The Poetry of Janice Potter

A Review of Meanwell

MeanwellBack in June I reviewed an Anthology of Vermont poets. Here’s one of the reasons I liked the anthology:

“[It is replete with]…the kinds of poems I like best: the poetry of the concrete, tactile, and sensual, poems joyfully aware (as I wrote at the outset) of season and place.”

I followed that up with a sampling of poetry by Janice Potter. About two weeks ago, Potter, a Vermont poet, sent me her recently published book “Meanwell” and asked if I would review it. In exchange, I asked if she would write up one of Anne Bradstreet’s poems. So you’re in for a treat. After the review, you can read what Potter wrote about Bradstreet’s poem, In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old.

Potter’s book, published in 2012, is called Meanwell and it’s like no other contemporary poetry I’ve read, though it’s not the first of its kind. The poems offer us a first-person narrative in the voice of Anne Bradstreet’s servant, Meanwell. Anne Bradstreet was the first woman to have her poetry published in (what was to become) the United States.

There are other contemporary books of poetry written as first-person narratives. The two that immediately come to mind are by our present Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard and Bellocq’s Ophelia. The former is written in the voice of a slave and the latter a New Orleans prostitute. They first came to my attention via a review by William Logan in roles in puritan societyhis book Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I couldn’t be any less impressed by Trethewey unless I were William Logan. My problem with Trethewey is the prosaic dullness of her language,  imagery and technique – utterly predictable stuff. Logan reads for content and pillories Tretheway on that count too. I mention it because Trethewey’s failings provide an instructive contrast to Potter’s successes. Here are two pertinent passages from Logan’s review of Native Guard:

There were literate slaves, all too few, and perhaps none among the lowly soldiers serving at the sandy, fly-ridden prison near Fort Massachusetts. (The major of the regiment, however, a slave-owning Creole, spoke five languages and was the highest-ranking officer in the Union Army.) To create a voice rendered mute by history, Trethewey has sometimes borrowed from a white colonel’s memoir to make do. Putting the words of an educated white into the mouth of a freed slave isn’t so bad; but, when Trethewey is forced to choose between the pretty and the profane, the pretty wins every time. She’s an aesthete in wolf’s clothing. (pp. 193-194)

A paragraph later Logan will write of Trethewey’s other book Bellocq’s Ophelia:

Trethewey wears her past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing — the slaves might as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.

Potter’s Meanwell is not the obsequious narrator one might expect. Potter’s narrator doesn’t pay anne-hutchinsontribute to Bradstreet. The poet, rather, is just another blurry shadow moving through the icy dogma of American puritanism and the leanness of its cruel and unforgiving winters. The Puritans were an intolerant and narrow-minded bunch (who would soon, and venally, shut down the greatest theatrical flowering since classical Greece). The English were all too happy to send the savages to the New World (and we still haven’t recovered). Meanwell’s attachment to Bradstreet is portrayed as a fact of her station (and nothing more). Meanwell never really expresses any affection for Bradstreet and is jealous of the poet’s privilege (inasmuch as a Puritan woman could be privileged) and her protective familial bonds.

…but whether my mother was a book or not
I have no knowledge
other than that I was always without parent…

and then, in the close of the same poem:

…and I did marvel on this well-beloved child
whose dear mother Dorothy
wrapped her with her cherished book in arms

while my vexed eyes one blue and one brown
did cloud with desire
to seize her soft nest once sickness was done

Meanwell’s narrative will not be like the “blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks”. In fact, by the end of the book, one really wonders whether there’s any affection at all.

…odd cloaked as a muse she tends her wilderness
mansion filled with English chests and tables
and ancestral portraits and eight-hundred books
all of an Englishness I am meant to polish well
and preserve for those whose kind benevolence
allows me to grow old in service to this house

and I do polish and scrub here for twenty years
as she grows to love her nest feathered with things
that make her heart glad her husband her children
her writings on stashes of paper her vast hearth
her great baskets of carded sheep’s wool that catch
the house afire when a servant drops a lit candle.

