Shards of Blue… additional poems

My chapbook, Shards of Blue, is out on the streets. Copies have been arriving in mailboxes over the past few days, and are being opened and read. Those who previously have read the series of poems that make up Shards of Blue know there are other poems about John and Mary Ratcliff that, due to space constraints, didn’t make it into the book. To fill out the story, I thought I’d offer them here. There are nine additional poems spanning the years from the late 1840s to 1898: The Glass Cutter, Dr. Townsend’s Surgery, The Ohio Town Company, Decisions, Months Seasons Years, The Dugout, A Good Day’s Work, They Rode on Borrowed Horses, and To the Commissioner of Pensions. The first two provide background about John’s and Mary’s interests. John was a glass cutter in the glass factories in Wheeling. I’ve imagined that Mary was interested in medicine and science, and that is what brought her to live with her uncle, Dr. Thomas Townsend. The poems are arranged below in chronological order, just as the poems in the book, but I should note that “They Rode on Borrowed Horses,” set in 1882, is mostly John thinking back to the day in November 1848 when he and Mary eloped to West Alexander, Pennsylvania, where they married. That poem, and “The Glass Cutter,” were published in The Copperfield Review. The last in the series below, “To the Commissioner of Pensions,” is taken almost verbatim from a letter in John’s pension file.


The meetinghouse was no place for art.
Plain walls and clear glass
were better to focus the mind
on the spirit born in simplicity,
brought forth from the Inner Light,
and spoken in the still, small voice
that need not announce itself
with ornamentation.
So, too, with daily life.
When he became a man
he was told: pursue a trade,
go into business, take up farming.
Do good, practical work.

The Meeting taught him
that God’s beauty was in all things.
He saw it everywhere—
in blades of grass bent before the wind,
in the colors of the sky throughout the day,
in ripples on the surface of a pond.
All the world was art to him.

So he became a glass cutter,
beveling simplicity’s stark edge,
etching grace as lines and patterns
into vases, bowls, and glasses,
each refracting spirit and light.

     Mary Townsend, Wheeling, Virginia, 1847

My uncle, Thomas Townsend,
though highly respected,
was considered by friends and neighbors
to be a bit eccentric.
When he wasn’t busy with patients,
he roamed the mountains
above Wheeling collecting plants,
placing them in his hat for safe keeping
as he returned home, where he spent
his evenings labeling and organizing.
His herbarium was the envy of Wheeling’s scientists.

Uncle Thomas’s friends and neighbors
said a man of his age and position in society
ought to have married, and so they were pleased
when I arrived to run the house
and help him with his practice.
The place needed a woman’s touch they said.
They all wondered which of Wheeling’s young doctors
would court me—any of them would be
a more-than-suitable husband and fit
to take on Uncle Thomas’s practice when he retired.
This was talked about around town,
at meetings of the local medical society,
and whispered among the patients waiting in his surgery.

But Uncle Thomas and I had other plans.
He was not looking for a nephew-in-law
to whom to leave his surgery.
And, I was there to learn.


On the prairie, on the edge of settlement,
the great sea of grass flowing to the west,
cities, towns, and farms to the east,
these Ohio men laid out their town,
measured out their farms.

Raised on abolition, they had seen
runaways pass through their villages,
had seen the fear and hope in the eyes
of men, women, and children,
heard it in the whispered voices
in barns and cellars, under cover in wagons
as they waited for the slave hunters to pass.
They had sat in Quaker Meetings,
listening to those who counseled patience
and trust in God that laws would change.
They had helped hide runaways;
bought only goods made with free labor.
But that was not enough.
When Kansas opened, they went west
to send a message to the nation.
Kansas would be free,
by the ballot, they hoped;
by force if necessary.

They came with plows and ideals
to sow new lives in the Kansas soil.
It was their season
and they waited for freedom to sprout.

     Mary Townsend Ratcliff, Wheeling, VA, April 1856

The hardest decisions are what to take
and what to leave behind. There is
not enough room on the riverboat
for all our possessions, even if we could
pay to have them shipped to Kansas.
So many items that have no value
other than the memories they spark,
I must sell or leave for others.
I will pack necessities—pots, pans,
bedding, clothing, books (yes, necessary)—
and a few niceties, but most I will leave.

