Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste

Prologue

Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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The Sphinx of 22nd Place

March 2, 2016

Reworked from a 2012 post.

 

In 2005 Mrs. Chatterbox and I decided to explore urban living; we bought a hundred year old house on Northwest 22nd Place in downtown Portland. The neighborhood, dotted with late Victorian houses, had a shabby chic quality. Our street was slightly run down but our realtor convinced us to overlook the decay.

 

The area was adjacent to the trendy shops and restaurants of Northwest 23rd only a block away. Our street had seen its ups and downs over the years but our realtor told us it was about to experience gentrification. By gentrification he must have been referring to all the money we would need to invest to keep our house from falling down.

 

Not long after moving in I decided to explore our new neighborhood; I made a closer inspection than I had before purchasing our home. I walked a hundred yards until 22nd place ended at Burnside, a crowded thoroughfare lined with tattoo parlors, flop houses and cheap restaurants, a far cry from the trendy establishments only a few blocks away. I quickly began to question the local color Mrs. C. and I had decided to immerse ourselves in.

 

As I retraced my steps home I paused in front of a house half a dozen doors from ours. The structure was rundown, the elaborate trim and molding in need of attention. Weeds sprouted from the rain gutters on the roof. But I was intrigued by the plaque near the sagging porch. Along with a picture of a winsome woman it read: Hazel Hall House.

 

I was determined to learn more about Hazel Hall and asked around. No one was aware of her, not college kids renting cheap rooms or folks old enough to have waved when Lewis and Clark when passed through. I began to think of Hazel Hall as a mysterious sphinx, and I wanted to know more about the person behind the enigmatic face.

 

I decided to Google her and discovered that Hazel Hall was an Oregon poet who died in 1924. Little was written about her but I managed to pick up a few facts. Hall was born in 1886. As a young girl she moved to Portland from Minnesota, but at the age of twelve she contracted scarlet fever and used a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

 

According to Wikipedia, Hall was an exuberant, unusually sensitive, and imaginative child. Like Emily Dickinson, who had died several years earlier, she would live out her life in an upper room of her family’s home. To help support her mother and two sisters, Hall took in sewing and gainfully occupied herself embroidering the sumptuous fabrics of bridal gowns, baby dresses, altar cloths, lingerie, and Bishop’s cuffs that would figure so lushly in her poems. Hall took up writing poetry only when her eyesight began to fail. What must it have been like, I wondered, to sew dresses for brides from wealthy families when she herself would never marry and have a family of her own?

 

Armed with this information, I walked back to Hazel Hall House and examined it more closely. An attempt had been made to create a memorial to her in an empty lot beside the house, an unkempt spot where a house had probably burned down. On a path now used as a shortcut to a nearby Goodwill Center, three granite slabs had been placed with Hall’s poems. The words on two were covered with moss and graffiti, but the third was legible.

 

 

 

After reading the poem I turned around and glanced at Northwest 22nd Place, trying to see it through the eyes of a young woman, confined to a wheelchair and trapped in that upstairs bedroom, imagining a world far away from this shadowy street. Her gifts with needlework and words must have been meager compensation for her limited mobility, isolation and loneliness. Still, she managed to transform her grief into poems of remarkable originality and durability.

 

Hazel Hall was in her twenties when she began writing poetry. She died in her thirties. Shortly before her death she published a collection of poems called Walkers. (Interesting since she couldn’t walk.) She didn’t live long enough to hear critics call her: The Fresh Voice of Female Poetry in America. Her work drifted into obscurity, her stanzas obliterated like the words on the slabs beside her crumbling house. But words can withstand the vicissitudes of fortune when they are stitched to truth and honesty.

 

Sphinxes can be dug out of the sand. Houses can be restored and granite slabs cleaned, but poems are only immortal while they live in memory. Hazel Hall deserves to be remembered.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

23 Comments
How sad. But amazing someone like that lived just down the street from you. Your post today has helped her words to continue living.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on March 2, 2016
I think she should have some archive box or something at a nearby local library. This kind of history should be preserved. People like you are important to those who are not as curious!
By: Tabor on March 2, 2016
What an amazing woman!! Don't you wish you could have known her?
By: fishducky on March 2, 2016
It's not exactly the way I think of the term, but is it poetic justice that she be discovered again just a hundred years later?
By: Tom Sightings on March 2, 2016
I love it when someone takes the time to find out about something or someone that should be remembered. She has a beautiful if not haunting face. I am glad you showcased her one poem here and where she used to live. I wonder if the city should not be informed about one of their "stars."
By: Birgit on March 2, 2016
A sensitive though powerful post. Your last three lines are elevating. Thank you for taking the time to discover Hazel Hall and then to share her with us.
By: Tom Cochrun on March 2, 2016
Would be interesting to find out if Multnomah County Library has any of her poems on file--and whether in your rehab of the old house you found an artifact or two of Hazel's life. Did you ever make it to the attic storage? And who organized the memorial park? I walk by there once in a while, wish for a bench and some inspiration from Hazel.
By: Jo on March 2, 2016
Your last three lines are poetry themselves. I hope Hazel has a special place of recognition at the Central Library
By: Kathe W. on March 2, 2016
What a fascinating story and woman. Thank you for sharing your discovery with us.
By: LL Cool Joe on March 2, 2016
Very well done.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on March 2, 2016
Lovely story and a lovely poem.
By: Catalyst on March 2, 2016
What a heartbreaking story but one that I am glad you uncovered and told. Through you, she lives again via a medium she couldn't even imagine.
By: Arkansas Patti on March 2, 2016
Wouldn't it be great if you had a northwest version of the Long Island Medium? You could ask if that li'l gal knows that you appreciate her works.
By: Val on March 2, 2016
Maybe what we consider her "sad life" wasn't so sad after all.
By: Pixel Peeper on March 2, 2016
She made the most of what she did have. That's always inspiring to me.
By: messymimi on March 2, 2016
She has a beautiful face and even more beautiful way with words. Thanks for a fascinating glimpse into her life.
By: jenny_o on March 2, 2016
What a lovely tribute to a talented woman. I have never heard of Hazel Hall until today and I am a better for it. Thank you for sharing, Stephen. Much appreciated.
By: Mr. Shife on March 2, 2016
Interesting story of a remarkable young woman. Further illustrates the power of the pen (or the chisel). Uplifting stuff.
By: Bryan Jones on March 3, 2016
That is terribly sad. Poor thing to be in a wheelchair and still have to earn money to the point where her eyesight failed. And dying before her work was recognized. Imagine if she'd lived longer and had a full body of work. Thanks for sharing, and reminding us all to be thankful for what we have.
By: Lexa Cain on March 3, 2016
Fascinating and so sad. Wonderful that you've shared her story.
By: Mitchell Is Moving on March 3, 2016
She certainly touched your heart and by token of your story... your readers too.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 3, 2016
That is quite a fascinating discovery! I agree, very mysterious too.
By: Michael Manning on March 3, 2016
This post is a beautiful gift to her memory. You have helped to give Hazel wings.
By: Hilary on March 6, 2016

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