In 1806, 12-year-old Hannah embroiders the sampler of the long title poem. As the seasons pass, she works through her grief in the language of embroidery; for among the births and deaths recorded in Hannah’s stitches are those of her little brother Nathan. American Sampler is about vanishing worlds and the struggle of memory, craft, and imagination to hold fragments of the past and turn them into fresh, breathing moments. Jane Duran’s childhood memories of rural New England—its landscapes, weather, and light—permeate many of the poems. A beaded moccasin, a folk painting, a letter from a Union soldier, a Tappan chair: art, artifact, and archive inform and illuminate these sympathetic glimpses into an America long past.
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About the Author
Jane Duran is the author of the poetry collections Breathe Now, Breathe, which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection; Coastal and Graceline; and Silences from the Spanish Civil War, the latter two having received PBS Recommendations.
Read an Excerpt
By Jane Duran
Enitharmon PressCopyright © 2014 Jane Duran
All rights reserved.
The lines radiating from a wind rose
across an ocean or sail
help any ship to proceed with celerity
whereas a compass ponders another order;
however north is not always true north
and if the pilot eats garlic or onions
his breath can throw the lodestone
and needle awry, and where will the ship
and its mutinous sailors be then?
A patch of turquoise now appears
under the ship, signalling its whereabouts,
and the black loops and tangles of its riggings
billow. There is a definite coastline.
A woman with a water gourd,
some water splashing, and her naked girl
carrying a doll and rattle
come down to the shore
and from many points the wind beats in.
JOHN WHITE'S PAINTINGS OF THE NEW WORLD
Along with his demure watercolours
of milkweed and pursh,
his Portuguese man o' war
or the red grouper with its tidal stare,
soldier fish and lookdown fish,
blue-striped grunt and loggerhead turtle –
all he turned his hand to,
he painted the wife of the Timucuan
chief of Florida tattooed from forehead
to ankles, draped in blue Spanish moss,
carrying maize in her right hand
and a bowl of fruit in her left –
the fruit almost disappearing
in a turquoise haze,
everything that would seem
welcoming and hospitable and gentle.
TO A BEADED MOCCASIN IN A MUSEUM
I think of the dream a sleeper has
before the hunt – the real and imagined
trails he foresees, the marks he makes
on his dream-prey, his willed dream
moving unimpeded into the forest at night
to lead the way for him by day
when he will feel stones and twigs
and roots through the deer-hide;
and the tangle of tracks or impressions
made earlier by hunters in the forest
where no path lasts long, overlapping
and looping and cast wide, and gone
so the dreamer can see the animal and go to
But I am lost on the trail you still describe.
The gaps in a stone wall make for shaky
errors of balance, yet embolden and hold
to show a trapezoid of pasture,
an hourglass of sky, a shark's tooth of brambles,
a black buffalo of pure shade. There is a fleck
in an otherwise perfect sky overhead
and no one here but me today.
I lay my palms on bird shit, lichen,
a borrowed rock, hefted and rolled
from a wild place, another carried, staggering
all the way from there to here
where the gaps steady and trespass.
Stained from birth with Adam's sinful fact,
Thence I began to sin as soon as act ...
Anne Bradstreet (1612–72)
Four girls are crossing a meadow
in their long-sleeved homespun dresses,
bearing down on the grasses
where the sun blows stiffly westwards.
The earth has give in it,
and the fractious horses bend down
to those deep drowned early morning grasses
they yank up so easily in their teeth
and chew in a circular, pensive motion.
Perhaps the girls will not mind
if I say their names quietly –
Electe, Submit, Silence, Humility –
just for the stories names tell,
or mention in passing their eager laughter
and strong, God-given steps
in the wet, greedy meadow.
THE RESIDENCE OF DAVID TWINING, 1787 BY EDWARD HICKS
A farmer in a dun coat holds the gate open:
all the black and white pigs, sheep, lambs and
are densely, dreamily packed together. One
is elongated. A ram keeps patches of sunlight
safe in his wool
and a woman reads the Bible to a boy under a
In profile, a ploughman follows two horses
in a fenced field. The field is standing up on its
A rooster and goose cross the yard in tandem,
and a woman and man mount restless horses
with striped saddle blankets. There is a lot going
In the farmhouse doorway a black shadow keeps
a young woman wearing a white cap and blue
She is tiny – in proportion to the horse, colt, cow,
and girl carrying a bucket of feed and beckoning –
all existing in the third plane of the painting.
A barn, fences stave off what might be out there –
wolves or worse. There is so much to lose.
A haze of yellowy, unfelled trees beyond
are in the last – and only mysterious – plane.
Elsewhere nothing merges with anything else –
the ploughman, farmer, wife, child, bull, cow,
lamb, rooster, goose, calf, girl, horseman, dog,
are all created equal and religiously outlined,
placid and occupied, out and about in the open
all the clement, live-long day that was.
I saw my chance – a strip of lined bark
peeling away, releasing the tree,
the bland, orangey or flesh-coloured
underbark already loose and fraying
but still damp and holding on somehow.
