Selections from Nancy Willard’s acclaimed volumes of poetry and prose This diverse collection features some of Nancy Willard’s most critically lauded poetry—including works from her Newbery Medal–winning volume, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn —as well as her short fiction and four unconventional essays on writing.Hens, children, magic bottles, and the moon are just some of the characters running through the luminous musings gathered here. “How to Stuff a Pepper” becomes a heady discourse on the thoughts and sleeping habits of peppers. “The Doctrine of the Leather-Stocking Jesus” and “The Hucklebone of a Saint” are tales about the power of superstition to shape our lives. Other stories showcase favorite Willard themes about God, religion, and the magic and mysticism in everyday life—and the ancestors, guardians, saints, and spirits who, in Willard’s words, come back “once in a while to keep an eye on us, the living.”A paean to the power of storytelling, A Nancy Willard Reader is an essential volume for poetry and fiction lovers.
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About the Author
Nancy Willard (1936–2017) grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was the author of two novels, seven books of stories and essays, and twelve books of poetry, including The Sea at Truro (2012). A winner of the Devins Memorial Award, she received NEA grants in both fiction and poetry. Her book Water Walker was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her picture book A Visit to William Blake’s Inn was the first volume of poetry to receive the Newbery Medal, the country’s highest honor for children’s writing.
Read an Excerpt
A Nancy Willard Reader
Selected Poetry and Prose
By Nancy Willard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Nancy Willard
All rights reserved.
Questions My Son Asked Me, Answers I Never Gave Him
1. Do gorillas have birthdays?
Yes. Like the rainbow, they happen.
Like the air, they are not observed.
2. Do butterflies make a noise?
The wire in the butterfly's tongue
Some men hear butterflies
even in winter.
3. Are they part of our family?
They forgot us, who forgot how to fly.
4. Who tied my navel? Did God tie it?
God made the thread: O man, live forever!
Man made the knot: enough is enough.
5. If I drop my tooth in the telephone
will it go through the wires and bite someone's ear?
I have seen earlobes pierced by a tooth of steel.
It loves what lasts.
It does not love flesh.
It leaves a ring of gold in the wound.
6. If I stand on my head
will the sleep in my eye roll up into my head?
Does the dream know its own father?
Can bread go back to the field of its birth?
7. Can I eat a star?
Yes, with the mouth of time
that enjoys everything.
8. Could we Xerox the moon?
This is the first commandment:
I am the moon, thy moon.
Thou shalt have no other moons before thee.
9. Who invented water?
The hands of the air, that wanted to wash each other.
10. What happens at the end of numbers?
I see three men running toward a field.
At the edge of the tall grass, they turn into light.
11. Do the years ever run out?
God said, I will break time's heart.
Time ran down like an old phonograph.
It lay flat as a carpet.
At rest on its threads, I am learning to fly.
In Praise of Unwashed Feet
Because I can walk over hot coals,
because I can make doctors turn green
and shoe salesmen avert their eyes,
because I have added yet another use
to the hundred and one uses of Old Dutch Cleanser;
because they tell me the secrets of miners and small boys,
because they keep me in good standing and continual grace
in the ashes and dust of the last rites,
because they carry my great bulk without complaint,
because they don't smell;
because it's taken me years to
grow my own shoes, like the quaint signatures of truth,
because they are hard and gentle as lion's pads,
pard's paw, mule's hoof and cock's toes,
because they can't make poems or arguments
but speak in an aching tongue or not at all
and come home at night encrusted with stones,
calluses, grass, all that the head forgets
and the foot knows.
When There Were Trees
I can remember when there were trees,
great tribes of spruces who deckled themselves in light,
beeches buckled in pewter, meeting like Quakers,
the golden birch, all cutwork satin,
courtesan of the mountains; the paper birch
trying all summer to take off its clothes
like the swaddlings of the newborn.
The hands of a sassafras blessed me.
I saw maples fanning the fire in their stars,
heard the coins of the aspens rattling like teeth,
saw cherry trees spraying fountains of light,
smelled the wine my heel pressed from ripe apples,
saw a thousand planets bobbing like bells
on the sleeve of the sycamore, chestnut, and lime.
The ancients knew that a tree is worthy of worship.
A few wise men from their tribes broke through the sky,
climbing past worlds to come and the rising moon
on the patient body of the tree of life,
and brought back the souls of the newly slain,
no bigger than apples, and dressed the tree
as one of themselves and danced.
