donnarkevic has lived in West Virginia since moving there to teach in 1979 and considers it his adoptive home state. He holds the MFA from National University. Recently his poetry has appeared in Convergence Review, Earth Speak, and Off the Coast. His short story publications include Colere and the anthology, Seeking the Swan. In 2005, Main Street Rag published Laundry, his poetry chapbook. Also in 2005, The Interview, a play, won 2nd place in the Playwright's Circle competition.
(A Note on the poems: In 1864, the doors of the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane opened in Weston, West Virginia. Although medical records have not been accessed, titles for the poems reflect the exact reasons for admission as inscribed in the first logbook used at the hospital from October 22, 1864 to December 12, 1889.)
West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, 1864
Citizens of Weston welcomed me:
glad-handing politicians, a brass band,
a thousand school children, faces spruced,
fresh as whitewashed fences.
But I am a city unto myself:
Out of the depths, through fissured rock,
spring waters feed the reservoir.
Next to the waterkeeper’s cottage, sheep
graze under pastoral observation.
Barns and silo store enough to sustain
the body: bread, butter, milk, meat,
enough to survive the bare cupboard,
the winter of a kraaled soul.
In the arboretum, perpetual Gethsemane,
supplications rise like canticles
and fall on the ears of inferior gods,
Inside the sawmill, harvested timber
submits to the saw:
debarked, canted, edged, trimmed, dried, planed.
From the abattoir,
the death squeals of hogs, sheep, cattle echo,
and the bone mound, a feral Golgotha, rises
next to the hominal slaughterhouse of histories.
In the icehouse, time stops.
Solid blocks of the West Fork River,
frozen pantomime of movement, chill milk,
meat, and arrest the decay of bodies,
waiting for winter to give ground.
On the edge of unmerchantable wood,
I scratch out final refuge, evidenced by
crude stone markers, nuisance weeds,
anonymous and fixed as stars.
Prisoners quarried me in Mount Clare,
delivered me in ox-drawn wagons,
my body, blue sandstone slabs, thick as time,
my head, slate, another sedimentary stone.
I am a thicket of halls and locked doors,
each single cell, a pod of mock seed,
growing like bittersweet vines, strangling
walls into a doxology of silence.
My countenance, a three-faced clock,
the father, son, and ghost of those committed,
marks every moment, while my heart, an iron bell,
pulses with the resident echo of inborn fracture.
Outside the barred windows, vagrant clouds escape
the reach of sycamores. As a wrought iron fence reins
the horizon, limbs conspire to cradle sky,
to bear deliverance in blossoms.
Name: Gilbert McCorkle
Admitted: 6 April, 1886
I never saw a face, only a target,
moving cautious like a stag
off guard for a trigger-second,
of the shot,
a shirt wrapped round the barrel,
then chaos. Then I, too,
Silhouettes in the cross-hairs, haunt,
still yearning to be homeward bound,
arguing the bushel-price of corn,
assisting in the birth of a calf.
As for man his days are as grass . . .
Grandson runs across the asylum meadow;
a flopping fish dangles from his line.
for the wind passes over it and it is gone . . .
As my daughter nurses her third,
my wife’s hair waves in the breeze
like the promise of winter wheat.
and the place thereof shall know it no more.
Suppression of Menses
Name: Anita Tanner
Admitted: 10 January, 1882
the woman at the well,
once winsome, tempting
as a branched apple.
Now, I am fruitless, without issue,
a seedless oddity,
a fallow field gone to weed
without savior, save for the crucified
barren, a wormwood barn,
nesting ground for wasps,
twilight shadows, and decay,
useless as the broken
bits of whetstone lodged
in exhausted earth,
a crude mosaic tombstone
for the rusting scythe.
an abandoned mill
shrouded by a moon without cycles,
chaff on the thresher’s floor,
a dry riverbed
belly full of eroded stone.
the lunatic who cuts herself,
legs spread, divining
for the confluent life
that once flowed.
Staff Icehouse Worker
Amos Tandy, 1866
We harvest in January,
when ponds and the West Fork freeze
thick enough to support horse and gig
to brush off snow.
In a red woolen shirt, vivid as a drowning man,
I square the ice field with groovers and gougers
into a quilt of glass.
While riding the shine-sleigh,
I sprinkle formaldehyde from the morgue
to clean off horse piss and shit.
Using a large-toothed one-man saw,
I cut blocks, horse-hauled to the icehouse.
In a yellow wooden barn-like building
with removable walls, we stack
true and deep and green,
using sawdust from our mill and salt hay
to insulate. I guarantee ice until September.
Throughout the asylum, every other day,
I trudge 25 pound blocks
with iron tongs and leather pad
slapped over my shoulder, and as needed,
to dairy farm and slaughterhouse.
I never married, cold feet,
cold as ice,
cold as a city girl’s eyes,
cold as the crucified Christ.
It’s agin Mother Nature,
ice bobbing in tumblers of rum punch
in the middle of summer,
ones Dr. Ferguson offers his pet female
patient-of-the-day outside in the garden
where he fondles and kisses
while removing her bodice,
his chilling horselaugh,
as I spy, hidden in the rhododendron,
breasts white as churned cream,
nipples brown as bread crust,
my body, flush, a glowing cook stove.
Sometimes, I lug a lunatic corpse
to the icehouse for storage
sometimes a female, embalmed,
the flimsy burial gown
sometimes open, the breasts
hard and firm, the nipples erect,
in my mouth, brown and warm
as a fresh crust of bread.
Name: Soaring Eagle
Admitted: Winter 1884
Even before I was born,
the Great Spirit favored me
with the gift of visions.
I could see out of the womb
the evils of the wasichu, the white man:
smallpox, syphilis, whiskey . . .
From trappers, I learn words
whites use to create lies,
to steal our land.
As a boy, in a vision, during an eclipse
of the sun, I see the end
of the buffalo and the Lakota.
As a brave, I try to dream
the wasichu out of existence,
but, to my shame, I fail.
So I journey to Father Washington,
to put on the white man’s ways, to vote,
but there, I am as invisible as the bison.
The wasichu’s god writes laws on stone,
and the Great Spirit writes laws
on the red man’s heart.
Like seasons, time cycles.
Now is the winter of my people,
the moon when wolves run together.
But I also see visions of the wasichu,
their earth turning into wasteland,
their air dark as smoke from the teepee,
their water more bitter than tears,
dead in the womb.
To warn the white man,
I describe my revelations.
He calls me liar, madman, drunk.
He entombs me in a stone lodge,
a cave where the Great Spirit goes
When I hear the footsteps of the hunter,
I know I will die
of sorrow, but I will not mourn.
My memory will remain alive,
rising in the sap of the willow,
under the moon of greening grass.