What scars did I leave on the living tree
when I tore off the rolled up bark
to write on? I thought it belonged to me,
or me to it. And anyway, what words
did I have then or now, or what stern
thoughts for so few words to wind round
each ream, ream, remember?
The national elm shadows run up a lawn
as far as a low, grey clapboard house
and back again in the heat, up and down
the small-paned, double-sash windows.
They have fled back and forth in this way
for over two centuries. The old panes
with their bubbles and clay particles,
ripple and bargain with the flow of elm leaves
as if their knowledge is questionable
whereas the new, replaced panes –
factory-made and absolutely smooth –
take up impressions and signals verbatim.
A caterpillar arches and stretches
to climb the bark, following its own lead
and resolution, up along and over
each bumpy and troublesome ridge,
and when I look into the past, wavy
banded glass breaks up each summons
and what I thought I saw
wherever the governing elm lingers.
Those who would live in this landscape
grow tall, deep, impervious too,
even laconic, splitting maple, turning white ash
on a lathe, stripping brown ash
from swampland, steaming, gouging,
pounding, bending, post, rung and slat
and all the time the wood so worked
makes a general, unpatterned noise,
a forest noise of force and flourishing
so the carpenter's heart beats faster
then stern and steady
in the making of a high-backed rocking chair.
for Lois Ames, Sudbury, Massachusetts
Forgive me for telling this story
when you tell it so well – those cadences,
your intimacy with it, your white hair,
a descendant straight down the line.
You show us to our guest room
up the steep, wooden back stairs.
But first you stop by a deep fireplace.
No wonder you live here, hold to the house
and the house to you. Your grandfather
was a boy when he crept down those back stairs
and looked through the chinks in the panelling
and saw the firelight, black faces late at night,
runaways, gone in the early hours.
A tense stopping-station, the wagon hitched
to steal away to the next farm, all the way to
And the fireplace is still walk-in, pots and pans
blackened and hung. Your welcome to us
as I carry the suitcase up the stairs
in the oppression of an August night,
our little room at the top piled with books –
stories, poetry, journeys you take up,
inch by inch efforts you make now,
pain you feel constantly, the owl we listen for,
electric fan that lifts sweat from our faces.
It must have been winter then,
the faces wide-eyed in the firelight.
All night vertical blacknesses hold down farmland
and dew streams up in the morning, brash and
up the screen door, broken breath of a horse
dragging the empty wagon home, stumbling
my boy on your doorstep, shucking corn in the
and you set the breakfast table, lay out
egg cups in your blue dressing gown, and we talk
and listen as old friends will and must,
and see a way, the many ways of telling it.
In 1852 James Bard sketches the America
from life and to scale and paints her in oils
in his studio so her banners and streamers
fore and aft fly out over the Hudson River
bringing pace and wind to the vessel,
her red paddlewheel rolling high
and raising a furor of trouble in the water.
The artist's clouds have birdlike shapes
and travel downwind, in the opposite direction
to the towboat, and a ray of smoke
from the stack pours out at a right angle
in sympathy with the errant bird-clouds.
A steam pipe also fires a slanting wisp.
This is the afterlife of the America,
pulling, in her aura of celebration
towards some greater momentum,
before breaking up at Perth Amboy, New Jersey
in 1896. Other boats to starboard
hurry along the brooding river
but they are far away and will not hide
the white, vigorous progress
of the America across the canvas.
For what she passes is incidental
to her refinement and downright
functionality – her red walking beam,
iron hogframe and towing bitt,
her paddlewheel with radial buckets.
A festive paddlebox keeps splashes in.
The male figures on her long port deck
wear black frockcoats and black hats.
Trees along the banks attend the spectacle
either from shadow or cheerful light,
but remain immovable, despite gusts
that blur the excited river, the waves
in the foreground more pronounced, darker,
(each carrying its own pale-blue brushstroke)
where I feel, I can't help feeling
the wind sharp on my face.
LETTER FROM STANLEY ABBOTT TO MATTIE STEELE, JANUARY 29, 1863
When you read a letter, a long letter
from someone you don't know
to someone you don't know –
a boy for instance, 21 years old,
in the Army of the Potomac,
to a girl in Portland, a bit older, say 23 –
perhaps his name is Stanley Abbott
and she is Cousin Mattie, say,
and he writes about the Mud March –
only four days in a long Civil War –
days of rain when the soldiers
waded for six miles through deep mud
and then had to corduroy causeways
to go all the way back to their original position
near Henry House, Virginia,
when you see his defeat and how he tries
to end the letter cheerfully, manfully,
for her – then you can imagine such mud,
mud that can't be dried by letters from home.
That's all it is, fathomless mud,
and he uses that word, fathomless.
Edward Stanley Abbott died at Gettysburg on July 8, 1863.
