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A Medieval Mystic as a Muse for Two Poets

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A Medieval Mystic as a Muse for Two Poets


“Fool,” said the Muse to Sir Philip Sidney, as he fumbled for words to express his devotion to his beloved, “look in thy heart, and write.” In contrast, Henry David Thoreau, reading Samuel Purchas’s travel compilation Pilgrimes, jotted in his journal on March 16, 1852, that “Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in …. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.” Often we expect poets to obey Sidney’s Muse, to start right off from the contents of their own hearts; but sometimes, as in these new volumes by Pattie McCarthy and Daniel Tiffany, new and bracing poetries take root in the “humus” of others’ writings.

McCarthy’s Wifthing (Apogee Press) consists of 80 unmetered and unrhymed sonnets — at least, each of its sections has 14 lines — that circle around the objectification of women as “things” from the late Middle Ages and 17th century to the 20th century (lots of references to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) and the present day. The first 25 sections are each titled “margerykempething” and involve experiences of the late medieval mystic Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1439), whose account of her life is considered the earliest English autobiography. Illiterate herself, Kempe dictated her story, always referring to herself as “that creature”: the term emphasizes her relationship with God the creator, of course, but it creates a strange, objectifying effect for contemporary readers.

Twenty-five more sections of Wifthing are titled “queyne wifthing,” and draw on the lives of Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437–1492), wife of Edward IV and mother of the murdered “princes in the tower,” and Margaret Beaufort (1441/3–1509), the mother of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. These were women of complex psychological and spiritual lives, as McCarthy relates, but history remembers them primarily as mothers; they have been reduced to their genealogical statuses: “a consort has only one body    she / makes her body by making other bodies.” McCarthy seeks to recapture, in a collage of quotations, fragments, and her own words, the bodily experience of these women; at the same time, she dwells upon the distance between the contemporary poet and the medieval noblewomen:

I turn my best ear to you
& coos of them murmur down the flue
do you think a gull could eclipse the moon
he wants to dive down the shadow of my
melancholy    we are not those bodies
they shape the spaces between   she moves
both stretching into the future & also
sounding in my chest as the pigeon

The final 30 sections of the poem, “goodwifthing,” center mostly on the Salem witch trials of 1692, when 14 women were hanged in a notorious episode of mass hysteria and thinly veiled misogyny. McCarthy’s unlikely focal point here is not so much the “witches” — though their voices and experiences are heard — but the accuser Mercy Lewis: 

mercy enters the story like a wolf
with a history of the word    to wyf
her body as historical landscape
maximum performance of improper
behavior

McCarthy recognizes a continuity between the experiences of all of these women and her own, not least in the aspect of motherhood: Margery Kempe had 14 children before taking a vow of chastity; Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville are remembered for their children; the poet herself refers to her “daughterthing” and “boychik.” The poems toggle between their subjects’ and the poet’s consciousness; we are jerked from the late medieval era into the immediate present, and then back to the realm of literature or history: “I called out sick to write this poem / I turned on paw patrol to write this poem / I look to the whale-path to write this poem.” “[Y]ou are the shape of my midlife crisis / margery kempe.” 

McCarthy addresses her own experiences of sexuality, of motherhood, of womanhood in what remains too much a man’s world, and she does so by writing through the past: “I’m middle-aged    I’m sentimental    I’m / never more confessional than when I / write about Salem         & share facts with you.” This isn’t so much a matter of treating “history like a bad mirror” — a distorted reflection of the present observer — as of finding in the past an invaluable archive, a “midden” of experiences that deepen and enrich those of the present moment:

mercy we midden we accumulate
we relearn we glitter we disappear
we dirty thing we different bodies we
cobwebs we high tide we archive we note
we dazzle we erasure we hungry
we anemic we witches

“the archive might be tidal a midden,” McCarthy concludes; but it is an inheritance, a continuity of experience passed down from one woman to another: “my other mother put it in my mouth.”

