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Bertha Rogers reads from Heart Turned Back

I heard Bertha Rogers read at Zinc Bar on the 19th of November, and it was one of the best readings I’ve been to in a long time, much like the woman herself, down to earth and sublime. She grew up in rural Iowa so her work is close to the earth, to the plants and animals that roam and grow above, and those of us who rest below, who’ve come before. One gets the sense of where she comes from and what she knows in an early poem called

The Adirondacks

The mountain forest
is a graveyard and a nursery,
its trees dying and living,
its trees growing and falling.

This tilted tamarack
is practicing to die,
forcing itself to fall,
in years of stages,
down to death,
in the style of tree-suicides.

The tree has no gift for dying:
it hangs on,
its bark enduring the pain
inflicted by woodpeckers.

One day the tamarack
will fall across the rust trail
crashing in eon-time,
its passing heard only by other trees,
who, having heard,
will hasten slowly
to plant themselves in its corpse.

At the Zinc Bar, Bertha read recent translations from the Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon riddles that were a lot of fun to guess. In this particular post, I’m going to feature the poems she reads from her book, Heart Turned Back. If you don’t know it, I’m happy to introduce it to you now.

The Future

There was a great tree, gigantic old oak,
across the lane’s ditch, just before a fence
that outlined the bleak, snapping-turtle creek—
Darkness stirred there, like a snake, through green.

We children invented futures in that marled
palisade, adopted acorn babies—
infants who did not cry, complain, whine;
who required no thrashings.

In this present, this not, lawns are unmowed,
troughs rife with weeds, and despond,
dust blowing up leaves like accusers’ voices.

The oak, its pocketed offspring are gone,
seeds flown downward, questions unanswered.


Always in a hurry, that shape—its parallels boxed
yet propelled, navigating an unresistant deep—

The ’59 Chevy, Flamingo Pink, sharply finned
ship, belonged to my boyfriend’s father. And
wasn’t it unique?—bench seat angled back, just
the right petting pitch, brazen windows cracked to
let in Iowa’s 30-below cold (we’d heard sad
stories about other winter lovers who, heater on,
forgot). The midnight road, frozen, flat, north to
south, silently aimed at Orion, his burning belt.

Our farmhouse was axis-bent, like Dorothy’s, by
a long ago cyclone, the lean-to kitchen precarious.
Upstairs, our bedroom walls inclined to eaves, and
the coal shed, out back, graded itself in slanted
ranks. Was that where I learned momentum (I was
startled, once, to see myself in a city window, head
ahead of torso, diving into the noisy sidewalk);
was this the source of my rush to the end of things?

That boy, sweetly flat topped, Old Spiced, pinned
willing me to the herringbone upholstery while I,
craving his Viceroy kisses, upleaned at him. Our
breath flared like Northern Lights on the audacious
vehicle’s windshield. But that boy wasn’t enough:
I was in a hurry, on course, requiring distance.

He—no doubt a fine upright citizen in some
Midwestern town—seems to lean against
the car’s tropical sheen. He drags on his cigarette,
stubs it out, and, opening the sloped door, waves
goodbye; unlined eyes calm, eternally smiling.

Turkey Buzzard

Unable to lie, the vulture points out truth:
he descends to scavenge tread-deaths,
the fox’s spoils. Discrete as an undertaker,
he swallows all but the bones.

After dining, he stands a moment,
staring into the open, stiffens his wings
around his torso like a penitent
fixing a hair shirt: then maneuvers
his earth-ugly bulk up, away from his work.

End feathers lifted, span eagle-wide,
the sin eater transmutes, he becomes the sky’s
most exalted fixture, an angel
risen out of something’s last long pain.

In parts of Medieval England, after a death, the body was laid out with a plate of food upon its chest. Local outcast, the “sin eater,” was paid to eat the food, the act symbolically granting absolution.

For the Girl Buried in the Peat Bog,
Schleswig, Germany, First Century, A. D.

She always walks
the dark world, head skewed
to the cry of some sorrowing bird,
left arm outflung,
right enfolding the birch branches
that arranged her death.

They blinded her
with a band woven from the colors
of fire and sun and soil, they led her
to shallow waters and made her lie down.
They laid a plain stone
over her nakedness.

Her eyes closed
from the force of color and her face—
delicate, forever fourteen—
forgot her lover; found
in the long violence before dying,
the expression of light.

Deliver her,
sight restored, to her northern gods.
Let this child’s body grow back
into the earth; eyes rest
on luminescent roots,
her final darkness.


Heart Turned Back is published by Salmon Poetry. You can check them out here:



When Bertha Rogers moved to the Catskills twenty-five years ago, the one thing she really missed a lot was the easy access she had to poetry readings in New York City, and having a desire for a community of poets around her—She’d begun writing poetry in 1986—began to host poetry readings at her home, obviously filling a need because people immediately began to show up, and out of this enthusiasm Bright Hill Center grew, a place where poets, including me, have come to read, and listen to other poets; there is also a summer camp for kids, art exhibits, a library, and Bright Hill Press too. You can hear Bertha talk all about it here. It’s a great story.


Bertha Rogers and me

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