Poems and history have coexisted since before writing began—as part of the remembering and passing down, from generation to generation, of oral histories. And today poets continue to explore people and events and retell those stories as poetry. MOIRA RICHARDS shares her thoughts on five collections of poems with history.
An Elastic State of Mind: D.L.D.’s Autobiography in Poems
Published together with Eirik Lodén’s Norwegian translation, this collection dramatises the life of 19th century champion of the indigent insane, Dorothea Lynde Dix – personal friend of the 13th president of the USA – who supported herself as author from age 22. Her first book reached its 60th edition in just 45 years.
Powell bases the poems on biographical studies, divides the book into three acts with a cast listing, and background notes about the subject – my favourite way to learn history, and to enjoy poetry.
Two sestina convey a sense of some of this redoubtable woman’s underlying ambivalences but the villanelles… oh, the villanelles. Two close the first and last acts, a third lies midway in the second; all are in first person, in the voice of Ms Dix and sooo effectively bring to life, the woman, her determination, and her sense of self.
White Pine Press
Central to this collection is the small group of poems that portray the work of Victorian photographer, Hannah Maynard who, employing the alchemies of mirrors, montage and multiple exposure settings, created fantastical self-portraits as means of coming to terms with her life after the death of her teenage daughter: “Look! I’ve learned to slice myself in three / … / three women I’m loath to understand—”
Around that core, Rich spins ephemeral images of her own (sur)realities in which memories, appetites and the ambivalences of half a lifetime swirl among almost tangible disquietudes: How to move beyond the compass of the past, its dead and its obfuscations to best live the dubious half a life left? “How to write your one blue life?”
Tales of the François Vase
Imagine, if you inhabited this world for two and a half millennia, what you might witness and experience! Older writes a variety of voices to recreate and dramatise the “birth” and life of a famed museum piece—ancient Greek wedding bowl used to hold wine for guests. In the opening poem, the vase herself sings an ode in celebration of her charge, as heady now as 25 centuries ago.
The poetry continues, narrating witness of the travels, diverse contents, and the three smashings and putting together-agains in the life of the vase… until at last she is set down quiet and secure in a light that shines upon all her stories: five bands of pictures depicting dozens of scenes and hundreds of figures from Homer’s Iliad.
University of Washington Press
Horror seeps gently yet relentlessly from the words in these pages—as uranium might from an underground contamination plume. The poems pick through the 70-year history of the USA’s Hanford nuclear production site that, inter alia, manufactured plutonium to build nuclear weapons during WWII.
Flenniken crafts images of the nearby dormitory town where she grew up, populated by government employees and their families in identical houses—all infused with the same patriotic pride, untruths about the river in which they swim and fish for food, and with stray bits of the radioactive waste of their labours; the tragic irony that many of them, too, become ill as did survivors of the Nagasaki bomb. Poetry of betrayal, dread, and helpless understanding of fathomless consequence.
The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems
Finishing Line Press
Sister of the more famous Sir William, German-born Caroline Herschel was a respected mathematician and astronomer in her own right and lived to see her (also more famous) nephew, John, sail to Cape Town to chart the skies of the southern hemisphere in 1834. Long introduces this fictional autobiography as “imagination steeped in historical siftings and the breath between the lines”—my favourite way of learning about the people of the past.
Like a tiny constellation, these 21 poems (most of which contain at least one star) illumine the inner life of an unmarriageable former scullery maid who, enthralled by the Milky Way galaxy in her telescope, lived from clear night to cloudless night to read nebulae, catalogue stars and, perchance, divine a comet—or eight.