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Spectral Evidence

by Joel Whitney

. . . magistrates based their judgments and evaluations on various kinds of intangible evidence, including direct confessions, supernatural attributes (such as “witchmarks”), and reactions of the afflicted girls . . .

   —from a website on the Salem witch trials

I. The Trial of Tituba Indian

Woman with a yellow bird
and eyes of rust,
you smile into the milk
of the stairway.
                               A great white dog
paces beside you
at the foot of the bed.

The plaintiff is your only alibi,
a man with a book of mutable size—
he shows you the book
is invisible, marked with claws
and ancient mint.
                               Our verdict will recover
the missing whips, the pin
pushed into the core.
What color the rats became
will be found out,
                               and your complicity

in the sabotage of the cowherds,
whose piebald hides open
round the holes of their wounds,
like collar ruffles buoyed
on a field’s darkening tufts.


II. Regarding the Farmer Giles Corey

When the moon was striped—
(egg of vapor risen from the swamp)—
we made our sign in his book.
                               The yeomen swear by the hammer,
and five girls concur,
that the white-haired farmer
whispers beside our beds,
                               bids us mark our names
and read his garish scripts.

Years ago in the farmer’s house
a stranger died—
                               (the same season our cows
miscarried every calf, then fell
over one by one like lumber).
The doctor found the corpse
with blood clots by its heart
                               and a chest plate
cracked like aged polish.

The trial lagged, the jury
spooked and verdictless.

We miss our midwives, our carpenter.
No innocent will have reason to fear.


III. The Trial of Bridget Bishop

Pigs vanished through a mirror
              at your beckoning
into a plume of apple smoke—
and the doctors accused you
of pilfering broken vials.

                               Earlier an imp
tempted the industrious cooper
while you looked on with malice
from your lord’s disputed orchard.
                               You only wear red.
              The Lord is wise.
We know you manipulate

merely the senses—in the vapor
              of a certain smoke
the beams of a house may appear
              to be serpents, for the forms
of animals are conserved in the treasury
              of the imagination.
But matter may not be
actually transgressed.

Your eyes are runes,
your dealings dark.


Joel Whitney is a 2003 “Discovery”/The Nation prizewinner. His poems have appeared recently in Paris Review, The Nation, and Runes: A Review of Poetry. He is co-founder of the Guernica reading series in New York City and teaches at Fordham University. (1/2004)

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