Even the conquerors of this country
lifted their eyes and found the trees
more comely than gold: Bright green trees,
the whole land so green it is pleasure to look on it,
and the greatest wonder to see the diversity.
During that time, I walked among trees,
the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
Watching the shadows of trees, I made peace with mine.
Their forked darkness gave motion to morning light.
Every night the world fell to the shadows,
and every morning came home, the dogwood floating
its petals like moons on a river of air,
the oak kneeling in wood sorrel and fern,
the willow washing its hair in the stream.
And I saw how the logs from the mill floated
downstream, saw otters and turtles that rode them,
and though I heard the saws whine in the woods
I never thought men were stronger than trees.
I never thought those tribes would join
the buffalo and the whale, the leopard, the seal, the wolf,
and the folk of this country who knew how to sing them.
Nothing I ever saw washed off the sins of the world
so well as the first snow dropping on trees.
We shoveled the pond clear and skated under their branches,
our voices muffled in their huge silence.
The trees were always listening to something else.
They didn't hear the beetle with the hollow tooth
grubbing for riches, gnawing for empires, for gold.
Already the trees are a myth,
half gods, half giants in whom nobody believes.
But I am the oldest woman on earth,
and I can remember when there were trees.
How to Stuff a Pepper
Now, said the cook, I will teach you
how to stuff a pepper with rice.
Take your pepper green, and gently,
for peppers are shy. No matter which side
you approach, it's always the backside.
Perched on green buttocks, the pepper sleeps.
In its silk tights, it dreams
of somersaults and parsley,
of the days when the sexes were one.
Slash open the sleeve
as if you were cutting a paper lantern,
and enter a moon, spilled like a melon,
a fever of pearls,
a conversation of glaciers.
It is a temple built to the worship
of morning light.
I have sat under the great globe
of seeds on the roof of that chamber,
too dazzled to gather the taste I came for.
I have taken the pepper in hand,
smooth and blind, a runt in the rich
evolution of roses and ferns.
You say I have not yet taught you
to stuff a pepper?
Cooking takes time.
Next time we'll consider the rice.
A green sky underfoot:
the skin of moss
holds the footprints of
With moss-fingers, with
filigree they line
their nests in the
forks of the trees.
All around, the apples
are falling, the leaves
snap, the sun moves
away from the earth.
Only the moss stays,
decently covers the
roots of things, itself
rooted in silence:
rocks coming alive
underfoot, rain no
man heard fall. Moss,
stand up for us,
the small birds and
the great sun. You know
our trees and apples,
our parrots and women's eyes.
Keep us in your green
body, laid low
and still blossoming
under the snow.
Sacks crammed with light, layer on luminous layer,
an underworld calendar, the peeled pages faintly lined
but printed without month or measure
and pure as the damp kiss of a pearl,
as if the rings in an old tree should suddenly separate
and bracelet the axe; I have stooped among onions all morning,
hunting these flightless birds as they perched among roots.
I have yanked them out by the tail
and dropped them into my bag like chickens
and pulled away the thin paper of their last days,
pale winegold, a silken globe, pungent,
striped with the pale longitude of silence.
Now over my door they shimmer in knobby garlands,
gregarious in chains like a string of lights
on the boardwalks of heaven where an old man
who loved his garden understands everything.
The Potato Picker
The plant lifts easily now, like an old tooth.
I can free it from the rows of low hills,
hills like the barrows of old kings
where months ago, before anything grew or
we hid the far-sighted eyes of potatoes.
They fingered forth, blossomed, and shrank,
and did their dark business under our feet.
And now it's all over. Horse nettles dangle
their gold berries. Sunflowers, kindly giants
in their death-rattle turn stiff as streetlamps.
Pale cucumbers swell to alabaster lungs,
while marigolds caught in the quick frost
go brown, and the scarred ears of corn
by the deer lie scattered like primitive fish.
The life boats lifted by milkweed ride light
and empty, their sailors flying.
This is the spot. I put down my spade,
I dig in, I uncover the scraped knees
of children in the village of potatoes,
and the bald heads of their grandfathers.
I enter the potato mines.
This squash is my good cousin,
says the vegetable man,
rolling his pushcart through November.
These parsnips are first class.
I recommend with my whole heart.
I know the family.
Believe me, lady, I know
what I'm talking.
And I give you a good price.
I throw in the carrots free.
Carrots like this you got?
So what you want?
I wrap in the best Yiddish newspaper.
A dollar a year. Takes me
ten minutes to read it,
an hour to read the English.
Potatoes you need, maybe?
