The Sunday Poem: Harvena Richter... from The Innocent Island

Harvena Richter has lived in the same rambling adobe on Candelaria Road in Albuquerque's north valley since 1972. But the Richter family story in the Duke City begins much before that. Her father, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Conrad Richter, sold their small Pine Tree Farm in Pennsylvania and moved to Albuquerque in 1928, looking for a cure for his wife's tuberculosis. His difficulty in trying to make a living here during the depression as a writer is documented by David R. Johnson in Conrad Richter: A Writer's Life and is a "must read" for any struggling writer in Albuquerque today. (The Richters descend from the train in downtown Albuquerque on page 112).

By the early 50's the family had left ABQ. Harvena toured Europe. She tells a fictionalized account of her real trip riding a Vespa from Genoa to Teheran back in 1956! Passage to Teheran, published in 2004, and several other of her books are available online. Her scooter is visible in the cover photo of the book. Simply amazing.

Ms. Richter turns 93 this Saturday. The following poems look back to Pine Tree Farm and are from The Innocent Island (1999).

Happy Birthday!

All your life you go forward,
then comes the day to start the journey back,
unrolling roads like bobbins of thread,
ravelling miles like old sweaters
to reach the place
sealed in your skull.
It's all there,
like mille fleurs in crystal:
the tree towers, the creek holes,
the hide-aways, the sand pit
with gobs of frogs' eggs
like plastic eyes,
the copperhead coiled in the sun
on the sill of the outhouse,
the bloody fox skin nailed
to the barn side, its smell
caustic as skunk.
All's hived away,
sweet, sour, rich, rank
as buckwheat honey....


I see myself as a child.

I have just come back to the farm--
another family lives there.
I move in a mist across
the log bridge, up the lane
where the bittersweet used to hang,
and the chicken grapes.
The old barn holds horses now,
the house has grown,
the woodshed is not there.

I follow the invisible path
past the rhubarb patch
and suddenly see her:
her hair is pulled back,
a single barrette clamps it,
she is wearing
her father's old felt hat.

She turns as if she knows
and gives me a level glance.
She wishes me to go--
I disturb the full sense of her life.
She feels a cold wind blow.

It is she now who is real,
and I the ghost of her future,
the specter she will meet
at the road's turning.

The Island

Five years on a farm that scarcely was a farm--
no animals or fowl inside the barn,
no butcherings. I never even knew
the common barnyard matings.
I made my own mythologies of land and beast,
how spirits lived in every bush and tree,
how creature brought forth creature magically.
O innocent island, ringed with innocence,
it might have risen straight up from the sea
with seventy swans singing.
Sin was no question--everything was whole,
whole as the egg whose shell need not be broken
to know what lies inside.
I palmed that egg, and tipped it back and forth
to feel its yellow sun now rise, now set,
a hidden island in an inland sea.
My eye became that island, yolked in blue:
it swung full circle, missed no sail or fin.
Like a space mariner I reeled from world to world--
each tree, or rock, or flower became an earth:
each was miraculous, each cradled all.

Poetry submissions are welcome. Email The whole Sunday Poem series is available from the front page of the DCF by clicking on The DitchRider in the left-hand sidebar. Poems early in the series are archived under "previous post" at the bottom of The DitchRider blog.

Views: 380

Comment by Stephanie James on March 7, 2010 at 9:23am
Happy Birthday Miss Harvena. Beautiful work.
Comment by Stephanie James on March 7, 2010 at 10:11am
You can only modify the way you think about the caustic skunks. In some way, they were necessary, no? make you who you are? I have much practice in that arena. And the work goes on...and on.
Comment by Richard V on March 7, 2010 at 11:25am
i get the sense of a poet who weighs the importance of each word she uses, like a monk constructing a rock garden. "meeting" is haunting, and beautiful. lovely work.
Comment by Clifton Chadwick on March 7, 2010 at 12:52pm
Thanks for sharing this work - and for sharing about a fascinating individual in our midsts.
Comment by cathyray on March 7, 2010 at 3:27pm
beautiful & very moving
Comment by Margaret Randall on March 9, 2010 at 9:44pm
I was traveling so didn't read these poems until now. They are stunning. It is good to see three poems by a single poet, gives a fuller sense of the body of work. "Unrolling roads like bobbins of thread" is so evocative. This is truly a birthday treat--for all the rest of us! Thank you.
Comment by Merimee Moffitt on March 9, 2010 at 9:54pm
Harvena, So pleased to see you again. i was your student long ago--you talked of your father whom I adored for "The Light in the Forest" which helped me teach teens for years--we all loved that book--and your poems are so beautiful. I must have absorbed something from you back then, if not, then now. Thank you for your work. Merimee Moffitt UNM '89 ps I was an older student then. I thought of you this term as I started teaching a poetry class.
Comment by Merimee Moffitt on March 9, 2010 at 9:54pm
and happy birthday, Saturday
Comment by Jeanne Shannon on March 13, 2010 at 7:19pm
Happy Birthday again, Harvena. So nice to be with you and drink champagne toasts this morning! I remember what a wonderful teacher you were at UNM.

To anyone reading this comment and interested in Harvena's book, Passage to Teheran, I am the publisher. I was so pleased to be able to bring this story into print. The book is available from me or from

Jeanne Shannon


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