And, Uncle Thomas’ collections—
we cannot take them with us.
We do not need his herbarium
or his geological specimens
out on the prairie,
though, what a curiosity they would be.
Perhaps the medical society
will have an interest, or one
of the scientists in town.

I know we’ve made the right decision.
I know we should go, lest Kansas be lost
to slavery and ignorance,
that we must go to help assure free soil.
But, I struggle with the thought
that we might never see
family and friends again;
that I might never again
walk these green mountains.
And, what of science and medicine?
What opportunities will I have
to pursue these, to continue my studies
when there will be so much work with the farm?

     Marshall County, Kansas, 1870

Months, seasons, years.
The rhythms and cycles of life,
plow, sow, reap, repeat.
Crops planted and harvested,
corn, wheat, orchard, garden.
Three more sons: George, Abe, Grant.

Rhythm and routine of the farm,
and yet, always the possibility
of a killing frost, summer storms
that flatten crops, tornadoes,
drought, too much rain, early snows.

The regularity of life,
the boredom of routine,
work, exhaustion, reward,
complacency, desire,
unmet expectations.
New roles: she, plowing, planting,
managing the farm more and more.
Pride in a field full of young shoots,
pride in a full harvest.
He, hunting, trapping, fishing;
withdrawal from the farm
to the prairie, and inward into himself.

And wounds that will not heal.

Mary Townsend Ratcliff, Smith County, Kansas, 1876

Water seeps from the walls and roof.
No whitewash to cover and seal the sod.
I want to know things as they are.

We will rest here, boys,
in this dugout for a season
while we prepare the new farm
and build our new house.
We will use stone this time,
solid blocks carved from the earth.
A foundation no man can tear asunder.

Mary Townsend Ratcliff, Smith County, 1877

I am sore and bone-weary,
but look at this field—
furrows straight and deep.
I love the look of a new-plowed field.
New beginnings and fresh possibilities.
I will plant the corn tomorrow
and then will sow the wheat.

This is a good weariness.
A good day’s work,
and pride—yes, I don’t mind
saying that I am full of pride
for what I’ve done with this farm.
There is nothing more satisfying
than walking through a wheat field
running hands over tassles
and thinking this is mine. I grew this.

    John Ratcliff, 1882

Sunlight on the glass on the shelf
and he thinks of its companion,
broken years ago when she let it go;
when she told him to go.
He reflects upon another day…

They rode on borrowed horses,
leaving Wheeling at the first blue light
while others still slept.
Into the ancient hills they rode
to West Alexander
and a chapel where they would wed.
Just the two of them:
no family, no friends,
no queries from the Meeting
no concerns over their beliefs,
or perhaps lack thereof.
Just the two of them,
and the preacher and wife to make it legal.

Side by side they rode
under that November sky
clear and blue as her eyes;
blue as her gingham dress
and the ribbon (a gift from his mother)
holding back her dark hair.
Through familiar meadows
where they had walked,
gathering plants for her collection,
and minerals to color glass,
the cobalt that he used
for the two glasses in his bag.

He thinks of the day they met—
the things they talked of:
plants and rocks, sand and glass,
the designs of nature,
the creation of beauty in the artist’s hands.
He thought of walks in the mountains,
sharing their dreams—
she, to be a doctor;
he, an artist, shaping glass and stone.

Down the ancient mountain,
their new life beginning,
they rode on borrowed horses
under blue November skies.
In a familiar meadow,
at a spring, clear water flowing,
they stopped. In his saddlebag
two blue glasses,
blown and cut by hand,
together they filled them from the spring,
and drank to the dreams they would share.

John Ratcliff, Smith County, Kansas, January 25, 1898

I would have written sooner,
but I have not been well.
If it weren’t for my sons
and my neighbors
bringing water and wood,
I never could have stood the winter.

I spend almost all my time in bed.
Today, I am hardly able to sit up
long enough to write this letter.

I don’t know how much longer
I can stand the misery I have to suffer.
My head and breast and back
pain me night and day.
When I stoop down I get blind.

I can’t wash my face and hands
without getting out of breath.
I can’t walk fifty yards without giving out.
I can’t do the least thing
without feeling as if I would drop dead.

I can’t enjoy anything anymore.
I have spent most of my pension money
trying to get better, but it seems
I am only getting worse. What am I to do?

I have fought and bled for my country.
I have done all that was required of me.



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