To this reader, at least, it’s hard not to read Meanwell’s commentary on Bradstreet, her Englishness, her “things”, and her “kind benevolence”, as dripping with bitterness and contempt. Which servant was it, I wonder, who (accidentally?) dripped the lit candle in the basket of carded wool? Was it Meanwell? Whether or not that was Potter’s intention, I’m left wondering whether this poem, A Servant Drops a Lit Candle, was Meanwell’s Iago-like confession. She will later say:

[I am] bound to serve it
this dread-hell she [Bradstreet] suffered when on earthy

am I bound to serve what I hate

While only just before, in the same poem, saying:

weary weary that a man must look upon
servants doing what once was
the work of his wife in her constancy
and afterwards sleep alone

who will serve him and obey him
down to the smallest kiss of his most
unspeakable manly part…

How are we to read this? Is it pity, compassion, contempt, gloating? And how are we to read the sexual content of Meanwell’s observation. Earlier in the book, Meanwell acknowledges the memory and pleasure of a former lover’s body “covering mine”. She can “watch a seaman’s firm buttocks rise on the mizzen” and doesn’t miss it when a seaman catches a skimpy maid “coarse-handed by the arse”. The way I read these lines is that she imagines taking Anne Bradstreet’s place. She imagines kissing “his most unspeakable manly part”, that is, symbolically submitting to the master of the life-style she has and continues to covet (or thinks she does). Perhaps the notion is fleeting, but I think it’s revealing. To deny the desire for a thing is to admit the thing’s desirability. We don’t talk about things that we don’t notice.

And this is the curious and most enjoyable facet of this book. None of the characters are likable and, in truth, (and from a twenty-first century perspective) none of them probably were likable. Even Anne Hutchinson, who was tried for loudly condemning a vindictive Puritan patriarchy, comes off as gratuitously combative when she states in Potter’s words: “it came to me by direct revelation”. Here is what Hutchinson, according to sources at the time, actually said:

“You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of our hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state”

This sounds like a woman in the throes of a self-destructive delirium (and Hutchinson had good reason to be delirious given the hell she was put through). Meanwell idolizes Hutchinson (rather than Bradstreet) but is too cowed and has too much to lose to cheer Hutchinson on.

Hutchinson and her family, a number of her children included, were to be brutally murdered by the Siwanoy of New Netherland (in and around present day Bronx and New York City). Her children, including the youngest, were scalped and beheaded, then incinerated in their own house. The Siwanoy chief, Wampage, had forewarned the settlers. Whether because she felt a false sense of security or because of the same courage (or stubbornness) that characterized her dealings with the Puritan ministers, she foolishly stayed behind. To commemorate his courage and bravery in slaughtering an exhausted middle-aged woman and her children, the Siwanoy chief adopted Anne’s name, becoming known as Ann Hoeck alias Wampage.

Hutchinson.massacre

The various ministers, who had excommunicated Hutchinson, also “celebrated” Hutchinson’s murder by treating it as a sign that God agreed with them and had undoubtedly lent a divine hand to the gruesome and just slaughter of Hutchinson and her children.

Not Faithful But True

Bradstreet was born, 1612, when Elizabethan poetry and theater were at the pinnacle of their glory. At the hands of Shakespeare, Jonson, and the deceased Marlowe, blank verse had matched and exceeded the accomplishments of the classical Greek and Roman poets. John Donne was inspiring a whole generation of metaphysical poets. Though somewhat more constrained in subject matter, women were also among the poets being celebrated, admired and published — Mary Sidney being the foremost example, though there were others (see the comment section in my post on Bradstreet). For all that, Bradstreet’s verse doesn’t inherit the brilliance of the times. Her Iambic Pentameter is as conservative as her religion, stuck in the 1590’s, and she never tries the sonnet or imitates the brilliant lyrics of Donne.

