Seedlip and Sweet Apple
by Arra Lynn Ross,
Milkweed Editions, 2010,
95 pages, paper, $16,
Buy the Book
About a decade ago, as part of a college course on American communal societies, I attended a lecture by Frances Carr, then an Eldress in the Maine Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake. With my strictly textbook knowledge of the Shakers — of the religious sect’s flight from persecution in eighteenth- century England, its strict dictum of abstinence, its devotion to work and simplicity — I was surprised at what struck me most about Eldress Frances’ talk: her sensuousness. As she spoke of her favorite childhood chore, helping make candies for sale in the community’s store, she lingered in loving, luscious description of dipping caramels and figs into warm chocolate. What I heard in her voice, speaking of such simple things, was ecstasy, and in that moment I gained new insight into a religion mostly — and mistakenly — known for its austerity.
The ecstatic worship of the Shakers suffuses the poems of Seedlip and Sweet Apple (Milkweed, 2010), an incantatory debut volume in which Arra Lynn Ross channels the voice and spirit of the Shakers’ founder, Mother Ann Lee. With grace and affection, these poems exalt in the sacredness of food, nature, and the human bodies that receive the word. Ross renders Ann’s spiritual joy luminous, tactile, and present in the commonest stuff, as sung in the creation praise of “Learn to Sing by Singing”:
the loved, my beloved — light in the bone, tender green,
the diner bell ringing; aprons on the line — yellow muslin
and green. . . .
the love, lemon and rind.
Ross guides us through three phases of Ann’s life and work. The first section, “The Word of Life,” is set in the Manchester,
England of her youth, where she felt an early aversion to marriage, buried four children, experienced her spiritual awakening and visions, and was incarcerated by hostile authorities. With a small band of Shakers, including her brother William, a blacksmith, she sailed for America in 1774; in the book’s second section, “The New World,” Ross writes of their arrival in New York City and their resettlement, two years later, on land near Albany. Finally, in the section “Journey of the Word,” Ross moves into the Shakers’ missionary efforts throughout New England, finally bringing us to Ann’s death in 1784.
Throughout this arc, Ross gives equal attention to the mythic and the workaday, conjuring Ann’s first visions with primordial strangeness and intensity. Here, Ann has flown inside Jesus’ lips:
Words swim from our mouth, thwacking hard tails against
teeth; they fall at our feet, and the poor, with bent heads
and dry hands, gather them in woven baskets.
Elsewhere, she lists off the quotidian drudgeries of life in Manchester: “Ten potatoes, six shirts to scrub — and dirty linens, dirty linens are never through — ashes, bread, urine — .” In the same poem, “Bring Thy Gift to the Altar,” she balances that toil with the promise of Ann’s visions, marrying prophesy with common things:
“Joy.” A ewe, an olive grove.
“I will not leave you comfortless.” Blue iris, hyacinth, an
egg under the leaves.
“No more the anguish.” A thing much whiter than an egg.
In the passage above, Ross pairs the words of Jesus, from the Gospels, with fragments of Sappho, and it is exemplary of the rich array of sources and influences she draws upon, from Shaker songs, lore, and written Testimonies to historical accounts and documents. To convey the tenor of Ann’s England, she fills “The World’s Course” with ads from the Manchester Mercury (for “Dr. Lowther’s Specific Powders and Drops,” “A Match of Cocks,” and a runaway apprentice with “a touch of the Evil on the right side of her face”), and in “Manchester Constables’ Log” lists arrests (including that of Ann Lee, for “willfully and contemptuously / in the Time of Divine Service / disturbing the congregation”).
Later, there is the bounty of New World: In “Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock,” common names from a glossary of colonial terms impart the nourishing texture of their life in America, as Ann calls out for communion through things:
Bring me your lanterns, lightings,
your beds of chaff and flock, crocks of jam
and salted pork, your caddis, your holland
and huckabuck, duroy and yellow nankeen,
your hatchel, hackle, heckle and flax,
your warm loaves on the peel. . . .
Like an agile and generous spirit, Ross slips between several characters’ voices as she weaves Ann’s myth. We hear William tell of gifting apples to housewives on missionary trips; of being shy of the young Sisters’ reverence and slipping away to the forge, to the wordlessness of heat and iron. In “Hezekiah Hammond Speaks,” we hear a “winter Shaker” (one who stays only through the hard months) wonder at his sudden helplessness to go, once spring came.
And of course we hear Ann, in both verse and prose poems, speaking to many: Recounting burials and births; telling a parable of hens and plums to a youngster struggling with faith; recalling, in old age, what gave her joy — moss, song, rosehip tea. The result is a work that radiates with the voice of Ann and her fierce, sure, rapturous faith.
Today, Ann’s legacy eases ever more steadily into the realm of art and scholarship. Eldress Frances, now 83, is one of only three remaining Shakers at Sabbathday Lake. More the blessing, then, to have Ann’s story raised in such a joyous and visceral form.
A wise and wondrous exploration of how the spirit lives in the world, Seedlip and Sweet Apple slips us within Ann’s fervent skin, and lets us feel her flush.
— Megan Grumbling