Installations: Poetry + Sculpture

Ghosts From the Center of the Earth


Elliot Smith Contemporary Art, St. Louis, MO

Ghosts from the Center of the Earth is a site-specific installation incorporating poetry and objects. The human characters whose stories are given voice through the poems are  composites and are as much a part of the rural landscape as are native wild flowers, wildlife, trees, rocks and the seasons themselves. The found objects I use are changed by time and human use and finally are worked on by me. My process is akin to bricolage, taking ideas and forms from multiple sources and recasting them in an individual vocabulary.

In the St. Louis Post Dispatch Carol Ferring Shepley states, “Jane Birdsall-Lander’s installation, titled Ghosts from the Center of the Earth, brings gasps from viewers. The room is beautiful, measured out with repetitive elements that seem both sacred and ordinary.”

Undertaker's Granddaughter

We’re at Einar’s Pond until midnight
catching frogs for bait and watching mayflies hatch.
Heading home I fall asleep wrapped with my star quilt
in the back of the hearse.
Next thing Gramp is out of the car shouting.
The rear door flings open.
Someone unrolls me
without asking, without saying a word. 
Staring through the dark
I press flat as a shadow against the window,
while my edges blur and cool like the sun’s rim
during winter dusks.
Male voices rumble 
like stones turning underground.
I can’t make out Gramp’s voice
from the others.
In the glare of headlights
two men with bloody hands keep mumbling.
All I can hear is sorry
but their eyes flicker like lit matches
as they spit and pass a bottle;
I hear a shovel scrape the pavement.
Someone shoos a hound away.
They lift the stretcher in beside me;
A dead man wrapped in my quilt,
a bucket of scared bull-frogs 
singing jug-o-rum jug-o-rum,
the long ride home.


 A widow came to my baptism,
a distant cousin of my mother’s.
She had a port wine stain on her neck
shaped like the palm of a hand.
She said one night before I was born
she spoke my name in another tongue.
She said she knew
what the future held for me.
I heard her tell my mother
and the other women
while they cut a pattern for my baptism gown
out of a linen sheet.
I thought I could see the future too.
I saw myself holding court
for the young hands
in from the fields.
The widow said she dreamt 
three nights in a row
of a girl in white 
walking behind a plow.
Keeping their eyes 
on their handwork,
trying not to prick their fingers
they made no sign they heard.
Too many lean years,
failed crops plowed under;
too many cold nights
had gone before.
By morning water rose three feet over the bridge.
The preacher held the ceremony anyway.
At his command I leaned back against his arm,
phantom disappearing out from under me,
river coursing through:
I saw a sturgeon cruise 
the silt kicked loose by his boots,
I saw myself hanging sheets out to dry
on a night so black no man would come home.
And I saw the woman with the birthmark
touch my dress to her lips
like the dark sheets of her own bed
while the men in the family
dragged the river for my body

Northern Orchid

Native orchids are so rare now
that their dwelling places
should be kept secret.
Wildflowers of Michigan
Feeding the fire with clumps of moss
I crouched on the stream bank under a clay overhang.
Mormor hunched beside me.   
Odors lapped through us 
of decayed skunk cabbage and peat,
scraped husks, marsh grass, silt.  
For the hundredth time in ten years
she told me the wild orchid
pressed between the pages of her Bible haunted her.
Each time she showed me the brittle bloom,
stains like rusty moons 
marking two pages of Deuteronomy,
she told me as a girl my age 
she tried to transplant a lady’s slipper from the peat
but the plant wouldn’t take root outside the bog.
This she divined as an omen
and hiked into deep woods each spring
to wait for the orchids’ return
in their dwelling place along the creek bank.
As the flame took hold I watched
frost vaporize in amber light,
the old one on her hands and knees
searching for orchid shoots
where they broke through dead leaves and loam.
This was in early spring.  That evening
dusk fell like a guillotine
and silent as a moth the old woman disappeared.

Alone among scrub fur and green willow 
I followed her.
In the pooled stillness of the bog, I saw
the incomplete skeletons of crawdads
shine like stars buried in the peat, 
the moon reflected in Tamarack Creek. From the 
shadows the nocturnal eyes of snails kept watch
like the eyes of those who have
passed this way before,
their footprints cold as stone,
their silent voices humming within me.