THE WAY WE LOOK AT YOU
photograph of an Apache resistance group by C. S. Fly, 1886
the way we stand and look at you
from scrubland, among thorns
and stones, not downcast
but looking straight at you
and the way a woman's hands rest
on her skirt, or a child squints
or Naiche's hands nearly touch
across his belt or the brambles
flare up behind us and in front of us
and our shadows join, but mostly
the way we look out at you
from a far place, from the wrong place
... bounded as follows, beginning at a Spruce Tree
& Runs North by the Needle Two Thousand
One hundred & Ninety One perch
on province Land to a hemlock Tree Marked
The neo-classic public library at the top
of a steep lawn has an entrance portico
with four Corinthian columns. A woman
waits there with two hardback detective novels
then Runs East one Thousand five hundred
& fifty Eight perch on province Land
to a Township Adjoyning to & lying North
of the said Narragansett Town Number three
A river runs alongside the old woollen mill
and follows the road out of town
before going its own way, just a bit of it
showing its intentions, black and hopeful –
but rarely so since ice is taking hold now
then Runs South on said Township
Six hundred and forty perch to the Township
Granted to John Simpson and others
Once the forest lasted all the way to Canada.
In 1740, John Badger died of consumption.
His wife laid out breakfast for her children
and walked alone through the snow and woods
to the nearest settlers three miles away.
Her neighbours came back with her,
hollowed out a tree for a coffin
then Runs East on said Township
four hundred and two perch
to a Stake & Stones
Weak sunlight travels up and down
a disused railroad track.
When the track was new and silvery
the first wood-burning engine
whistled over it to celebrations in 1851
then Runs South One Thousand four hundred
and Sixty Seven perch on said Narragansett Town,
then Runs West four hundred & Eighty perch
on Duxbury School farm to a Stake and heap of Stones
A boy on a tricycle pedals fast down a hallway.
The wind travels across all boundaries
or falls open from the centre like a flower
as snow flurries begin, then thicken, burden
spruces, ashes, hemlocks, poplars,
stone walls, the well-lit houses on hills –
once the farms of early settlers
then Runs South thirteen perch on said Farm
to a poplar Tree marked, thence Runs West
One Thousand four hundred and Sixty perch
to the Spruce tree first named on province Land
Lines in italics are from a description of Salem-Canada, a tract of land
granted by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1736 to Salem soldiers
or their descendants who fought in the expedition to Canada in 1690.
Parts of Salem-Canada were later incorporated into the towns of Wilton,
Lyndeborough and Temple in New Hampshire.
Now that snow is touching the forest
in so many places
the men shovel out the rotting sawdust,
they lay down fresh sawdust in the icehouse
and wait for the ice on the pond to deepen.
They wait for the wind to turn dry.
Then they harness the horse, they load
an ice plough, chisels, hooks
and saws on a wagon and make their way
through the woods, as far as the glare –
a relief in the trees.
A woman in a long coat stands far away
on the ice, near the trees, in the sun
watching the horse and plough cut a grid.
She stands on her shadow.
She is precariously in the present.
Water slides out over the grid
and freezes immediately.
Sometimes if a cut is too deep
the ice can give way and a man
falls into the water, or a horse falls in
and is hauled out in commotion.
The woman curls her toes in her boots
and her fingers in her mittens.
The wind is porous and the voices
of the men are far away.
Somewhere in a forest
a pond is giving up
a little of its ice at a time
to the warming air that is ferrying,
moving the heavy ice
far and wide into the pine trees.
I lay on my stomach and caught tadpoles
in my open hands so there was
everywhere for them to escape from.
The long shadow of the barn at the top
of the hill scrambled down
on all fours to the water.
The sun stayed up late.
Speckled tadpoles loosened over some mud
and weeds I barely touched
and swam off in all directions
though there was nowhere far to go.
Tonight there would be a lamp lit
in each room, my grandmother's hair
caught up in a bun, as she moved
from room to room, pulling the light with her,
and we would run and scatter over the wide
oak floorboards in our bare feet.
She is in a pond up to her knees
and a filmy mud is settling
around her ankles. That feels good.
I mean to ask her how she is
without disturbing her at her work
of tugging a sailboat in zigzags with a string.
She has wound the string round her wrist.
There is so much trust and commotion
in her gaze. The pond goes a long way out
and comes up for air somewhere curious
in the far pines. Perhaps everything I thought
I knew about her is mistaken. Her hectic shadow
in the water breaks in two at the waist.
The only fault I find with old New Hampshire
Is that her mountains aren't quite high enough.
When we first met
how thin I was, all elbows
and knees, and you granite
and spruce, hemlock, bristling,
not soaring, sharing the same hours
and light with me.
Probably I was aware of you
in the corner of my eye – there,
reassuring, but no more than that.
Now you mean to be looked at
even at night, or from this faraway
time zone. When ice lays hold of you
and snow, I can crawl along your granite,
eye to eye with you, and feel fear
and a modest ambition.
Yet for me, dark or light,
these days it's all a matter of touch –
from your hand a single leaf
or even a pine needle would do.
Excerpted from American Sampler by Jane Duran. Copyright © 2014 Jane Duran. Excerpted by permission of Enitharmon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
John White's Paintings of the New World,
To a Beaded Moccasin in a Museum,
The Residence of David Twining, 1787 by Edward Hicks,
Letter from Stanley Abbott to Mattie Steele, January 29, 1863,
The Way We Look at You,
New Hampshire Shade,
Late Summer, New Hampshire,
The Flying Horses at Oak Bluffs,
The Basketball Court in Central Park,