Alfred Corn was born in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 1943. His first book of poems, All Roads at Once, appeared in 1976, followed by A Call in the Midst of the Crowd (1978), The Various Light (1980), Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), The West Door (1988), Autobiographies (1992). His seventh book of poems, titled Present, appeared in 1997, along with a novel titled Part of His Story, and a study of prosody, The Poem’s Heartbeat. Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992, appeared in 1999, followed by Contradictions in 2002. He has also published a collection of critical essays titled The Metamorphoses of Metaphor (1988) and a work of art criticism, Aaron Rose Photographs (Abrams, 2001). In 2008, his Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007 was published by the University of Michigan Press. Fellowships and prizes awarded for his poetry include the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, a Guggenheim fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Award in Literature from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at the City University of New York, Columbia, Yale, Connecticut College, the University of Cincinnati, U.C.L.A., Ohio State University, Hofstra University, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Tulsa. A frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and The Nation, he also writes art criticism for Art in America and ARTnews magazines. In October 2003 he was a fellow of the Rockefeller Study and Conference Center at Bellagio, and held the Amy Clampitt Residency in Lenox, Massachusetts, for 2004-2005. In London, later that year, he taught a course for the Poetry School, and one for the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton, Devon. He spends part of every year in the U.K.
AN XMAS MURDER
He sits at the table, cloudlight of March
One tone with his hair, gray-silver on silver.
Midday fare in Vermont is basic enough.
In West Newbury, eggs and toast will do—
Though our doctor’s had his sips of wine as well.
“Just don’t be fooled. They’re not as nice as you
Think they are. Live here a few more winters,
You’ll get to know them clearer, and vice-versa.”
Three years now, and we’re still finding our way;
Newcomers need a guide to show them the ropes,
And he has been explaining township and county
Almost from the sunstruck day we met him
That very first July in this old house.
“I’ll cite an instance of community
Spirit at work, North Country justice—
A case I just happened to be involved in.
No, please—all right, if you are having one.”
He holds his glass aloft and then lets fall
A silence that has grown familiar to us
From other stories told on other days,
The will to recount building its head of steam.
“Well, now, you have to know about the victim.
His name was Charlie Deudon, no doubt Canuck
Stock some generations back, but he
Nor no one else could tell you—if they cared.
Deudons had been dirt farmers here as long
As anybody knew. They never starved
But never had a dime to spare, either.
Charlie resolved to change the Deudon luck.
And that’s just what he did. Or almost did. . . .
He’d graduated two classes ahead of mine;
We knew each other, naturally, but not
On terms of friendship. Fact is, he had no friends,
And only one girlfriend, whom he married
Day after Commencement, June of ‘32.
And then he set to work and never stopped
Again, until they made him stop for good.”
A wisp of a smile, half irony, half
Bereavement plays about his guileless face—
Red cheeks, blue eyes, a beardless Santa Claus;
Whose bag contains (apart from instruments
Of healing) stories, parables and proverbs,
Painkillers, too, for when all else fails.
“What kind of work had all that hard work been?”
“Oh, farming, like his elders, only better.
All the modern improvements, fancy feed
And fertilizers, plus machinery—
He was the first in these parts to milk
His herd in any way but as ‘twas done
Since Adam’s boys first broke ground with a plow.
And anything machines couldn’t handle,
Charlie did himself, from dawn to midnight.
He never wasted a word or spilled a drop
Of milk or drank a drop of beer or liquor.
He was unnatural. And he made that farm
Into a showplace, a kind of 4-H model.
He made good money, yes, but not a dollar
Would he spend unnecessarily.
Do you get the picture? They hated him,
The boys that hung around the package store.
The most they ever got from tightfist Charlie
Deudon was a nod out from under his cap.
(His trademark—a baseball cap striped white and red.)
They envied him for getting his hay in first;
And there was more. A boy that he had hired,
By the name of Carroll Giddens, was their buddy.
