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 the 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.





IV. Regarding the Prisoners, the Stables


While goblets swing from hooks nailed to a banister,

the soot has cooled a little

                        in the room with no floor.

Our guests take bread and books freely,

and light a small fire

in the basket of feathers.


Up from the valley,

with the patience of thieves,

the magistrates have all arrived.

                        Holding their glycerin spoons,

they know when to enter,

and what antler to smash

if the deer is too swollen.


The mother leads us,

bed-warm, squinting,

into another stable,

but when our breakfast sours,

she can hardly lead us out.


The barrister has a long blue rope,

cool to touch,

and cool smelling.

The girls watch the rafters

for cues. We pay them with glass

                        and with handfuls of tooth.






VI. A Girl’s Late Confession


When father gave his sermon

on that windless blue night,

a clutch of secrets

was blushing inside him like an egg.

He hoped with the devotional


faith of sea glass

that the red-bodiced widow,

and the once-fled minister,

would droop

from a short stretch of rope.


So—(punish or perish)—

I suddenly acquiesced. When

I mouthed the jagged syllables

            of canny hysteria

it was like sewing hair

onto the tongue of Jesus.


The little thimble of my mind

was loosed on the sanctimonious

village and on the sallow faces

of the innocent.


Now at night I hardly sleep

without holding their bones

to my breast or wearing their

translucent gloves,

            without touching their blue piles of hair.






VII. Regarding George Burroughs


No question the minister

we hold consulted

the fluency of the raven.

Orange eyes and living shadows

did their dances

in the wood around us.


He summoned

the origin of Dog, the lost

potency of wool and caraway


                     He denied

confederacy with spirits

(which he called

“the living wish to stay”)


and distantly a bell

rang in Danvers. Seven

metaphysical feelings

briefly overtook us:


moths exposed their power,

bees bid us taste

a purple pollen, birches

bowed, the red river

stopped moving, stones

shuffled and sifted

when we blinked, a candle


unmelted—(the flame

restored the length

of the wick)—and the pine

fermented, intoxicating

all that breathed.


He called this through

the forest, but left us

basically unharmed. Such

is power: what we thought

we had had us.


Then he let us

bring him here.



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