Daniel Tiffany, Cry Baby Mystic, Parlor Press, 2021 (image courtesy Parlor Press)

If McCarthy’s Wifthing is a dive into the documentary archive with clear precedents in the works of Susan Howe, Muriel Rukeyser, and many of the “high” modernists of the early 20th century, Daniel Tiffany’s long poem Cry Baby Mystic (Parlor Press) is a far more disorienting take on The Book of Margery Kempe. The “cry baby mystic” of Tiffany’s title is Kempe herself, notorious for the involuntary bouts of sobbing and moaning, sometimes hours in duration, which seized her in public or private, during mass, during the homily — more or less whenever she contemplated the passion of Jesus Christ or the mercy of God. Those crying jags were shocking and incomprehensible to those around her, even as they embodied her personal relationship with the divine. Kempe was accused of heresy on several occasions and came close to being burned alive by the religious authorities of her day.

The “mystic” whose actions, words, and silences flash through Cry Baby Mystic — sometimes named as the “creature,” more often simply “she” — appears on the poem’s first page:

Ear pitched
to the ocean
floor, a shade of furious 
green, said creature holds out against
our tricks.

By evoking Noam Chomsky’s notorious “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (Syntactic Structures, 1957), a sentence grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical, the poem underlines the incomprehensibility of “said creature”’s visions, even when communicated in language, to her auditors — and reveals the uneasiness at the heart of the poem: that language itself is inadequate, that “our tricks” of communication and communion are ultimately futile in the face of unassailable, impenetrable inner lives.

Cry Baby Mystic is a long poem that seems to have discarded the category of “poetry” itself, and with it the whole notion of the aesthetic:

Pretty
grim—we’re done
with art—you never know
how much inside you is breaking
apart,

what it
must be like, why
some words get their way, some
don’t…

At the same time, however, the poem flaunts its own artifice, as in the mawkish internal rhyme of “art” and “apart,” and most notably in its rather strident formalism. Where the “sonnet” form of McCarthy’s Wifthing is loose enough to include sections that look pretty much like prose, Cry Baby Mystic consists of a string of cinquains, a five-line syllabic form invented by Adelaide Crapsey (1878–1914). Crapsey saw herself as imitating such Japanese forms as the haiku or the tanka; it’s something of a tour-de-force on Tiffany’s part to hijack the cinquain, usually associated with brief, self-contained lyrical or emotive utterance, as the formal armature for an extended work.

The reader clings for dear life to the cinquain’s formal structure as Cry Baby Mystic rushes by, an at-times nightmarish kaleidoscope of heterogeneous but always lively language. We get glimpses of Margery Kempe’s life, bits of birdsong and ornithology, flashes of noir narrative, oblique visions of sex clubs and orgies, fragments of overheard conversation, in both standard English and the dialects of the American South. The ideal of lyric communication, always just out of reach, is one specter haunting the poem:

We shoo
away the songs,
they crawl back into us,
staring off into space where no
one moves.

No lyrical or meditative moment lasts long here, however, but is interrupted — often mid-stanza — by a shift in diction, scene, or voice. The poem is at once absolutely opaque and relentlessly, compulsively readable: we do not know where we are or where we’re going, but the quicksilver shifts of the language and the cinquain’s formal imperative keep us reading.

Tiffany has spoken of how his mother’s Alzheimer’s influenced his writing, but Cry Baby Mystic is clearly more than a meditation on a single person’s descent into aphasia. Its cacophony of voices and musics presents an almost elegiac vision of inviolable and tortured selfhood caught in a storm of fragmentary, only intermittently communicative language — “more failed / words doing whatever / they want with me.” Sometimes the archive of the past seems a record of failed communions: 600 years later, Margery Kempe’s disquieting sobs continue to confound and provoke.

Wifthing by Pattie McCarthy (2021) is published by Apogee Press. Cry Baby Mystic (2021) by Daniel Tiffany is published by Parlor Press. Both are available online and in bookstores.


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