Bradstreet’s only mention of a near English contemporary is in her poem: An Elegy Upon That Honorable and Renowned Knight Sir Philip Sidney, Who Was Untimely Slain at the Siege of Zutphen, Anno 1586. She references Arcadia, a prose work, but also describes him as “the brave refiner of our British tongue…” This makes me think that Bradstreet must have been familiar with Sidney’s poetry (and some of it very erotic). Bradstreet writes that “[Sidney in his] wiser days condemned his [own] witty works”; but that many “infatuate fools” were caught in the “gin” [the snare] of “his rhetoric”. In the most revealing moment of all, she writes that, nevertheless, “a world of wealth within that rubbish [lies]”: “learning, valour and morality,/Justice, friendship, and kind hospitality, /Yea, and divinity within his book…”

Bradstreet reveals that she was exposed to the erotic wit of the Elizabethan era, but also reveals her own tastes and what she values. She was a Puritan, first and foremost, by choice.  How much was Bradstreet exposed to during the early 1600’s? Donne was circulating his poetry privately and among his peers. It’s possible but unlikely that Bradstreet’s father (let alone Anne) would have been in that circle of readers. Most of his poetry, on top of that, was considered erotic. Donne would die in 1631, a year after Bradstreet arrived in America. Neither Shakespeare nor Jonson’s plays were published in Folio form. It’s highly unlikely that Bradstreet’s Puritan family would have attended the theaters (which the Puritans would later shut down in a fit of self-righteous probity). It’s also very unlikely that her family would have read any of Shakespeare’s published works, like Venus & Adonis or the sonnets, which were considered erotica by just about everyone. Marlowe, likewise, translated Ovid’s erotica. The theater was considered the den of iniquity. What did that leave? Pious and dull verses by pinch-lipped religious men and, especially, women. Women were encouraged to translate or write pious verse. As Christina Rosetti would demonstrate a couple hundred years later, some women need no encouragement to dip their quills in the venomous ink of self-righteous rectitude. It wasn’t all men making them do this. There was also Du Bartas, who Bradstreet read and eulogized, the French poet and Hugeonot famed for his religious epic poetry (which had been translated into English).

The older verse of the 80’s and 90’s along with translated religious verse (always more conservative) is probably what Bradstreet read and used as a model. It’s a miracle that she later wrote the kinds of poems she did. They start out bland and pious, but at some point she seems to have drained that cup. She begins to write about her life, her husband and her children.

So, with all that as a background, I was interested to see how Potter would “write” Meanwell. What would she imitate? Would she imitate the language, the verse forms of the era, Bradstreet? The questions are fraught with pitfalls. Should a modern poet avoid anachronistic verse and language, or dive into it, producing not only the voice of the period, but its literature? If so, to what degree? Should an illiterate servant be reciting her narrative in brilliant metaphysical rhymes and Shakespearean sonnets?  Logan’s issue with Trethewey, after all, isn’t that she put the words of a white slave owner into a slave, but that she did so with a bias for the pretty (rather than profane). Potter, I think, avoids that pitfall. Meanwell describes the facts of life, sickness and death with a brutal factuality map-picture-claes-van-visscherthat I found believable and true. In an era that had seen the plague, saw executed prisoners hang until they rotted from the rope, and the amputated hands and legs of traitors nailed to the walls of the Thames.

We, today, would have been horrified. In Meanwell’s world, that’s just the way it is. Get used to it. Get over it.

Heaving and setting with such force that the ocean might spill
from off God’s earth makes it a great wonder
to behold our sister ship the painted Jewel
for we need her midwife most urgently to disencumber
a good-wife retching under her bloody cloak on the shit-slick boards
where fearful ladies huddle under the hatches from the storm

though I mean well I cannot bear to look on her
small head where a twist of hen-scrapings might be her face
for she appears not a creature of a human nature
rather then entrails of an animal gouged alive from its earthly form
the shrieks swelling over its foul-smelling mire…

~ The Death of the Lewd Seaman Attends a Sea-Born Child

The quality of Potter’s poetry that impressed me in Birchsong, it’s concreteness of imagery — tangy, evocative and fresh — continues in Meanwell, and is the quality that saves her free verse from the generic dullness of her peers. I tried to discern whether any of her poems were in any sense formal — if there was any accentual,  syllabic or accentual-syllabic verse. If there was, I have missed it. There was no rhyme but for the occasional off-rhyme (so unpredictable and occasional as to feel accidental rather than deliberate). I confess a little disappointment in this regard, but only a little. It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. Her poems do resemble, in their shape and rhetorical compactness, the flavor of 17th century verse.