Likeable fellow, regulation issue,
The sort that knocks back a pint or a fifth
In half a shake and tells off-color stories
Till he’s got them choked to death with laughing.
‘Course the wisecracks they loved best were those
About poor Charlie and his gold-plated farm. . . .
Just one more case of what’s been often said
By commentators on democracy—
How it helps everyone keep modest.”
Teasing mischief has crept into his voice.
A self-taught anthropologist as well
As teller of tales, he has other frames
Of reference to place around events
Local or international. He knows
That things can stand for more than what they are;
Indeed, says standing for things is why we’re here,
And quotes chapter and verse to prove his point.
“Think of the worldwide scapegoat ritual.
In halfway civilized societies
An animal’s the one relieved from life
Duty, am I right? A fellow tribesman
Will do in a pinch, if animals are lacking,
Or if communal fears get screwed too tight. . . .
Anyhow, it was clear that something more
Than common envy stirred up the lynch law.
Their own failure’s what they wanted dead.”
Seconds pass in silence as he stares
At something—perhaps a knothole in the pine
Floorboard. He looks up, eyebrows raised,
And twirls the glass stem between stubby fingers.
A coil of rope hung on the wall, we see,
Has made him pause and heave experienced sighs.
“Here. Have another. So: was Charlie punished?”
“I’m going to tell you—better me than others.
You see, I was involved—no, no, no,
Not in the deed, Lord, no, just as a witness.
It happened this way—hope you’re not squeamish.
Charlie had this boy to help with chores,
The one named Carroll. Married, two kids, I think.
Not too reliable. But so few are;
Nor could you call his wages generous.
His buddies must have stood him drinks, is all
I can say. He’d a skinful half the time—
Was certainly drunk that Christmas Eve morning.
No reason to doubt what Charlie told his wife.
Charlie’d been up to help at six with the milking,
And Carroll, drunk as a fiddler’s bitch, was there
Loading a pair of milk cans into the barrow.
He took a slip and the whole business spilled.
Wooden handle clipped him in the side,
And he fell, too, right in the puddle of milk.
And started laughing. Charlie, you can guess,
Didn’t join in; he told him to get on home.
‘What about the milk?’ ‘Go home,’ he said,
‘You’re drunk.’ ‘But what about the milk?’ asks Carroll.
‘Comes out of next week’s paycheck,’ Charlie says.
And then the trouble starts, with Carroll swearing
And yelping, till Charlie gives him a little tap
And goes indoors. By then Carroll could tell
The barrow handle had cracked a rib or two.
He drove into town to see his doctor—that
Wasn’t me—and word went out that Charlie
Had roughed up his innocent assistant.
That’s all they needed, Carroll’s friends. About
Time that stuck-up bastard got his due,
He’s gone too far this time, but we’ll show him,
Et cetera . . . . As it was Christmas Eve,
They had the leisure, the liquor, and the rope.”
“They hanged him?” “No, that’s not our way up here.
The honored custom’s to dump them in the river.
You see, the river’s New Hampshire all the way
Over to the Vermont side, and thus,
If the victim’s still alive when he hits the water,
New Hampshire law enforcement and legal justice
Steps in. It tends to confuse the issue, see?
In wintertime, the river freezes over,
And you can’t hope to fish the bodies out
Till the month of March at the earliest.
By then, who knows which state the victim died in?
A trick they’ve played a hundred years and more
Up in Woodsville, where the bridge is. That’s where
The loggers used to go to spend their money
On booze and hookers—who’d arrange for them
To get knocked in the head at the right moment,
And pitched off the bridge into the water.
A famous local industry, but rather
Fallen on hard days by the early fifties,
Just like others more legitimate. . . .
Well, our local rowdies knew the routine,
And, when time came to follow up their threats,
They laid their plans according to tradition.
They knew that Charlie’d have to do the milking
Christmas morning same as every day.
