his poems but also by his teaching and his powerful public readings.

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