As it is, Potter does dress her verse with the kind of extended metaphors and poetic personifications we’d fully expect from poets of the era:

Ruined as I am the sea makes no mind
as it leaps and licks higher by the moment
with the icy winds that hound us
like dogs baring long teeth at our bellies
and where is our God I wonder
who would seem to punish the revolt
of dour Puritan men against the prelates
with slanderous blows of the great water…

…as if a servant might possess a low power
to save souls from the monstrous jaws
of the watery beast that wing-spread doth
rise and bend over our whole company…

As the rough sea licks out bitten skin with salt tongue…

…and a great whale drifted along our side spouting water
as if it were God’s leviathan sleepily smoking his pipe at twilight…

Potter really seems to let her hair down when describing the animalistic gyrations of the ocean. I can’t help thinking she revels in the excuse to use the extended metaphors, auxiliary do forms, grammatical inversions, and personifications that contemporary poets, otherwise, wouldn’t dare use lest they sully their unassailable reputation for the boring. It’s in Potter’s use of language and imagery, rather than meter or rhyme, that she reminds us we’re in the 1600’s. That’s okay. I think it works and I think she manages the effect beautifully, not too much and not too little. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that a Jacobean servant would have narrated her life with such trenchant imagery or in such a poetic voice, but at some point one must grant that art’s job isn’t to be faithful but to be true.

Other than that, the reader will notice that poems aren’t punctuated. I’m not sure why Potter chose this affect, but I can theorize. One reason may be that she wanted to suggest Meanwell’s lack of education, that she’s not “booked”. Meanwell’s monologues plow from one thought to the next the way, perhaps, such an uneducated woman would speak. Another reason might be that Potter wants to make the reading a little more difficult, as if to suggest a different period of time and way of talking. Another is that Potter simply prefers to write that way. Some readers will be put off by this. I wasn’t.

When Meanwell is finally free to live her own life, the verse follows suite. The lines no longer imitate, in appearance, the blank verse or stanzas of the 1600’s, but the open and unstructured free verse of contemporary poetry.

Westward

In the back matter of the book, we’re told the following:

“Through Meanwell, the feelings of women, silecned during the midwife Anne Hutchinson’s fiery trial before the Puritan ministers, are finally acknowledged. In effect, the poems are about the making of an American rebel. Through her conflicted conscience, we witness Meanwell’s transformation from a powerless English waif to a mythic American who ultimately chooses wilderness over the civilization she has experienced.”

My own reading of Meanwell isn’t quite so pat, and that’s a good thing. There are no heroes in the book, least of all Meanwell, and that reminds me a little of Robert Frost and the characters in North of Boston. There’s a meanness and pettiness to Meanwell that makes her appealing and human. How could she be otherwise? In the poem Two Annes Have I served Half-Faithfully, Meanwell tells us something that Bradstreet Hutchinson has said.

once I heard her proclaim
that to be a woman was to be
blessed

that to be a woman was to possess mastery
of one’s own
body········one’s own
········mind

Jan, 25 2013 ~ Note: When I originally wrote the review, I incorrectly remembered that the above lines were spoken by Bradstreet. Potter sent me an E-Mail to correct me. She wrote:

“But I should point out one minor but intriguing misreading. I confess that I like your misreading because it opens a fascinating view down the road not taken. It is actually Anne Hutchinson who says (and did say in real life) that to be a woman is to be blessed. It’s part of her feminism, of course, and another reason why she so enraged the ministers. But–what if Bradstreet had said it? What a delicious irony!”