And when he came into the barn to do it,
They’d be waiting for him. And that’s what happened.”
We strain forward to hear him tell the rest;
The narrative spell is on him, and on us.
His voice weaves through fine-tuned nuances,
With sudden leaps in volume and skittish phrases
That somehow help flesh out what he describes.
We see the sprawling barn across the highway
From the white-columned porch of the old house.
See the barn closed up tight against the cold,
And the blue-gray light of December dawn
As Charlie crosses the road to do his chores.
The roosters shriek their morning alarm, the big
Doors creak open on the darkness—a darkness
Slit with tight-strung wires of light knifing
Through cracks between the boards of the east wall.
Tufts of hay spill from cribs on both sides.
The waiting cattle stir and low as daylight
Breaks in on the darkness. Their master strides
In past the parked pickup truck, his pail,
A battered Rath Blackhawk lard can swinging
At his side, a whistled “Jingle Bells”
His fight song for the working holiday.
He hears the verses harnessed to his whistling,
The tune drawing its text along march tempo:
. . . it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh-ay!
And then all changes. Smash of the blackjack
Against his skull, exploding carnival
Of fire-veined shock that flies to the far corners
Of night. Four assailants leap from the back
Of the truck and lift him partly erect, the quicker
To bind his arms behind and truss them to
His half-bent legs, as you might rope a steer
Or sheep you meant to brand or slaughter.
They take him out to where the car is waiting
And throw him in the trunk like a sack of feed.
Another car drives past but doesn’t slow.
The bandits duck and climb inside their own.
Tires screech, the driver slams onto the highway,
A smile and wink all round as they drive north
To Woodsville. The sun is coming up when they
Reach the bridge and stop the car. The lid
Of the trunk’s sprung open, its cargo discharged.
He is dragged to the railing, lifted, then heaved over.
The body falls, seeming almost to pause
In air before it hits the water and slides
Below the surface of the floating ice. . . .
Five miles back along the highway, the dark
Barn, the herd, a crushed tin pail, and signs
Of struggle in the dirt wait for someone’s
Startled face, back-lit in the doorway,
To see them, then whip aside with a shout of terror.
“He wasn’t found until spring thaw; he washed
Ashore just south of Bradford, still tied up
And looking like they’d tarred and feathered him—
Partly decomposed, but not his clothes.
First thing was an autopsy to test if he
Had died by drowning or was dead before
Going under. Conclusion was, he’d died
On land, so as I said, his death belonged
To the Green Mountain State’s criminal justice.”
“And what about the killers—were they caught?”
“Several suspects found themselves in jail—
And that’s where I come in: as star witness.
It happened I was on the road that morning.
Real early. See . . . I’d promised my house guest
Of the night—young Marine on leave—I’d drive
Him back to Lebanon to grab his bus.
I always keep my word, especially
When given in the night hours. Nice boy—
He’s been a good friend ever since. We’d said
Good-bye until the next three-day pass.
Well, I was driving home like Merry Christmas.
Into the headlights comes the Deudon farm:
And then I noticed the car. A two-toned Kaiser,
Side of the road, beneath a maple tree.
Didn’t know whose it was or why it was there.
I saw one face, Calvin Renfrew’s, that’s all.
He didn’t have wheels so far as I knew.
Occurred to me right then that something might
Be fishy; but locals never meddle till—
Till it’s too late, sometimes. I should have stopped.
They might have banged me on the head, but then—.
Well, even as it is they got revenge.
I’m still alive, however, and mean to stay so.”
He laughs a low laugh that would chill the devil . . .
Then takes up the thread—how when he heard the news
About Charlie’s disappearance, he drove down
To tell the state trooper what he’d seen.
“That was the very next day after Christmas.
By nightfall Calvin Renfrew and Norbert Joiner,
The owner of the car (the Kaiser), and two
Associates were in custody. But not
For long. Someone bailed them out, someone
Rich, it had to be, an enemy
Or rival of Charlie’s. That’s often our way,
You know, to let others fix the person
We secretly hate, then give them secret help
When they get their paws burned in the process.
