A contemporary translation of “The Thorn”, by William Wordsworth (1798)
There is a thorn, and it looks old,
wrinkled, sagging, fat,
hard and cold as buried bone.
It’s old and gray and shorter than a child.
Lichens cover its knotted limbs,
its gnarled brow, every joint, every
chin, pressing into the bark, dragging the thorn down.
It spikes out of a dry alleyway like a bee’s stinger.
All the lonely dusty streets surrounding—
penetrated and emptied by metal
gales whenever wind blows—
are bare, resplendent, stony as coffins,
besides this one thorn and
a little muddy pond of water, never dry;
and a hill of moss, sparkling with every
color, hint and hue: olives and cardinals,
pearls and fish scales, meadows, it’s the size of an infant’s grave.
Alone besides this one thorn and muddy
pond and hill of moss and a
woman in a red jacket.
“How’d she get there?
She’s barely more than a child,” you snarl.
“What the hell is she doing?”
She’s crying, I respond. Tears run down her cheeks,
they drop on to her jacket.
She’s there day and night, known to
“Well, what’s she doing there?” You respond, anger tempered,
somewhat, by her pain.
She comes from Texas, college age,
and she’s the only one that haunts those streets, I say.
I might also mention in this world,
of thorn and alley, moss and water,
the angry old guard had their way.
A dead man didn’t make a difference,
old understandings reversed, a legacy cast aside,
by the supreme authority of the land—
it was all for women’s health.
And how she got there, I’ll tell you what I know.
But it’s not much.
It’s more of a guess, because the
woman in the red jacket—
well, she could be any Texas woman.
Her name is Martha Ray, she had
a fling with Stephen Hill,
Hill’s a star and Ray’s a babe,
adored by college council, club baseball, premed society;
but whether he’s a crook and liar, or a sage
and she a porn star or a nun seduced and raped,
or a Spanish major, or a Physics major,
it wouldn’t make a difference.
Steve moved on, and so did Ray,
but when three months had passed and she stayed dry,
burnt like cinder, blood congealed,
the situation clarified.
She was destabilized, they say, but then again
they say a lot of things; they
called her a Slut—and it’s true she slept around a bit—
but they also called her a Bitch, and a Prude,
and a Lying Bitch, and a Lying
Slut. But yes, she stressed and considered all the options.
Only one friend could abide her madness, sad case
for a brain to hold communion with a basket case.
Knocked up, failing classes, hell, she couldn’t pay tuition,
took out loans at her parents’ bidding.
She worked a part-time job too, but that
was the first to slide, and
still she told herself it would be fine and
still she called her younger sister every day and
still she never skipped a class until
250 miles she went, driven by
this one final friend, this one woman that cared.
Meanwhile up in the mountains
and down in the alley where the thorn grows,
All of the sudden it started to snow.
In fucking Texas it started to snow.
She’d have to drive another 250 miles, they told her,
and wait another three weeks. And at that
she cried again.
Now that’s the last I heard of her
before she showed up in the alley.
And there she sits in her red jacket,
crying. Never sighing, few dare go
there, though she’s no more mad than you or I,
only sadder. Still vultures circle,
coyotes prey, robins pray in the morning light,
and when the snow melts in the forceful shine,
a bludgeoned beating from the man upstairs,
fists at the stomach, hands yanking on your
hair, the pond is overfull.
Water gathers, slick and shrill, trembling over the
concrete, it gathers at the roots of the thorn
and the base of the hill of moss.
“So what happened to her?” you ask.
I don’t know. But what difference
does it make? She’s just one in a long list.
She’s no different from the rest, though some
are brainless, most are bright, some will cross
borders and pay the price. Martha Ray did
none of that, I’m sure.
a baby’s ghost is buried there, in the
colored heap of moss. When the wind blows through
the dangling fibers of lichens, lovers’ fingers, lullabies
swim out of the dense teal fabric and into the air
where they mingle with birdsong. And ever since she
went there, the thorn’s growth froze forever.
A statue of a wrinkled bonsai, immigrant
from a foreign land, cast in stone,
made a monument, weighed down with life. Yes, a ghost
is buried there, but that’s just our fancy,
a fantastic trick of the imagination…
She’s the one that’s really buried.
She’s the one that’s really dead.
Though some say she hanged the baby on the tree,
and others that she drowned it in the pond,
I say a doctor did it there, in the street,
in a tempest as the skies broke loose.
Some say the scarlet moss is red
with drops of that poor thing’s blood,
but to kill a newborn! I don’t think she could.
but a fetus, maybe.
Though it was too little too late, in any case.
Regardless, there she sits,
no matter the stage of moon or color of the sky—
sometimes tropic blue, sometimes iron grey,
sometimes the color of blood oranges or baby showers—
no matter if there’s Texas snow or Texas shine,
no matter if the fire ants on the street’s lush side
make their own mound and bite her ankles,
or the sharpened wind whips at her ears.
I can’t know for sure what’s true,
but some things are clear: the thorn is bound
with heavy green moss, the pond is
shallow, rank, and muddy, the mound
whispers infant’s cries and basks
in its glorious sunset hue.
I know by day, and in the silent night,
when all the stars wink clear and bright,
that I have heard her cry.