And that led me on a very interesting diversion. Did Bradstreet never once refer to her identity as a woman? So I got out my copy of Bradstreet’s writings and searched through them. The closest Bradstreet comes to referencing her own identity as any thing other than a Christian, first and foremost, or “soul”, is in her short prose autobiography To My Dear Children. She writes:

It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one, and after him gave me many more of whom I now take the care, that as I have brought you into the world. and with great pains, weakness, cares, and fears brought you to this, I now travail in birth again of you till Christ be formed in you. [The Works of Anne Bradstreet: Edited by Jaennine Hensley p. 241]

But for these brief words — “I now travail in birth again” — we might imagine a father writing this. That Bradstreet has so subsumed and suppressed (if that’s the right word) her own identity as anything other than a Christian whose identity exists only in reference to her husband and patriarchal faith, makes her contrast with Hutchinson all the more striking. It’s tempting to say that Bradstreet’s sensibility would be utterly foreign to a modern and secular woman. I’m not so sure. Meanwell, from this perspective, not only straddles two different paradigms of womanhood in her own day (with an ear to both and drawn to both worlds) but also, perhaps, speaks to modern women who, though now firmly in Hutchinson’s world, are nevertheless compelled, in some small way, by the perceived safety and certitude of a “traditional” woman’s role. Does a woman seek the solace and approval of children, family and faith, or does she risk independence, potential isolation and disapproval (excommunication). Anne Hutchinson’s isolation led to her murder and was understood by men( and probably women too) as a just warning to any woman desiring to reject the patriarchal roles assigned to her.

All that being said, I still wonder that Hutchinson’s words didn’t put it in Meanwell’s mind to burn a house down — she who had never possessed mastery of her own body — her fate.

Jan 27, 2013 Potter, via E-Mail, brought to my attention another passage in which Bradstreet briefly describes her position as a woman writing poetry:

“I like her poem, “Prologue,” for her musings on what she faces as a woman-writer.  I feel her taking a deep breath, and then diving into the wreck.  Especially pointed is part 5:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the poem, she bows once more to male superiority.   (I think she was politically astute.)  The only public acknowledgement of herself as poet that she claims to seek is a modest wreath of thyme or parsley, rather than the bay wreath, or laurels of famous men.  But she clearly wants some credit, and she wants it as a woman.”

The only observation I would add is that Bradstreet reveals some ambition, in addition to wanting credit. My own feeling is that she shows some awareness and pride in her own talent and is excited to write poetry. The passage also reveals the kind of thing she must have heard from men and women. Mainly, they didn’t believe women were capable of accomplished poetry, dismissed their efforts or accused them of plagiary or dumb luck. Elizabeth Cary, another female poet and contemporary of Anne Bradstreet, was most forcefully discouraged from poetry by her own mother (who didn’t approve of Elizabeth’s “devotion to books”. We can’t necessarily conclude that the “carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits” was solely the tongue of men. Nevertheless, what the passage does tell us is the difficulties and discouragements Bradstreet must have confronted and how lucky she was to have had (what must have been) a supportive husband and children – something Meanwell sorely envied.

puritans

Meanwell desired the outward privileges, as she saw it, of Bradstreet’s world, but did she ever fully comprehend it? I think it’s only when Meanwell is finally freed from servitude, in my reading, that she reveals something like admiration and compassion for Bradstreet and only then begins her search for her own identity and meaning.

…what a fool I was
to believe········to believe
rhymes with Eve so what if those
ministers may be right

no I believe········with two Annes
it is blessed to be
woman

My feeling is that this book is a keeper and well worth reading. The poetry is some of the best around and Potter’s trenchant, concrete imagery is perfectly suited to evoking the hard and cruel landscape of the old world in the new. There are other moments and nice details I haven’t mentioned, but you will have to read the book. My advice is to buy this book and buy Bradstreet’s poetry with it. The two go together beautifully.

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