A lot of people coveted that farm,
However much disparaged it was in public.
When Charlie’s widow put it up for auction,
Don’t imagine nobody came to bid.
I still see things of his on others’ farms.
What didn’t surprise me either’s how the town,
Lord help me, the whole county took the side
Of those arrested against the murdered man.
They said old Charlie had it coming to him,
Treating his employee that way. Meanwhile,
Carroll had quietly slipped across the border
To Canada; no way to prove that he’d
Hardly been hurt at all. So rumor flew.
If words could put you under ground, why Carroll
Was dead and buried six times over, a martyr
Hounded to his grave by a maniac
Who should have been taken care of years ago.
These are churchgoing people, too, but they
Figure they have a special insight as
To what the Boy Upstairs considers right.
Man is born for sorrow, so we’re told,
And some try to make sure he gets a close
Acquaintance with the sorrow that’s his due.
Meanwhile, if you can say the things people
Want to hear, then you may lynch at will.”
He folds his hands and brings them to his chin.
“The rest of the story you can figure out
Yourself. Their lawyer asked the jury be
Directed by the judge to return a verdict
Of Not Guilty. Motion granted—as never
Before for a capital offense in this state.
They’d do it again, don’t worry, if the case
Was dear to their concerns. Sounds cynical,
I grant you. . . . But then, you see, they started next
On me for fingering the guilty parties.
State trooper drops by to ask some questions.
Why was I on the highway that time of morning?
Oh? And who exactly was this friend?
Oh, really? Stayed the night, did he? I see. . . .
A doubt or two’d been raised before already,
Given that I had never married, and
Was locally famous for my special hobby.
I’m sure I’ve told you: I play a little pipe
Organ at church sometimes—I even travel
To play it elsewhere. I know organists
All over New England, and the town gazette
Used always to mention when I went to play
At musicales in other towns and states.
Nobody thought it mattered much beforehand,
But once the tale about the serviceman
Got out, my friends, well, you can just imagine.
Overnight young Dr. Stephens was
As ‘musical’ as you can be and not
Get tarred and feathered. My patients, some of them,
Began to melt away like ice cream. Stephens,
A local name, respected in these parts,
Became a byword for things we don’t discuss.
I wondered whether I should move, of course;
Some rowdy threw a can of paint at the house;
I still get unsigned letters from time to time.
Things must be better where you two come from.
But this is where I’ve always lived, it’s what
I know. If I had had the sense to pitch
Someone unpopular from off a bridge
Instead of enjoying music, chances are
I’d be a favorite son. In point of fact,
I’ve given up the organ, seldom play it
Nowadays. I’ve got a different hobby—
Your health, gentlemen! No more today, though.
Another call to make this afternoon.
But listen, now: if you’ll come up to me
Next week, I’ll play some pump organ for you.
I can still do a rousing ‘Hornpipe’—the one
By Handel. Tourist attraction hereabouts.
I am fairly confident you won’t
Ever have heard it played my way before.”
He stands to go, consenting to be ushered
Out under the black trees of late March, down
To where his battered station wagon sits.
Thunder of engines takes him off. . . . But his words
Stay lodged in us like arrows, arrows aimed
As carefully as acupuncture and meant
Somehow to warn or counsel. Not that warnings
In the abstract often help stave off
Particular misfortunes, inevitably
The body of most stories drawn from life.
Misfortunes are the hinges life turns on?
