Spencerian Hand
     A cursive script invented by Platt Rogers Spencer, who after 1848 energetically
promoted it, but which fell from favor as the century wore on.   

The three, in line and threading the house,
Talking ahead so only sometimes heard behind,
Now take the stairs to what they call the Plunder Room—
The grandmother and two great-aunts, climbing and talking,
Correcting till agreed, then finding somewhere else to disagree.
They are rummaging the past as it was packed 
In a trunk thought to hold a book
They have cajoled each other up the steps to find.
All day they’ve argued over names,
With, “Don’t you think,” and “I’m not sure,”
So now they’re settling the who-what-when-of-then—
Two in their eighties, one ninety-something,
With no one older to pin her down
On just what “something” means.
One will lose her sight and spend her last years
Baby-talking a parakeet kept close to keep her calm.
The other two will die stoically composed,
Dry-eyed, handing out advice, able to joke.

But what has got them upstairs in the heat today,
Topping the landing of steep steps
That scale their rambling nineteenth-century house,
Is a book by boys going to war, sonnets,
Signed in 1861 and addressed
To Miss Parina Victoria Parks,
A girl almost sixteen, so a child really.

And now the oldest has the book and turns,
Opening the homemade binding to a maze
Of ink that is more threads than words,
Poems scripted in the ornate style
Of children taught Spencerian and filled
With all the lofty business of honor and goodbye.

The dry heat of the top floor is as stifling
As the false gallantry of these teenage boys
So ripe for death. And death is what they’ll get,
All but two: those the Pritchetts, gaunt brothers,
Each coming back an amputee
So later the locals will say of them—
“And the Pritchetts got but one hand ’tween the two.”

Perhaps it is the sheer number of names
That occupies these women taking turns
Reading to each other in the attic heat
That, or the awkwardness of what they read—
Verse in a script more flourishing
Than legible, though earnest enough,
Earnest out to the end of every overwritten line.
Or too, maybe what holds is simply seeing
The young this caught in all they cannot know.

And sixteen-year-old Parina Victoria,
Recipient of so many poems,
Who sent her daughters up so many steps for facts?
She bore six children and aged into such portraits
Of frank concentrated stare as now
It is difficult to see her ever a girl
Excited by parties or laughing at boys
More full of words than sense for what words meant.

But of the poems opened now and read aloud—
And should my fate in some late hour be, 
Or I fall silent in that shadowed vale
And honor lay my life before eternity—
These humor and hurt with their expectancy.
It is the Pritchetts have the first few pages.
And then there are those following,
Boys signing all that is about to happen,
When “the quick-killed fared the best”—
As years later, and working at great pains,
The one hand would struggle to make clear.  end