My wife says I eat too many
potatoes. In Poland, in war,
we ate potatoes, soup,
All my family was ploughed under
except me. So what can I say
to someone that he don't like
potatoes? Positively last chance,
because tomorrow it might snow.
In winter I don't come.
Look for me when the snow goes,
and if I don't come back,
think that I moved, maybe.
I'm eighty-two already,
and what is Paradise
without such potatoes?
How the Hen Sold Her Eggs to the Stingy Priest
An egg is a grand thing for a journey.
It will make you a small meal on the road
and a shape most serviceable to the hand
for darning socks, and for barter
a purse of gold opens doors anywhere.
If I wished for a world better than this one
I would keep, in an egg till it was wanted,
the gold earth floating on a clear sea.
If I wished for an angel, that would be my way,
the wings in gold waiting to wake,
the feet in gold waiting to walk,
and the heart that no one believed in
beating and beating the gold alive.
A Wreath to the Fish
Who is this fish, still wearing its wealth,
flat on my drainboard, dead asleep,
its suit of mail proof only against the stream?
What is it to live in a stream,
to dwell forever in a tunnel of cold,
never to leave your shining birthsuit,
never to spend your inheritance of thin coins?
And who is the stream, who lolls all day
in an unmade bed, living on nothing but weather,
singing, a little mad in the head,
opening her apron to shells, carcasses, crabs,
eyeglasses, the lines of fishermen begging for
news from the interior—oh, who are these lines
that link a big sky to a small stream
that go down for great things:
the cold muscle of the trout,
the shining scrawl of the eel in a difficult passage,
hooked—but who is this hook, this cunning
and faithful fanatic who will not let go
but holds the false bait and the true worm alike
and tears the fish, yet gives it up to the basket
in which it will ride to the kitchen
of someone important, perhaps the Pope
who rejoices that his cook has found such a fish
and blesses it and eats it and rises, saying,
"Children, what is it to live in the stream,
day after day, and come at last to the table,
transfigured with spices and herbs,
a little martyr, a little miracle;
children, children, who is this fish?"
A Humane Society
If they don't take animals,
I cannot possibly stay at the Statler
no matter how broad the beds
nor how excellent the view.
Not even if the faucets run hot and cold pearls,
not even if the sheets are cloth of gold,
because I never go anywhere without my raccoon,
my blue raccoon in his nifty mask,
the shadow cast by mind over sight.
I never go abroad without consulting his paw
or reading the weather in the whites of his eyes.
I would share my last crust with his wise mouth.
And even if the manager promised
provisions could be made for a blue raccoon,
I cannot possibly stay at the Waldorf,
no matter how many angels feather the fondues,
no matter how many bishops have blessed the soup,
because I never go anywhere without my cat,
my fuchsia cat in her choirboy bow,
in the purity of whose sleep a nun would feel shamed,
in whose dreams the mouse lies down with the elephant.
I never go to bed without setting her at the door
for her sleep robs even the serpent of poison
and no door closes where she takes her rest,
but even if the manager said, very well,
we can accommodate, for a fee, a fuchsia cat,
I cannot possibly stay at the Ritz.
I understand bears are not welcome there.
I understand that everyone walks on two legs,
and I never go anywhere without my bear
who is comelier of gait than any woman,
who wears no shoes and uses no speech
but many a day has laid down his life for me
in this city of purses, assassins, and the poor.
He would give me his coat and walk abroad in his bones,
and he loves a sunny window and a kind face.
I need a simple room papered with voices
and sorrows without circumstance, and an old lady
in the kitchen below who has welcomed
visitors more desperate than ourselves
and who fondly recalls a pregnant woman riding a donkey
and three crazy men whose only map was a star.
You are polishing me like old wood.
At night we curl together like two rings
on a dark hand. After many nights,
the rough edges wear down.
If this is aging, it is warm as fleece.
I will gleam like ancient wood.
I will wax smooth, my crags and cowlicks
well-rubbed to show my grain.
Some sage will keep us in his hand for peace.
For You, Who Didn't Know
At four A.M. I dreamed myself on that beach
where we'll take you after you're born.
I woke in a wave of blood.
Lying in the back seat of a nervous Chevy
I counted the traffic lights, lonely as planets.
Starlings stirred in the robes of Justice
over the Town Hall. Miscarriage of justice,
they sang, while you, my small client,
went curling away like smoke under my ribs.
Kick me! I pleaded. Give me a sign
that you're still there!
Train tracks shook our flesh from our bones.