Aqua’s nothing like blue ribbon jam.
Blue jay, blue cheese, bluebell, Blue Cross
nothing like them.
Sky and sea in a country
I’ve never seen.
Cool, wet, inviting.
His aqua Chevy,
my chino skirt pegged tight
hiked up while I lie on my back
in the back seat.  Radio, Rocking alive
with Jim Barone from the Motor City.
Both of us hearing a cicada’s whine
like hot wind through high wire.
His work pants are blue-black.
Blue racer, blue baby, bruise, I forget.
Sometimes when I’m at the ironing board, T.V. off,
I believe I hear a cicada in August,
I’m sleeping alive
under a field of bloodroot and wild melon.

Blood Gravy

During the war Aunt May
was left standing at her kitchen sink
holding a piece of honey bread on her tongue,
peeling onions and staring out the window
while a pot of blood gravy simmered.
That first spring
she turned her mirror against the wall 
and worked the farm like a man.
One day on her way toward the house
she saw Christ’s face in her kitchen window screen.
When she looked closer it was an old woman’s face.
The next day she invited three young men for supper.
After they soaked up the last gravy with bread
and wiped their mouths on their sleeves,
one said he saw his dead mother in the window,
one said he saw Christ,
one said he saw nothing but a window screen
that hadn’t been stretched tight on its frame
and he’d be around about four o’clock
the next afternoon to fix it

My Mother's Ghost

The foreman at the glove factory
gave my father a guinea hen
in trade for a fish knife.
Father kept that chicken as a pet
let it roost in the eaves of the tool shed.
At dusk when he walked through the gate
the hen danced in the dust at his feet
like my mother’s ghost after a hard frost.
The night father was laid off from the knife factory
he wrung the guinea’s neck.
We served supper late that night.
I couldn’t eat.
Father ate his biscuits dipped in blond gravy.
He told a story about his favorite hound,
how one night the dog ran off for good.
He never told me he was laid off
that night or any other.
He told me when he slit her neck
the guinea spun in the dust at his feet
splattering blood on my mother’s white washed fence.
When he pushed his chair back from the table
the scraping noise reminded me of a trap door
opening in the floor of an empty barn.

Beauty and Sorrow of an Unmade Bed

In the universe before this one
we each float in the amnion,
night swimmers without a star to guide us.
In the next world light, a brightness we didn’t expect,
the light that opens and closes
certain wild flowers in one day;
light spreading like brush fire 
through the tall grass of our dreams
blown down and scattered,
where we circle and tramp spreading our scent,
marking a niche for the night,
inviting the wild totems of our tribe.
It is always winter when our naked hands
part the cold sheets and we climb
into the white envelope, smoothed and sealed
with our own hands each morning.
In the pale night-garden we till with our hands,
the same garden we tended each night as children;
attended now by lovers 
whose hands could pass for our own,
we are risen light, light
following its natural course,
light like the sound of a tree
falling in the forest.
This morning we crawl out from the tousled sheets
leaving intact their folds and fissures,
a landscape specific as a fingerprint.
In the sepia tinged cave of my dreams 
there is the vision of an unmade bed
carved of marble, a grove of leafless granite trees
marking a hollow darkness, the disappearance 
of flesh and bone, the familiar 
encroachment of light.

Dawn Funeral

Following an uncle’s accordion hymn
my family drifts through the iron arch of the cemetery
where scrubbed gravestones 
state their silent litany of names.
Mute as night birds the children scatter,
lie down in the wet grass while the grownups sing, 
remembering the sad music of their own childhoods,
dust swept under the parlor rug
before the family gathers.
I think about my cousin’s son
lying in the small white coffin,
about my youngest screaming my name in her sleep.
The sky turns light.   Shack smoke drifts up
from the squatters’ camp nearby and steam rises
from the fresh dug grave.  Awash in ground fog
bathtub madonnas stand stranded in their grottos.
No one is alone or unblessed
with what haunts each of us.
While the preacher says a final prayer
I watch his reflection waver
in the toe of the undertaker’s black boot.
When the undertaker gives the sign
four men lower the casket into the ground, 
my cousin steps to the edge of the grave.
The adults form a circle around them,
around the coffin that gleams
like a vein of silver in a strip mine.
The sun burns through the vapor,
we sing a favorite hymn,
take turns shoveling dirt into the grave. 
After the ground’s leveled and raked for seed
we drift off to gather the children.
The youngest have pulled their shoes and socks off
and are licking dew from blades of grass.