Reprieves as well—along with persons, places,
Passions. A fluent paradox, the realm
Normally termed external, I mean its way
Of overhearing thought and mustering
Fresh evidence. . . . Today, for instance, how
New green on branches and a liquid birdcall
Suffice to announce the chaste approach of spring.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I believe it was written in 1984-1985. A couple of years earlier my partner and I had bought a house in rural Vermont and fairly soon got to know a local resident, a doctor whose ancestors had lived thereabouts for many generations. He told me the story of the murder, and when I asked for more details gave me an article that has been published in a magazine, maybe Argosy, back in the 1950s. I read it and found the story fascinating and horrible both. I’d also been reading Frost, in fact, I read everything of his during those years, including his dramatic monologues like “A Servant to Servants” and “The Witch of Coös.” I saw that stories of rural New England could be gripping subject matter for poems.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I revise a lot but don’t count while doing it. This is a long poem, and probably required about forty drafts, I estimate. It took about a year to complete.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Yes, if you mean a sudden rush of excitement over an idea, an eagerness to do something with it, and the sense of being carried forward on a current of new insights as you work. In this case, the story was given to me, but I had to put it into lines, come up with a way to suggest the sound quality of a voice, and discover extra layers of significance in the story, aspects of a wider relevance.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Most of the poem is a dramatic monologue, and ever since Shakespeare’s plays, blank verse has been the schema most often used for that genre. I followed suit. But one formal innovation I added was a “frame” placed around the doctor’s narrative, written in my own voice. The frame introduces him, interrupts in the middle of his narrative to summarize what he tells, and then concludes the poem with some more general reflections. That is one way that the poem differs from Frost’s dramatic monologues, and apparently the innovation bothered one critic, who didn’t like the framing, probably because it’s not typical for poems like this. However, if you remove the frame, the poem doesn’t give the whole story, and its wider relevance vanishes. It becomes a versified magazine article, what the French call a fait divers, a “human interest story.”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Over a year. It came in in Poetry in 1987. Then it was done as a chapbook published by Ted Danforth’s Sea Cliff Press shortly after that. Then, in 1988, it was collected in the book The West Door.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I send poems to friends even before the ink is dry. When I no longer see glaring faults in it, I send it to editors. If it is sent back, I’ll reconsider it and might work with it again.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The story recorded in the voice of the doctor is nearly identical to the one that my Vermont friend told me. I don’t know if he invented any part of it. The more public narrative follows what was printed in the magazine article. The “frame,” my part in it, is generally factual, with some invented details. Since I left out hundreds of things that might have been included, the omission also counts as a fictional aspect of the poem, too.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
As said above, Frost. Clearly he was an influence, but in order to earn being influenced, in my view, you have do something the original didn’t do. Hence the frame, which allows for a more elaborate description of events than would be credible in this country doctor’s voice.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
From the practical standpoint, I think a B.A. degree is the price of admission if you want to read my poems or at least the autodidact’s equivalent. Ideally, they should be read by enthusiasts, people who read a lot of poetry and are used to its methods. Beyond that, I have no preconception of the identity of the readers. This poem in particular has had favorable responses from people from widely different sectors of the readership, so the self-flattering view would be that it is one of my very best.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, I have from the first sent poems to friends for responses, and still do. In the beginning that would have been David Kalstone, Richard Howard, Edmund White, James Merrill, and J.D. McClatchy. Over the years other poet friends who’ve willing to read and comment were John Hollander, Robert Pinsky, Grace Schulman, Mary Jo Salter, and Marilyn Hacker. I can’t recall now who saw this poem in draft.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s the only one based on a crime as described in a magazine article.
What is American about this poem?
Its setting and its characters are American, including the author. Perhaps the plain-spokenness of it. What else? The civil rights activist Rap Brown once said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” I think he was referring to the slaughter of the indigenous peoples of North America, slavery, the Civil War, lynching and vigilante raids, the Ku Klux Klan, organized crime, urban riots and the increasing number of wars waged by Americans on foreign soil. Since this poem is about a vigilante murder, I suppose it qualifies one more slice of American cherry pie.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
If I were to put it back on the worktable again, I would probably even now change a few small things. But I’ve learned to avoid doing that because readers never like revisions of a text they already know. It’s good to compose, and to finish, with abandon.