Behind the hospital rose a tree of heaven.
You can learn something from everything,
a rabbi told his Hasidim who did not believe it.
I didn't believe it, either. O rabbi,
what did you learn on the train to Belsen?
That because of one second one can miss everything.
There are rooms on this earth for emergencies.
A sleepy attendant steals my clothes and my name,
and leaves me among the sinks on an altar of fear.
"Your name. Your name. Sign these papers,
authorizing us in our wisdom to save the child.
Sign here for circumcision. Your faith, your faith."
O rabbi, what can we learn from the telegraph?
asked the Hasidim, who did not understand.
And he answered, That every word is counted and charged.
"This is called a dobtone," smiles the doctor.
He greases my belly, stretched like a drum,
and plants a microphone there, like a flag.
A thousand thumping rabbits! Savages clapping for joy!
A heart dancing its name, I'm-here, I'm-here!
The cries of fishes, of stars, the tunings of hair!
O rabbi, what can we learn from a telephone?
My shiksa daughter, your faith, your faith
that what we say here is heard there.
In Praise of ABC
In the beginning were the letters,
wooden, awkward, and everywhere.
Before the Word was the slow scrabble of fire and water.
God bless my son and his wooden letters
who has gone to bed with A in his right hand and Z in his left,
who has walked all day with C in his shoe and said nothing,
who has eaten of his napkin the word Birthday,
and who has filled my house with the broken speech of wizards.
To him the grass makes its gentle sign.
For him the worm letters her gospel truth.
To him the pretzel says, I am the occult
descendant of the first blessed bread
and the lost cuneiform of a grain of wheat.
Kneading bread, I found in my kitchen half an O.
Now I wait for someone to come from far off
holding the other half, saying,
What is broken shall be made whole.
Match half for half; now do you know me again?
Thanks be to God for my house seeded with dark sayings
and my rooms rumpled and badly lit
but richly lettered with the secret raisins of truth.
How beautifully the child I carry on my back
teaches me to become a horse.
How quickly I learn to stay
between shafts, blinders, and whips,
bearing the plough
and the wagon loaded with hay,
or to break out of trot and run
till we're flying through cold streams.
He who kicks my commands
know I am ten times his size
and that I am servant to small hands.
It is in mowed fields I move best,
watching the barn grow toward me,
the child quiet, his sleep piled like hay
on my back as we slip over the dark hill
and I carry the sun away.
Excerpted from A Nancy Willard Reader by Nancy Willard. Copyright © 1991 Nancy Willard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Reader Inquires, the Author Answers,
Questions My Son Asked Me, Answers I Never Gave Him,
In Praise of Unwashed Feet,
When There Were Trees,
How to Stuff a Pepper,
The Potato Picker,
How the Hen Sold Her Eggs to the Stingy Priest,
A Wreath to the Fish,
A Humane Society,
For You, Who Didn't Know,
In Praise of ABC,
Angels in Winter,
Carpenter of the Sun,
One for the Road,
Little Elegy with Books and Beasts,
From 19 Masks for the Naked Poet,
The Poet Invites the Moon for Supper,
The Poet Takes a Photograph of His Heart,
The Poet Turns His Enemy into a Pair of Wings,
The Poet's Wife Watches Him Enter the Eye of the Snow,
From The Ballad of Biddy Early,
The Ballad of Biddy Early,
How the Magic Bottle Gave Biddy Its Blessing,
Charm of the Gold Road, the Silver Road, and the Hidden Road,
How the Queen of the Gypsies Met Trouble-and-Pain,
How Biddy Hid Mick the Moonlighter's Sleep in Her Sleeve,
Biddy Early Makes a Long Story Short,
Song from the Far Side of Sleep,
From A Visit to William Blake's Inn,
William Blake's Inn for Innocent and Experienced Travelers,
Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way,
The King of Cats Sends a Postcard to His Wife,
The Tiger Asks Blake for a Bedtime Story,
Three from the Sports Page,
"Buffalo Climbs Out of Cellar",
"Saints Lose Back",
"Divine Child Rolls On",
The Hucklebone of a Saint,
The Doctrine of the Leather-Stocking Jesus,
Sinner, Don't You Waste That Sunday,
The Life of a Famous Man,
From Things Invisible to See,
Salvage for Victory,
FOUR LECTURES ON WRITING,
The Well-tempered Falsehood: The Art of Storytelling,
How Poetry Came into the World and Why God Doesn't Write It,
Close Encounters of the Story Kind,
About the Author,