Monthly Archives: September 2011

Mary Leapor, Poem and Perspective**

Several years ago, I wrote a poem about Mary Leapor (I’ll paste it to the end of this post).  I don’t expect anyone to gasp at this news.  It isn’t a particularly stellar poem, nor is it unusual for me to attempt such literary feats.  I have written poems about other historical characters.  Recently, however, I felt inspired to dig out the Leapor poem and post it on Eratosphere.  For those unaware, Eratosphere is a site in which the modern day heavyweights of metrical poetry mingle.  I’m not a heavyweight, but that’s all right–anyone who is serious about poetry, and who has a backbone, may post a poem.  The critiques can be brutal, so I was pleasantly surprised that several people really appreciated my Leapor poem. 

One critique, however, had me wondering about the nature of feminism.  To start with, the woman claimed my poem had inspired her to read about Mary Leapor.  That’s a good thing, I think.  Then, she asked me why I hadn’t focused a little more on Leapor’s feminist views, due to the highly irregular nature of such thinking in Leapor’s time.  I scratched my head.  Were feminist views really all that uncommon prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?

Sometimes, my brain rolls along like an unfolding scroll with snippets of things read, but this scroll is like the Dead Sea texts–old and damaged (the scroll is, not me!).  I don’t want to do any name-dropping, so please believe me when I insist that there are many literary and intellectual women from the 17th and 18th centuries who preceded Wollstonecraft.  Mary Leapor is but one who dropped into the world for twenty-four short years and managed, in that time, to leave a wealth of verse that includes these: “Yet, with ten thousand Follies to her Charge, / Unhappy Woman’s but a Slave at large (This, I believe, is from her poem, An Essay on Woman).”

Am I to believe that feminist women of the ilk of Leapor sprung on the scene suddenly, as if they emerged from the great deep in response to God’s voice: Let there be light, and there was?  Surely, that can’t be the truth.  People–of both sexes–have been known to rise against their oppressors throughout all epochs of history.  The fact is, though, that we want to cram the idea of feminisism into one definition–a modern one.  In the past, European women of a feminist slant attempted to reconcile their Christian beliefs with their desire for autonomy and independence.  It could be a quandary, but not necessarily.  Living under various authority figures doesn’t negate the passion of the individual.

Mary Leapor was a servant.  Some would say she wasn’t a good servant, but she was one, none the less.  Within the confines of her life, she still managed to read copiously and scribble out heroic couplets.  For my poem, I focused on her servitude because it’s the basic position that all people find themselves in: male or female, slave or free.

Here’s my blank verse poem, with its lines of trochaic pentameter:

The Short, Sad Life of Mary Leapor

Mary is a watcher without windows,
and I hear that under her disguises
hides a maid that stirs pea soup for servants
in the kitchen with the melted candles.
Who is like you, little Mira-Mary?
Turn the meat; don’t scribble in the shadows,
waiting for Cordia’s greasy clutches.
Stir the pot and stop your constant dreaming!
Out the door with nothing but your verses,
run from her, and leave behind her curses!

Mary runs to Brackley, hiding rashes
where her cap strings meet her woolen layers.
In her broken hands she clutches volumes,
wilted papers streaked with new pastorals.
Who has taught the serving girl her letters?
Better—who has led her to the pastures?
Pope and Swift together could not couple
thoughtful lines like you, my Mira-Mary.
When it’s morning, tend your father’s garden;
in the night, accept his wine and pardon.

Mary faints.  She falls by sparking embers;
spots are blazing on her pearly brow bone,
as adornment for her plain complexion,
beauty without gold, nor paint for blushes.
Mary, blind now, where are all your letters?
From your drowsy fever-words, drop riches
never heard from spinster serving ladies
sick at twenty-four with Peter waiting
at the gate–his ear to your oration,
kneeling down with words of your salvation.

**I originally wrote this post for The Female Quixote in the summer of 2009. I haven’t written poetry in years and, consequently, haven’t been over to Eratosphere for several years, either.


The Secret Life of Mrs. Astell

Years ago, I ordered the book The Eloquence of Mary Astell by Christine Mason Sutherland on Amazon. It arrived with its cover upside-down and backwards, the pages set together right to left, instead of left to right. Looking back from modern days into the life of a person who lived three-hundred years ago is like that; isn’t it? It’s one thing to read what historians have to say about a historical personage, another to read source documents written by the person herself (in this case, Mary Astell), or by a contemporary who actually knew her. But we still don’t really know Mrs. Astell.

