by Nancy Means Wright

The birds are back in the north country, a dozen robins are spinning in and out of my crabapple tree, chomping on the tiny red fruits that had scattered to the winds during a late March blizzard. Happily, the snow is all but gone as I write, and the daffodils I planted in hard, cold earth two Decembers ago are struggling to open.

And April is poetry month! I belong to a group called Otter Creek Poets, and we write about all manner of subjects. One of our poets recently brought in an “Ode to a Washcloth.” We laughed at the title, but it happened to have been a washcloth he shared with his girlfriend. Somewhere there was a mention of Lady Macbeth–but she used her hands to wash clean her guilts, didn’t she? And Shakespeare turned the scene into dynamic iambic pentameter.

Poets do write about guilt and death–a lot. Sometimes it’s suicide and sometimes even murder. I’ve used both in a new chapbook of  poems called Acts of Balance, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. The book alternates the voices of real life 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft (whom I’ve written into mystery novels for Perseverance Press) and a contemporary farmwoman I call Fay, who is a paragon of civil disobedience. Fay has considered poisoning her nasty husband, but thinking better of it, simply walked out of a 30-year marriage instead.

I’ve begun the chapbook with Wollstonecraft’s girlhood when she slept on the landing in front of her mother’s door to keep her drunken father from abusing her timid mother. The ruse didn’t always work, for at night the father would stumble into the house, kick the dog, and clomp upstairs to shove Mary aside. I wrote  in my poem: “I throw / my body between:  his blows/ batter my back…my lungs collapse/ under his boots.”

Some battered women have struck back, even killed the abuser, but Mary couldn’t bring herself to do that–although she did literally kidnap her younger sister from a brutish husband, the pair switching carriages in mid-escape, the sister biting her wedding ring “to pieces. Oh that mis/ carriage of injustice!” Shortly afterward, Mary called her beloved friend Fanny’s death in childbirth “a virtual murder” when tubercular Fanny’s new husband took her to a cold place in Portugal where conditions were poor for birthing. Even the physician never saw “that her lungs were/ coughing up her kidneys.” In the husband’s absence, Fanny died in Mary’s arms.

A few years later Mary was a governess in Ireland, where her employer, Lord Kingsborough, head of his militia group, had devised a punishment for rebel peasants called ‘pitchcapping,” whereby he would pour tar on the victim’s head, light it, and yell: “Run, lad!” Many were in flames before they could run far. Then several years after Mary’s work with the King girls, Lord K shot the youngest daughter’s lover point blank because the girl had refused an arranged marriage. Milord got off with only a slap on the back from his aristocratic pals.

I must mention the French Revolution where Mary was “with child,” then abandoned by her feckless lover Captain Imlay, and where she walked the streets of Paris alone while bloody heads fell from the guillotine. “Murder” she called it. In fact, the first event she saw upon arrival in Paris was Louis XVI “in the prison/ of the passing coach/ en route for death/ his head hanging/ like a stringed puppet.”  Later she visits Olympe de Gouges in prison before the playwright’s decapitation for simply defying the tyrant Robespierre: “I scratch in the straw of her/ prison. I pour cold water/ over her burning feet.”

When Captain Imlay finally left Mary, she flung herself into the Thames River, “but the cloak is a buoy/ in the kicky waters;/ the coins break/ through the pocket threads…death/ turns a cold/ back.” Ultimately, Mary found love and commitment with writer Will Godwin, but after giving birth to a daughter (Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame), the doctor, who had neglected to wash his hands, yanked out the placenta in a dozen pieces and she died of blood poisoning, aged 38.

Call it homicide? Hardly grist for poetry, but as I noted above, poems are filled with death (think Edgar Allan Poe). The literary magazine editors are aware of this, too. The fall issue of Shenandoah will feature crime, mystery, and suspense poems and stories. And  you might consider submitting a poem to The 5-2 Crime Poetry Weekly? Why not? Each Monday the website publishes an original poem on the subject of crime. It could be yours!


12 Responses

  1. Feeling sorry for Mary! I guess that’s why most women used midwives in those days. I’ve written about death in my poems as well, but never murder. Interesting idea!

    • Yes, Jacquie: Mary used a midwife, but when the placenta wouldn’t come out in a natural way, her husband called in a doctor–and we all know the outcome. Such a loss for a talented woman of 38… And since you write poems, do try the listings noted at the end of my piece and weave in your mysteries!

  2. Nancy, writing poetry was my first love. I have written a great deal about death,but NOT from a homicide standpoint. That idea opens a door that I haven’t gone through for quite some time.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and informative post.

    • Thank you, Betty, and I hope you’ll try to work your mysteries into your poems. In truth, I hadn’t thought of it either, until I began to write my new poetry chapbook and then saw how a murder could apply. Not with a serial killer though, or other evil villain. Rather with a decent person somehow drawn into an act of homicide.

  3. A thought-provoking essay, Nancy. Perhaps I should pull out that furious poem I wrote about the various ways I might kill off a villainous ex-boss…

    • Well, definitely, Nikki, pull it out! And send it off! I’m sure there are other lit magazine markets beyond the two I mentioned above.

  4. Nancy: A thought-provoking blog and a reminder of how bloody “humanity” could be in our world’s past. Murder via poetry? Brilliant idea. Wish I were capable of writing verse but my first draft is always my best–what does that tell you? Thanks for a morning eye-opener!

    • Just write something out, Susan, and then put it in lines. See what happens. Your writing–judging from your lovely A Red Red Rose, is truly lyrical. And many poems are narrative. Mine surely are. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comment!

    • Thanks Susan and Nikki. And Nikki, send out that “furious” poem you wrote.

      It sounds, well—“furious”!


      http://www.nancymeanswright.com Walking into the Wild

      Broken Strings

      The Nightmare

  5. Poetry challenged as I am, I still enjoyed your post. I’ve always loved the Wollstonecraft/Shelley story and it was great to have your presentation of it.

    • I never tire of reading the whole Woll-Shelley-Byron saga, and there are always new versions of it coming out–often adding one more tiny piece to the puzzle. I always appreciate your comments, Camille. I’ll bet you can write a good poem if you bring yourself to do it.

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