Peggy Billings, poet, activist, friend, in her own words, from the afterword to her second book of poems, Red Rooster Crowing. Peggy died yesterday. She was 90. A dear friend and teacher, and they words cannot convey the reality. I met Peggy in 1998 or 1999 and a workshop given by our friend Bridget Meeds. We were ostensibly the teachers, but I learned far more about poetry from Peggy, who only began to write in retirement (forced on her by macular degeneration). One meets extraordinary people sometimes. I have been lucky in that way. Peggy is a star in my firmament. For over twenty years we met periodically in different poetry groups. Of the original group, Ann Silsbee, Inta Ezergailis, and now Peggy are gone. Peggy led a long and significant and soulful life. I have transcribed a portion of her afterword and a couple of poems. Goodnight my dear friend. I will never look upon the stars without seeing you.
WORDS TO THE READER FROM THE WRITER
I WAS BORN AT MIDNIGHT—BETWEEN SEPTEMBER 9 AND SEPTEMBER 10, 1928.
The doctor attending to my mother said it was the 9th; my mother said it was the 10th. Since the doctor was known to take a nip or two, and since Mama had given birth to seven sons and another daughter before me, the family leaned toward her version of the night’s events.
I loved being born at midnight—that haunting, mysterious hour. Is this the source of the ache of in-between-ness I have always carried inside, assuring a lifelong search for the other? I have lived my life standing on thresholds, in thin places, a life of walking on edges and narrow ledges.
Words still surprise me, even frighten me sometimes. As Pearl Harbor did, and the Battle of the Bulge; as the sight of Hiroshima did when I went there in 1952 on my way to Korea. The talk going on inside my head up to then had the accent of the Deep South—its sights and sounds, its images. From 1952, for over a decade, I lived in a different tongue, in completely different sights and sounds. In wartime Pusan, muddy streets with open sewers lined with cardboard shacks, a mother screaming as I passed, shoving at me her dead baby. The bomb-cratered roads and bridges leading to Seoul, streets and narrow alleys filled with rubble. Devastation co-mingled with beauty, ancient palaces and gardens still intact, April’s cherry blossoms. The smell of a steamy noodle shop, the midnight call of the blind masseuse.
Just as I carried Mississippi with me to Korea, I have carried Korea wherever I have been since then. I was drawn back to work out of New York City in the racial justice struggles of the sixties—the Selma march, anti-Klan marches—on into the anti-Vietnam War movement of the seventies, with the tragedies of Kent State and Jackson State, and the women’s movement of the eighties. From the muddy plantation roads of the Delta to Manhattan’s cavernous avenues, this was my world.
As I write this, I am on a country road again, in another old farmhouse, this one in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It’s where I have written these poems. Sleep often eludes me into the late night hours. Like Mark Twain, I try to write myself out of grief, calling on past memories. I invite in Old Talk, a language I used to know, but now barely understand. I invite the ghosts of small creatures burrowing, of obelisks of light. Light enough to stir the doe, startle the sparrows from their nests. I invite the ghosts of dying stars and the shadows of the Bridegroom Tree.
In the thin places in between dark and light, I invite a humming wire, and the mad dog at bay within my brain. I invite in the panther waiting at the back pasture. I invite in the ghosts of my mother’s shoes.
Sometimes I wonder who I am and where I belong. Then I hear a poem, and I know.
–PEGGY BILLINGS 9/10/28-7/19/2019
GOODBYE TO THE BRIDEGROOM TREE
November 12, 2013
I watched you fall
where you had stood
planted beside the Bridal Tree
nearly two centuries ago.
The sawdust which rose
from where you fell
rode the light drifting down,
covered the circles of your life.
It shone like the cosmic dust
forming the rings of Saturn—
the remains of stars and broken moons.
If it is true
that the earth’s magnetic field
and if it is true
that the cause
lies in the cooling of its inner core of iron,
and if it is true
that in consequence,
polarities will shift—
north becoming south,
south becoming north,
east and west reversing—
then I might be forgiven
when the inner core of me
and the images in my head
wander from pole to pole and I don’t know
where I belong,
and the frozen fields
outside my second-story window
burn in an aurean light,
and the steam locomotive
hisses to a halt and my father steps down
at the end of his run to New Orleans,
puzzled by the cold air and neon sky
and the blank whiteness covering everything.