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Nancy Means Wright

POEMS SUGGESTED BY THE LIFE OF MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797)

by Nancy Means Wright

    1

    VITA: FATHER
    Mary's father, Edward Wollstonecraft, was unhappily apprenticed to his father, a Spitalfields master-weaver. London, 1750

    He sleeps under the loom.
    It is nearly dawn:

    the threads hang
    in his face

    like wrinkled lives:
    green rust ocher puce.

    They make the boy cough
    but he doesn't wake.

    His skin is raw
    as unbleached yarn,

    his shoulders pinch
    like bound feet;

    the body shrinks
    from its extremities.

    Upstairs the father-
    master rolls onto

    the new wife,
    warp over weft,

    and in the small pane window
    the caged canary

    whistles for work:
    Up, boy. The 12-hour day has begun!

     

    2

    CAVE IN AT BARKING
    Mary's father abandons weaving to be a gentleman farmer—but each new enterprise ends in failure and drink. At Barking: a farm with a river and woods; a young Mary writes songs, converses with imaginary angels—and defends her mother against her father's abuse. 1767

    Father drives away my
    angels: they scramble like
    rats before his hard

    rain. He rains every-
    where: in the scullery,
    the attic, the bedchamber

    where my mother creeps.
    She calls me her keeper,
    my mother who berates me and

    my angels. Fog unfolds
    after a day of lightning, and
    Father stumbles into our night.

    The house is quiet as
    a burial ground; he kicks
    the dog and clomps

    upstairs. I lie on the landing
    by their door; when the silence
    breaks, I throw my body

    between: his blows batter
    my back. I can't find
    my tongue. The house

    collapses under his boot-
    fall, and no one comes
    to reclaim me. No angels.

     

    3

    THE KIDNAPPING: A NURSERY TALE
    Mary's sister Eliza has a postpartum breakdown—seemingly caused by her husband's abuse, and Mary "rescues" her in a hackney coach. The baby, kept from the "runaway" Eliza, dies. 1784.

    Nine weeks of frost
    that Bermondsey winter, the boat
    builder out of work
    and Sister's belly a spreading
    hedge (he'd take her
    anyway—too cold for speech).
    One raw night and rockabye
    baby…a breaking bough—
    and no one to put Sister
    together again.

    Oh that mis-
    carriage of justice!
    wind driving blind as
    a sex through the doors;
    the wedding ring bitten to
    pieces; while home
    the baby, the irate husband
    hexing the expedition—
    Mary in the hackney
    hurling back the wrongs:
    one for the brutal husband
    one for their bullying brother
    one for their drunken father
    One for the knave down the lane
    who would kill his wife
    with childbirth and claim her be-

    longings. The coach halts
    by the rented rooms:
    Mary's belly is a green apple.
    Eliza's nipples weep
    for her child. Records
    a year hence show
    the father spent
    ten shillings tenpence
    for coffin and shroud, the normal
    rate for a Bermondsey baby
    being three and tenpence.

     

    4

    THE CROSSING
    Mary took ship to Portugal to attend her beloved friend, consumptive Fanny Blood; Fanny and infant son died during childbirth. 1785

    Love has no face now.
    I have lost my other
    self; they open a vein
    and my mind bleeds

    to feet. Fanny Blood
    was my looking glass,
    I knew her in every nerve.
    The doctor never saw
    that her lungs were
    coughing up her kidneys.

    I had sailed for Portugal:
    thirteen extravagant days
    at sea among puling
    companions. Myself, I was
    never better: I swallowed
    sea air like the whale
    engulfing Jonah; my brain
    punched like a bellyful
    of salty men. Then found my

    Fanny already in labour,
    mother and child
    sinking
    past my keel
    like a pair
    of bleeding fish.

    The voyage home
    was a tempest. When
    the British captain refused
    to rescue the sinking
    French, I sharpened my teeth
    to expose his
    injustice. My companions
    followed; together
    we made him gybe the ship.
    I wanted those men
    alive.

     

    5

    VAINGLORY
    Mary Wollstonecraft is governess in Cork, Ireland, to the daughters of the frivolous Lady Kingsborough. 1786. The final line comes from Mary's letters, and I quote it again in my novel Midnight Fires.

    I am tormented by dogs.
    I drink ass's milk
    but it only sours
    the vitals. A fine lady
    is to me a new species
    of animal: she noses
    her offspring into my lap
    to make room for the dogs.
    They share her bed,
    I daresay her breast.
    She puts the girls out
    to market, jiggedy jig.
    And goes on breeding:
    the business of marriage.

    My mind preys on my body
    the way my mistress
    shadows my mind. She
    would puncture my spirit
    with her dull teeth.
    If I accept her
    daughters' affections, I
    have no designs
    on the dogs. 'I diffuse
    feeling,' says she,
    'like a scattering
    of incense': it makes her
    sneeze. Today I vow
    nothing she commands
    for her Franco-maniac visitor
    will bring me down
    from my book. My French
    sticks in my throat.

    (Published in Wisconsin Review)

     

    6

    THE BOOKSELLER HAS A MOMENT OF MANIC
    Dismissed by the Kingsboroughs, Mary lands on the doorstep of publisher-bookseller, Joseph Johnson with her first novel, "Mary: A Fiction." London, 1788

        Certain physical considerations have kept me from women, but there she was on my
    doorstep, a feral cat starved for the flesh of intelligent discourse. What manner of woman
    was this? No prospects, no sign of that surrender to man or God that hangs on such a condition? Genius maybe, but
    The Education of Daughters a flawed work, copies gathering dust in my warehouse—
    and she dares to chide "Little Johnson" for favoring price over appearance.
        Now I don't believe in witchery, but when she rushed in with her shabby beaver hat
    and a sheaf of new script (fiction!) to break on my chest like a wave of raw light, I gave
    up my shore. (It seems these moments come to certain asthmatics). Tonight, I assured her,
    she would sleep in the wings of St. Paul's.
        But first, she insisted, we would dine, she needed to eat. Then talk. And talk!
        A small man makes a good listener.

     

    7

    FOSTER CHILD
    After publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary takes in a mischievous orphan. London, 1792.

    Though Annie seems
    a child of animal
    spirits and quick
    feelings, I fear
    she will never
    be the kind
    of child I could
    love—though
    I long to… I
    should be mistaken
    if she have any
    sense of honor
    when she grows
    up. I remind
    and remind her,
    holding her gaze,
    and when she looks
    back with those
    chocolate eyes, I melt…
    But then when I
    go to get
    sweetening
    for my tea I
    find that a mouse
    has preceded me.
    A fine child
    may be,
    to those who don't
    keep costly sugar
    in the scullery.

    Pray don't make me
    send her
    away.

     

    8

    THE BRAIN LECTURES THE BODY
    Mary is infatuated with the brilliant, narcissistic—and married—artist Henry Fuseli—platonically, she tells herself. London, 1792.

    The thought of
    an attachment—platonic,
    of course—consumes
    my mind. Begun
    in false refinement
    like gold ribbons
    run through unwashed hair,
    it can end
    in bedlam.
                          If
    there are bars
    to such a union,
    I say: do not un-
    do them—and risk your
    reputation. A heart
    at large must never
    enter the aviary,
    no, it will only covet
    the kite.
                      Yet
    Mr Fuseli has painted
    an oil of Paradise
    Lost— he has invited me
    over tonight
    to see it.
                    I
    simmer
    a slow broth.

     

    9

    DIALOGUE à TROIS
    Mary offers to move into the Fuseli household—and meets resistance from the wife. 1792

    Mary:
    "My proposal
    arises from my esteem
    for your husband.
    I cannot live
    without seeing him
    daily—to offer…
    variety. I seek
    only to unite my
    self to his
    mind. Modesty, to me,
    is sham."

    Sophia:
    "The effrontery of
    that squinting woman!
    She would feed
    on his genius like
    a rat on cheese
    and at his very pallet!
    I see to it, yes, that
    he varies his diet:
    raw pork to stimulate
    the imagination.
    What more can she
    possibly do? Why, he
    mocks her behind her
    back, this woman! I
    shut the door on
    her cheek."

    Henry:
    "No matter, meine liebe.
    She will leave before
    long for Paris—
    this rebel,
    this assertrix of female
    rights. Tonight
    I dine with friends. Do not
    wait up for me."

     

    10

    MARY PREPARES TO LOSE HER HEAD
    Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution (Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!) Mary sets off for revolutionary Paris—alone. December, 1792

    Blind to the Rue Meslée
    the street door opens only
    to the masque of the courtyard.
    There the wet nurse
    thrusts her breasts
    into the mouths of the rich;
    already her milk
    tastes of blood. While
    inside the house Mary floats
    through an isolation
    of servants I might take
    a husband for the time
    being…
    The doors unfold
    and fold in her wake,
    she coughs up fucus.

    Out in the starved street,
    on his way to certain
    death, Louis XVI dangles,
    like a stringed puppet
    in the prison
    of the passing coach.

    She squints up from
    her book and ahhhhhhh
    the bloodshot eyes,
    the bleeding knuckles
    beat on the window glass…
    her mind is a drumroll.

    I cannot put out the candle.
    If only I had kept the cat with me….

     

    11

    THE SHOOT
    Mary meets Gilbert Imlay, dashing American adventurer-novelist. To her, he is the grand passion she has always longed for. To him? See below. Paris, 1793

    Mary, who won't suffer fools,
    Who cries her canon to the world,
    Is caught
    Now in my gunsight:
    A succulent goose on the wing.
    If I bring her down
    She will thank me.

     

    12

    NIGHTSONG TO A NOBLE SAVAGE
    With France and England at war, it isn't safe for an Englishwoman to be in Paris during the Great Terror. So Mary moves to a cottage in Neuilly-sur-Seine; she and Imlay meet at the city gates. Heads may roll in Paris, but Mary is passionately in love. June, 1793.

    Before bed I will
    obey an impulse
    of the heart
    to sing like
    a nightingale in flight
    of the day
    we will begin
    to live together.
    I will try to subdue
    my delight
    with your presence—
    I see that it some-
    times makes you
    frown. I will be good!
    Tomorrow we will see
    if we have time
    to keep our pulses
    quick.

    Shall we meet at the barrier?
    I'll wear my tri-colour
    cockade so they won't
    take me away to prison.
    I'll bring a basket of grapes.

     

    13

    HOW TO COOK A PARTRIDGE
    Imlay manipulates a vulnerable Mary. Neuilly-sur-Seine, Summer, 1793

    Mary grows tender
    As a partridge braised
    In butter. Braising is the way
    To deal with older birds:
    Rub the cavities with cut lemon,
    Crush in juniper berries,
    Bring the fat to a boil.
    Arrange in a thick nest of cabbage.

    Then slice into five pieces.

     

    14

    UNE ET INDIVISIBLE
    Mary now lives with Imlay on the left bank in Faubourg St. Germain, though he is often away on business. Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat in his bath, was guillotined in July; 21 Girondin leaders guillotined; feminist Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland, Thomas Paine in prison and visited by Mary who apparently has American status through Imlay. Paris: October 1793

    I sleep tonight in the room
    where you first pressed
    me on the fever
    of your breast: Penelope
    cannot undo all the threads!
    It is hot; dove wings
    beat on my brain; blood
    pumps through my sewers.
    I've more faith
    in your love when
    you're gone—than here.
    We are always separating.

    We embrace and
    crack! crack! You're off
    with your money-sucking face.

    Must we speak of alum or soap?

    The death of Brissot dropped
    me to the floor. Corday trysts
    with the headsman;
    Olympe de Gouges was stoned
    and has lost her way—
    I scratch in the straw of her
    prison. I pour cold water
    over her burning feet.
    My fingers itch.
    Tonight I make love
    to the ghost of poor Mirabeau.

    For God's sake write to me!

     

    15

    MARY CONSULTS AN ORACLE
    Mary is pregnant and alone in Paris; Imlay in Le Havre on his sometimes illegal shipping business. Paris: November, 1793

    Sir! I have read your kind
    letter to bits. My mind spins
    while my fingers nest
    in my lap: they start
    with the twitchings
    of a creature
    that swims in the spring
    of our love.
    How long
    must you be at business?

    My life is a labour
    of patience, my bowels
    a stone too still
    to push. They call me
    the raven woman
    and I let them.
    I am alone
    with the animal.
    Does it sleep as I sleep?
    Dream of its getting?
    I am the passport
    of a thousand questions.
    Let down your barrier!
    I am coming
    to Le Havre. Till then
    all thought is
    stopped.

     

    16

    THE KETTLE THREATENS
    Imlay and his colleague, Joel Barlow, are trying to raise a force to "capture" Louisiana for the French. He attempts to evade the British blockade to import grain and soap—and export confiscated Bourbon silver in return. Le Havre, November, 1793

    Her letter burns a hole in my intentions.
    It consumes the business
    At hand. What? Must I boil
    In the hearthside pot—succor
    A plump goose with my gut?

    And yet
    I can't bring myself
    To kill it.

    The business of Louisiana is combustible, it calls
    For a steady caper—she can't come now!

    But there are moments
    I kindle
    In her smoke.

     

    17

    PALIMPSEST
    Imlay allows Mary to come to Le Havre, where he finds lodging for them. Although he is mostly "away," she is content with her pregnancy, January, 1794.

    I admit no impediment
    to reaching Havre
    to bid you smile

    us to sleep.
    You have twisted
    more artfully

    round my bark
    than I dreamt! Nay,
    you are the elm

    that bolsters
    these twinning
    tendrils

    (strange tongue
    from a defender
    of free hold)

    But if I, as you tease,
    am a parasite,
    consider

    what climbs inside me!

     

    18

    BREASTING THE FLOOD
    With the help of a French midwife, Mary gives birth to a healthy girl, Fanny Imlay—although they are not legally wed. She relishes breast feeding, which she had recommended to all women in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Back in Paris, some 300 heads roll each day at Robespierre's guillotine. May, 1794

    When my cat purrs
    the fresh stream rushes

    under the frail bridge,
    the earth rumbles

    in the rub of wind,
    the green twigs snap.

    The fire booms
    and there collapsed

    at her bellows:
    five suckling kittens.

    I, too, am a pulley:
    your mouth pumps

    at my swollen hearth,
    my bowels drown

    in a drumroll;
    flames lap my nipples.

    Together we suck up
    the cream of the spilling

    wave, we squeeze
    out the root,

    we pour into fire.

    (Published in POETS ON)

     

    19

    WEANING
    Mary returns to Paris with baby Fanny, whom she attempts to wean. Imlay is still consumed with business—and more; in London he is secretly living with an actress. Robespierre is finally overthrown in July, '94, but for Mary "life is but a labor of patience." September, 1795

    To Gilbert Imlay:

    I deprive myself tonight,
    Sir, of my sole pleasure:
    our child's cries cramp
    my kidneys, I squeeze
    my grief into a sack
    I would heave over
    my shoulder. I find you
    embruted by trade, your heart,
    viscera. Call this
    a cranky letter, say
    that I wife you (if you
    say anything at all!)

    Or do you wean me,
    too, like a cat,
    away from the hearth?
    Does the milk curdle
    in your gutters?
    Tell me the truth!

    In the painting you brought
    of old Versailles, the train
    of the Louis, like BanquoÕs
    seed, freezes on the old
    canvas. The stagnant air
    of my chamber clogs
    my breath, the nipple
    shrinks from its task,

    mind dies into
    disuse.

     

    20

    MARY HOLES UP WITH JOAN
    To divest himself of Mary and young Fanny while he coddles his new mistress, Imlay sends Mary alone by ship to Scandanavia to recoup his money from a swindling seaman. At sea, 1795

    Prisoner of the wind,
    like Joan, I would lay
    siege to Orleans—

    but the pennon dies
    on the lance.
    The ship rocks

    in the sticky
    waters like the ram-
    shackle swing

    in Father's yard
    that even the wind
    would not bring

    to the apple tree;
    it shrinks
    from the world's

    busyness. I
    want nothing
    if not answers

    to my quest-
    ions! but
    the voices

    are still
    in my ear-
    drums, my tempest

    is all eye.
    For better—
    or words

    I wait for wind.

     

    21

    MARY KEELS OVER ON THE ROCKS
    Mary arrives in Scandinavia with young Fanny. Here she takes notes for her celebrated Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. 1795

    The coast of Sweden
    is an uprush of bleak rocks
    into a cleft sky
    and yet

    our boat bowls forward
    as if spell-bound by a lode-
    stone; my palm freezes
    on the oar-

    lock, our child meuls
    at my breast. You handle me
    like a leaky vessel,
    I ooze in eight

    places. I'm empty as a pot
    hole. Keep your money! If
    there is healing to do
    I'll find a way

    or find a way…

    The boat kicks up
    on the rough bank like a dog
    let off a rope and
    drops sense-

    less
    on the deaf
    bluff.

     

    22

    PUTNEY BRIDGE
    Deserted by Imlay and spurned by English society for her unwed status and illegitimate child, Mary attempts suicide a second time (the first by a laudanum overdose). London, 1795

    The wound opens between her legs
    and the world looks.
    He tickles his mistress.
    A living death, she thinks, is
    insufficient. She pledges
    her ghost.

    She moves quickly to dupe
    the brain, the coins clink
    in her pocket like soldiers
    tossing for pieces of her
    skin. The rain is her side-
    kick, it soaks her voices.
    The water is thick as oil
    under the oar; to fall
    from the boat too swift
    a descent: she's bound
    for Putney Bridge.

    She rocks bay to bay
    in the wet dark
    until her dress rushes
    with rain; scrambles
    the wooden bars
    like a squirrel bent
    on its hole in thunder;
    the jump
    stuns
    but the cloak is a buoy
    in the kicky waters;
    the coins break
    through the pocket threads:

    death
    turns
    a cold back.

     

    23

    PATIENCE
    Pregnant by philosopher-humanist William Godwin, who genuinely loves her, Mary marries him, but dies from septicemia (blood poisoning after the placenta was removed in pieces) eleven days after childbirth: London, 1797

    1782 remembered in 1797

    A little patience and all will be
    over.
    Your mother's words
    stop the throat. But
    past, Mum, is past,
    What else do you say
    when Mother's tongue is
    as black as the blows
    you suffered staving
    off the father and then
    the scrape of heel
    as Mother ran to embrace
    the brother? Still

    you cling to that final
    sentence as if it comes from
    a chorus of keening
    women, ignorant of the fighter
    for the Rights of Woman
    soon to be fished
    out of the river
    like any hooked pike,
    got pregnant again—
    and then those lusty
    puppies stuck like leeches
    on the nipples: Patience
    and life will soon be over?

    Mary washes down
    the body, she
    empties the slops, she
    scours the floor.
    The brothers suck
    on their rum.

     

    24

    CROSSING OVER
    The child is Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who ultimately weds Percy Bysshe Shelley and writes Frankenstein (and other novels). Like her brilliant but conflicted mother, passion and impetuosity sometimes override her reason.

    London: August 30, 1797

    Like a head-
    long rush of lava
    out of the earth's
    crust she
    comes! pink mouth
    squalls, hair's a wet
    red tangle as if
    raked by lightning:
    a jolt like this
    into a racking
    dawn could break any
    connection:

              The daughter sucks on the split nipple.

    London: September 10, 1797

    A quick
    cry in the dark
    and an arm heaves up
    as if it would disconnect
    from the kidneys;
    the heart splits
    like water spilling
    over rent rock.
    Her harnessed flesh
    shrinks to
    bone. Breath
    is done.

     

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