Installations: Poetry + Sculpture

Girlslife: Artifacts and Testimony


Forum for Contemporary Art now the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, MO


University of Missouri, St. Louis, MO, National Women’s Studies Association Conference

Using a combination of visual art and poetry, Girlslife: Artifacts and Testimony is  a multilayered work that examines the tensions and unease beneath the surface of a girl’s childhood. The site-specific work depicts the female experience from a girl’s viewpoint within the contexts of Midwestern rural culture and the patriarchal family structure. It describes female initiation rites, female bonding, the suppression and sublimation of a young woman’s natural comportment and youthful dreams, her feelings of endangerment and her struggle for an authentic identity. The  found objects bear witness, are changed by time and human use and finally are worked on by me. My process is that of bricolage, taking ideas and forms from multiple sources and recasting them in a new context.

Nancy Rice’s review of Girlslife for Art St. Louis’ publication states, “Lander’s written work has a stark intensity that is as deliberate and chilling as a Bergman film of the 1970s.  Unlike a narration or drama, the poems are each intrinsically complete and can function independently and without the specific context of the complete installation.”

Her Territory

She remembers as a child
finding herself 
in a large, empty room 
with one window.
That summer she watched 
a cloud of dust motes 
pass back and forth 
through the screen
while shadows flickered 
on the rusty mesh. 
One day without warning 
the moon eclipsed the sun.
Standing watch inside the screen,
she saw the plowed fields
and the scarecrow
disappear over the horizon
where in the aura’s glow
a young woman 
walked toward her.
I must be dreaming,  
she said to herself 
but she wasnít sure.  
How could she decide?
Suppose I change 
the screen into a map.
If I succeed, 
I’ll know I’m asleep.
Sheí’d hardly finished speaking
when the screen window 
turned into a map of her own.

Blue-Eyed Charlotte

Over the years Gramp gave up hunting
and took to bringing me along 
on fly fishing trips and naming treks,
his attempt to catalogue and archive 
through my senses and in my head
the names, images, habitats and habits
of most life forms 
within our town’s fifteen-mile radius.

He feared for the great blue heron, 
Poachers swarm the woods,
leave a mess not fit for carrion.  
It vexed him that other species
might reach near-extinction due to human abuse 
as the great blue and trailing arbutus 
had in his life time. He said,
Too few people understand the sense in names.

After I became fluent enough to name 
and to know by sight; birds, wildflowers, animals, 
insects, nests, leaves, tree shapes, 
animal tracks and animal scat, he announced 
it was time I learned to name the trees by their bark.
This was another lesson and test.

In early winter we hiked deep into a swamp forest
where with the imperceptible slowness 
of bone growth, the ice membrane 
that edged the round black pond 
at the heart of the marsh
grew together and thickened.

Standing on a ridge above the lowland 
I watched ground fog lofting itself
through the shrubby osier and cranberry
as it ghosted its way over the tops
of black spruce and tamarack
giving form to the bare bones of distant hardwoods.

Suspended above the landscape
I found it impossible to concentrate
on the specific qualities of each tree bark.
That’s a black gum, he growled.  
Take a hard look at that bark.
No other like it. Touch the bark. Touch it.

He grabbed my hands, 
pressed them against the trunk.
I went through the motions, rubbed my palms 
along the ridged bark memorizing the texture.  
The short blocky plates felt like armor.

It’s like alligator hide, I scrawled in my field book.
Gramp never praised me for my efforts. 
Just this once his lips formed a stiff lipped smile, 
his voice warning me away like barb wire,
Girl, you know more than most grown men. 
Don’t forget it. With these words 
the skin on the ridge of my spine tightened.

A phantom creature foraged 
past the borderland between us.
Something nameless.   
I could hear its hunger in his voice,
see the other eyes flicker behind his eyes 
when I rubbed my palms along the locust’s bark.  

By the time winter set in for good
and the ice on the pond froze 
deep enough for me to cross 
I learned to vacate my body, to float above the trees 
like a blue heron winging its way 
past the hunter’s range. All the while he 
grilled and badgered me to reel off the familiar ones:

Bloodroot, jack-in-the pulpit, bittersweet nightshade, 
virgin’s bower, false rue anemone, bindweed, 
bastard toadflax, loosestrife, showy lady’s slipper, 
kingsnake, swallowtail, sapsucker, black Locust, 
tamarack, damselfly, dragonfly, solitary sandpiper, 
black phoebe, great blue heron, trailing arbutus, 
blue-eyed Charlotte. I will not forget these names.

Father And Their Daughter

This morning I crook my arm out the pickup window
hoping the sun will burn a sleeve line like his.
As we pass my Bible school he accelerates.
I know we’re going to set a headstone.
Don’t tell your mother.
I lean back in the cab crooning,
Little ones to him belong
they are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me, he shouts
swerving through the wrought iron arch 
of Aetna Cemetery.I don’t like to think 
why he stomps the clutch.
Brakes hard.
The sun’s full on Alma Bridge’s brand new angel
when he cracks a stolen grouse egg over its face.
Somewhere nearby is an empty nest,
a lone quail sounding her gathering cry.
I try to hold on to myself
the way I do when he strikes me
but this time something about the light
makes me start to disappear.
Yolk bleeds like a wounded sun,
white slipping down marble cheeks
until it cooks and he pricks the yolk with an awl,
scrapes what he can on a trowel.
Eat it, why don’t you?
He’s had too much warm beer,
that’s why he talks like that.
Okay I will.
Shutting my eyes I sink my teeth into his hand.

Undertaker's Granddaughter

We’re at Einer’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 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 shooes a hound away.
They lift the stretcher in beside me.
A deadman 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.
On her neck she had a port-wine stain
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 hand work,
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.
The night before the baptism 
there was a storm.
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.


This year for Easter we decide 
not to wear hats to church.  
We’ll pierce each other’s ears 
and wear the earrings Aunt Mina left us instead.  
I mark my your ears with a ball-point, 
hold ice until the ear lobe is numb 
then stab the burnt darning needle 
through to the Bible.  
When I jab your right lobe you jump 
ripping the needle out sideways 
as if itís a cheese-wire.  
I try to soothe you. 
I can’t make the pain go away 
and you scream that I’ve hurt you.  
Your cry brings Mother
who takes one look and blames me. 
Sister, you’re oldest 
and ought to think of others first.  
I start to say I’m sorry
but she slaps my face, 
forces a scrub rag soaked
with Lava soap between my teeth
twisting and jamming it
against the back of my throat.
 When I gag she sends me to my room.  
Alone, I feel my body tremble along its faults
as if an earthquake snapped my bones 
without leaving a mark.  
Later I think about your torn ear.  
I wonder if she stopped the bleeding 
or if she noticed you at all. Mother says 
I’ve made it easier for her: 
She takes one set of Mina’s earrings for herself
leaving one pair of gold hoops for two girls. 
Kneeling for Communion wearing last year’s hat 
I think of your ear, its little split cushion, the blood.
I want one, too.


The boys scuff dust 
through the floor of the bridge.
They know which girls hang out underneath
combing each other’s hair, smoking cigarettes.
Deaf to catcalls and whistles
several girls wade the shallows along the pilings.
The wind lifting their skirts,
stirs the willows 
that have grown along the bank
for as long as anyone can remember.
The youngest boys catch a grass snake
sunning itself on the railing.
One of them holds the snake up by its head.
It is still alive.  
Two of the girls step out
from under the bridge to get a look.
One says, Bring it down here, Johnny.
The boy swings the snake.
He keeps swinging until its body
rips off and lands in the river.
The girls stop swatting gnats 
with their willow switches
and watch the body swirl in the current.
The girl with the best view
says something low to the others, 
takes a drag on her cigarette
letting the smoke drift out through her nose.
The rest of the girls start laughing.
Still holding the snake head, the boy 
throws it as hard as he can at the willows.
All that summer the girls 
hole up under the bridge chain smoking,
teasing each other’s hair.

Virgin's Tale

She’s twelve years old
barefoot and bone deep in dust
dozing by the mailbox
dreaming her nipples are breasts,
when sly as a stone out of place 
a gypsy wearing lizard boots struts up
He asks her to show him 
a good fishing hole.

Rubbing a sleeper from her eye
she catches his drift, pictures the fish knife 
tucked in his belt, tells him the back route 
through Schiller’s Bog to Lee’s Pond. 

He cocks his head to one side, 
cups a hand behind one ear, 
the other hand opening an arms length away;
he steps closer, bends toward her, 
Before his fingers
close on her breast
She slices a wish through his heart.
Disappearing into the black depths,
he sinks deep into the current where a spring
enters from the mouth of a cave.
Bright as stars translucent fish surround him, 
behind whose sealed eyes
lie a ransom of trapped light.
Tough as corn silk the fourth of July
she skips a stone,
does a slow dance home.

Within Arm's Reach

Zo Ann’s thirteen sitting by a Christmas tree
peeling a tangerine the color of her hair,
pulling sections apart like flower petals.
She wants to go by the name Starlene Roux,
a waitress she knows at the all-night diner.
There’s a white cotton angel
with a blue light inside on top of the tree.
Colored lights blink behind her father
as he comes in from the garage smelling of gasoline
peeling his greasy clothes away.
She beats him to the frigidaire,
sticks a section of fruit in his mouth.
He laughs, sucking juice,
spitting seeds into her hand.
Zo Ann’s sitting on the porch swing
dreaming about Starlene,
wishing she owned a black bra.
Her father says Star’s a tease, that someone’s 
going to put her away one of these nights.
He says for Zo to sleep with the light on,
not to dream about Star,
not to play with herself,
or let any of the boys.
Nights he falls asleep
a cigarette still burning 
between his fingers,
his cocked shotgun 
within arm’s reach.

A Pair of Herons

The foreman at the knife factory
gave Zo Ann and me notice.  We’re laid-off
until word from management.  Zo Ann says it figures
just when we almost owned our car outright.
Tonight, high on home grape and long days
we perch on the railroad bridge above the Tamarack.
She’s never kept a secret 
and shouts, Our car’s repossessed.
I think it’s the long haul that counts, 
not a two week lay-off.  She cuts me off. 
There are a pair of Herons
nesting out at Grass Lake.
The poachers will swarm.  
beat the bush until someone bags one, 
I say as my neck pricks.
We split the last swig of rot gut.
Suspended in the dark pitching cinders,
listening to rifle shots in the distance
we chant,  Who loves me who loves me not,
and let the empty bottle fall.
I wish on a star 
that our folks stood below,
could read our message,
understand our invisible code.
Zo Ann says that they’re deaf,
afraid of their own shadows, 
and of our thoughts.
We love them we hate them.
The moon’s a bullseye over the river
when somewhere in the back of my mind
I sight a rifle and nail the moon
as if it’s a stop sign on the way out of town.


I walk through the front gate, bold as new brass.
Pale under her gauze veil,
the beekeeper rises from her chair.
I could use some help,  she says,
stepping off the porch
like a bride jumping from a slow train.
Sweating in long clothes, I follow her to the hives
where thousands of buzzing eyes ignore us.
She hands me gloves,
a pith helmet draped with gauze.
You do as I say.
Find the queen, take hold of her left wing like this,
and raise her from the comb
Let her stand on your finger.
Pass one blade of the scissors under her right wing
clip off at least two-thirds.  Don’t pinch her belly.
I take hold of one wing
between my thumb and forefinger
while she clips the other.

Set the queen on the comb. 
The swarm will follow her out.
Cover her with a tumbler.
The swarm will hover.

The way she goes about her business
sets my teeth on edge.
I set the tumbler over the queen,
who flutters in the dust.
The beekeeper waves the wing
at the swarm overhead.
Graceful as a girl, arms raised,
she dances slowly, circling the tumbler.

I can’t stand there.  I waltz up and open my hand.
Regal as a queen, she drops the wing in my palm.
It is weightless, lighter than the communion host.
I don’t know why this comes as a surprise.

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.

Parlor Games

This morning while my sister watched
I kissed the corpse.
I kissed him full on the lips.  She started to cry,
said she’d die first, she was going to tell.
I took a hard look at the man I kissed,
a dirt farmer dressed in his wedding suit.
Tough as cowhide his hands lay at his side
like empty husks.
My sister lied through her teeth like a flat-out wonder,
said I unzipped his pants and stole a peek.
I thought of the farmer dying
alone in a fresh-plowed field,
Now the family sits stiffly on velvet settees
and horsehair chairs.  The victrola bleats a waltz
as my sister and I rise to dance,
my arm circling her waist, her fist in mine.

In the darkened parlor Gramp and Mormor
doze on the horsehair sofa while we keep perfect
time with our careful box-step. When the music dies
Father stubs out his cigarette, rewinds the victrola.

Momor rouses from sleep and opens her eyes.
Everybody deserves to look better than dead,
she says, dabbing rouge on the farmer’s cheeks.
From her love-seat Mama keeps an eye on our waltz.

As Papa ushers the dead man’s family into the parlor
Gramp rises to greet them. His handkerchief 
comes to a perfect point in his pocket
like the tip of a spade working its way out of a coffin.

The last note fading,
I kiss my sister full on the lips,
take a seat and prop my heels on the gout stool.
No one makes a move.

Aunt May's Gypsy Warnings

Child, they’re setting up carnival rides and booths.
If you shoot smart
you’ll win a bamboo cane with a monkey
or a kewpie doll that winks.
Hold tight.
They’ll snatch the prizes back
if you look the other way,
let your hands go limp waiting for change.
I’ve seen them watching your yellow hair.
Don’t listen if they beg.
I talked to one that hung around my kitchen,
said my hair was real spun gold
my braid a dozing snake.
My hands were in the dough
when he pulled my braid down.
What could I do?
Don’t lick the paper cone from the cotton candy.
They’ve touched it.
They never wash or use flush toilets.
Once I kissed a gypsy.
His tongue slipped inside my mouth.
Ever taste a penny?’


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.

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.


A gypsy appeared as a witness under the tent
before an audience of revivalists,
told them she was no one’s sister, mother, wife.
The rest of her life’s story
wrapped in a bundle she carried on her back.
Their faces looked up at her 
like headcheese spoiling under dank glass.
She said after storms birds sang to her 
through broken beaks and along the pavement
animals flattened into stiff hides hummed lullabies.  
She gave them a place in her dreams
and circled their heads with a song.
In the field outside the tent
I stared up at her as if I’d seen a ghost.  
What’s the matter skunk got your tongue?

She crouched before me
like a bind bird after a snow. 
Emptying my pockets
I offered her a turtle shell and a snake shed.
She muttered to herself, the only voice echoing
Through the snake grass and osier. 

On your way on your way,
girl be on your way.
You who are no one’s child
give voice to a necklace of song,
to the only dream you are.

Wive's Tale

In the old time women’s vaginas had teeth in them.
– Anonymous
Among a stand of black mulberries
by the mouth of Grass Lake,
a woman hears wind echo through branches, 
sees smoke rise from a well tended fire
deep in the woods in the heart of the bog.
She dreams the lake is bottomless
that lizard teeth like guardians
line up in rows around the shore
where her many faces surface.