“Salt for the Stain,” a poem
Summer J. Hart is an interdisciplinary artist from Maine, living in the Hudson Valley, New York. Her written and visual narratives are influenced by folklore, superstition, divination, and forgotten territories reclaimed by nature. She is the author of the micro-chapbook Augury of Ash (Post Ghost Press). Her poetry appears in Waxwing, Northern New England Review, Third Point Press, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation. Summer is the 2021 Land Acknowledgement Writer for The 3rd Thing Press, from where her first full-length poetry collection Boomhouse is forthcoming in 2023.
Why did you choose to title this poem “Salt for the Stain?”
SH: Salt is both practical and magical. Throwing salt over your left shoulder will ensure good luck. Shaking it over a bloodsucker will release its teeth, shrivel it up like the Wicked Witch of the West. Salt will melt snow for tires, cure a canker, clear slugs, absorb a spill. Salt as antiseptic. Salt as amulet. And stain for the stain.
Themes of whitening run through this poem: wipe that table cloth white, blot the baby, milk teeth in a locket, laundry bleached by sunshine. Whitening is also what the church and state tried to do when they forbade Indigenous people from speaking their Native languages. This poem is, in part, an elegy for my grandmother, Mary Metallic, and that was part of her experience.
MR: Lines such as “The first tongue to catch the new language is a rotten egg” bring levity in somber moments. How does childhood nostalgia factor into “Salt for the Stain”?
SH: I come from a family tradition of rather dark storytelling. Death and humor go hand-in-hand. But, regardless of the tragedy, the retelling leaves us in stitches. I use rhyming language and nostalgic images to steady the current of loss.
MR: How did the length of this poem shift from its initial to final drafts?
SH: I wrote this poem in my head many times. First, while driving back to New York after what I knew would be my last visit with my grandmother. Then, while walking in the woods and observing leaves whittled down by insects. Again after scolding my dog out of the garden where my mom had planted my great grandmother’s yellow iris. Once typed, the length didn’t change much between drafts.
MR: In the final lines of the poem, the speaker asks, “What distance is left between breaths?” What was your intention behind incorporating such heavy white space throughout your piece?
SH: The white space can be thought of as interstitial—the space between breaths, waking and sleeping, life and death. As she slipped in and out of lucidity, my grandmother knew who her loved ones were, but not when we were. We shape-shifted, traveled in time for her. Ghosts resurrected themselves. My grandfather was a logger and riverman who was notorious for the catlike way he walked the edges of the log boom—above the water. Adults rewound into children. She called for her mother, as if she were a child. And then she only spoke “Indian.”
tooth on a string in a tooth shaped locket
knotted by thirds, this curl in her pocket
Loss, like holes bleached through laundry, is bright. So bright. What do we preserve? Why? White shoes with their tiny white laces? It won’t bring him back. If you keep his tooth in a locket will you hear his voice inside?
The back slashes with (five-character spaced) represent breaks in thought. A turnaround. Something unexpected is remembered / then forgotten. The white space is a visual cue for pacing—gives the reader a sense of time speeding up, slowing, reversing, and then just being.
MR: You use italics twice in the poem, and they seem to communicate different tones and scenes. Was there a specific memory or image that inspired these moments?
SH: Wipe that tablecloth white
That line has many connotations for me, both personal and overarching. My grandmother kept an immaculate house. Always. But she was still a “Dirty Indian” in the eyes of the town. My grandfather was gone from May to October on log drives and then spent all winter at bars. For a time, she lived with and cared for her ailing mother-in-law, but when the old lady passed, my great uncle put her belongings on the lawn, changed the locks, and left her homeless. Her four children scattered: Squaw. Animal. Brown. Red Man.
MR: What is it like for you to read this poem out loud?
SH: I wrote this poem after visiting with my grandmother in an end-of-life care facility. She was ninety-nine and had slipped fully into dementia. It was the only time in forty-four years she didn’t reach for my hand, the only time she didn’t greet me, as if surprised, “Oh Summer!” the “S” a slight whistle under her tongue.
I cry every time I read this poem. The last time I read it out loud was at her burial. Rain was falling sideways. I shouted the words to the clouds.
When my grandmother died, my aunts left a blanket, food, and water in the woods in case her traveling spirit grew weary. I wanted to honor her as well. I drew her portrait from a photograph taken on our last visit and carefully ribboned, or fringed it, with a blade. I suspended the drawing between two trees in the woods near my house.
When the wind is still, her face settles.
When the wind lifts, she disappears into the landscape.
This drawing is an accompaniment to the poem, “Salt for the Stain.”
Summer J. Hart, What Words. 36” x 32,” graphite on Tyvek, hand-cut, strung between trees
4. Emma Stevens singing “Blackbird”, by The Beatles, in Mi’kmaq: