In 2007, Susan Edwards Richmond was invited to become Fruitlands’ first Poet-in-Residence. She curated poems in the legacy of the Alcotts, Emerson, and Thoreau, and increased awareness of the way the land inspired verse and evoked a tradition of writing plein air, or out of doors. But her most lasting contribution has been the poems she created writing on the museum grounds.
As Poet-in-Residence, Susan observed bumblebees tumbling into clover and pines tossing in the wind. She wrote from portraits and landscapes in the Picture Gallery and from the minds of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott down by the Farmhouse. But it was the Shakers who most captured her imagination. The Shaker rejection of worldly attachment fascinated her, and she began to study the Shaker House and other objects with new intention. Soon she was exploring Shaker community artifacts in town, and when she discovered Fruitlands’ collection of Shaker journals, she knew she had found her project’s heart.
Susan made it her task to envision Fruitlands through its Shaker inhabitants, a people so stoic that the slightest betrayal of emotion—dissatisfaction with a rule, admission of sickness or frailty, casual flirtation—was rare. Excerpting from journals and testing the voices and sentiments of individual Shakers transformed her. Her poetry collection, Increase, is the culmination of this artistic vision.
“. . . our condition was a barren one, but not entirely hopeless, for we could, if we would, take children and bring them up in the principles of truth and righteousness.”
--Olive Chandler Journal, 12-04-1868
My mother staked my life on faith, walked
twenty miles to Harvard with her ninth
month belly stretched like a water barrel.
I was that rare thing, an infant, everyone
wanted. But do not look to me as a model
of purity. I was born out of necessity,
same as any. Listen to Elder Brooks.
By four I was already shelling peas,
at seven in the cow barn milking and churning.
My mother may have worked hardest, grateful
for inclusion, but I followed in her footsteps
of industry freely, like any Sister, like you,
Olive, who joined at three, or you, Eliza,
after a father’s death. Like young Cornelia
Johnson brought back from Boston or
the Nuttings, who set their own house ablaze
while parents toiled in the field. Children
are always a risk, no matter their origins.
We raise them toward whatever Light we can,
offer bread and work, a place at Meeting
until they choose, they choose,
themselves, and cannot be chosen.