I’m going to propose the preposterous. Perhaps conjecturing that Mrs. Astell secretly kept a whore house would be a little much. What if, though, she didn’t really spend all of her time working diligently, eating plain food and drinking nothing but small beer, and dressing in coarse, plain clothing? What if, behind closed doors, after she had hung her head out the window at visitors and shouted the words Ballard claims she did, “Mrs. Astell is not at home right now;” what if she passed her time in daydreams?

I know of few authors who would not admit to wasting their lives in daydreams. Why should Mrs. Astell be the exception? What if she frequently languished on a sofa with a glass of port and watched a play unfold on the parlor wall of her mind? What if it was a bawdy play, to the style of restoration comedies, before the comedy of manners came into fashion? What if she saw herself as the heroine of the play: a lively Cornelia, as in the famed Feigned Courtesans?

Mrs. Astell, I’m imagining it now: You’re walking from church in your black garb, back from London to Chelsea, through the wintry mists. You enter through your garden, and then through the front door for all the world to see. You are the pious neighbor, the one who arises early on Sunday in order to attend a church that isn’t even in your neighborhood. You hang your bonnet and cloak, light a fire to warm your bedroom, and sit at your coffin.

What is a coffin doing in your bedroom? Well, as you would say, it’s there so you’ll always be thinking of God and the afterlife. When the afterlife is in your thoughts, your thoughts remain pure. It works especially well, you explain, as a writing desk. Your words must glorify God, rather than yourself and your own vanity. Isn’t the coffin empty, though? And isn’t that a sad way to consider your life with God?

You raise the lid of the coffin and peer inside. It’s not empty, but filled with clothes: yes, dress-up clothes. How astonishing! You dress yourself in one item of clothing; it’s a tunic made of bright red cloth. It’s to remind you, so you tell yourself, of the educated women of old, exotic Romans or Greeks, those unlike the English women of your own time. You pour yourself a glass of port, dip your pen in ink and begin to write. You’ve thought about dancing on previous occasions, but you still remain Mrs. Astell and no other. Dancing is not for you. Singing, on the other hand, is an ingenuous diversion well worth your time, as you yourself say in your Proposal to the Ladies. And so you sing.

You carry your books, your port, your papers down into the kitchen, where you prepare yourself a modest meal of bread and cheese. You may live in secret extravagance, but you simply don’t have the time or the money for more voluptuous meals. You carry your food back upstairs, too absorbed in your reading of Descartes to continue in song . . .


If Life Were a Chiasm, Where Would It End?

I’m a nerd who reads nearly every day. I read it when I’m feeling low and tired and frustrated. I read it when I need inspiration. The other day, I read a book excerpt on Wired about dyslexia. Aside from knowing a few people over the years who suffered from this disability, I wasn’t too familiar with the brain processes that cause the condition. According to the authors of Dyslexic Advantage (the authors were interviewed in a separate article here), dyslexic individuals have brains differently wired from the average person.

This got me thinking about chiasmus and mirror ideas. I have them, you know, and I’m not alone. Did you know Leonardo da Vinci wrote backwards, as if he was writing in a mirror? Some experts believe he was dyslexic. Okay, I don’t and can’t do that because I’m clearly not dyslexic. Nor am I an artist or a genius by any stretch of imagination. It wouldn’t even occur to me to write backwards, but when I began to study classic rhetoric, the device I fell in love with, that resonated with my thinking, was chiasmus. For more about chiastic expressions, see Dr. Mardy, whose newsletter I’ve been receiving via e-mail for about four years now.

I don’t need an excuse to think of chiasmus. Neither do you. If you read the Bible, an understanding of chiastic expressions is paramount to understanding ancient literary thinking patterns. With our western linear thought processes, many of us fail to understand what’s going on in certain biblical stories, such as the creation account in Genesis. As I was searching for an image for this post, I serendipitously discovered this site: Chiasmus Studies. While I’ve simply made it a hobby to find chiastic expressions and ideas in the Bible, the man who runs this site has made it an area of serious study. Check it out. It’s exciting stuff.

What is a chiasm? you ask (because you didn’t go to Dr. Mardy’s site). Simply put, a chiastic phrase is one in which the words of one phrase mirror the words in the next: By day the frolic, and the dance by night. Day mirrors night, and frolic mirrors dance. This line of poetry, by the way, is from Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes. Samuel Johnson is well-known for his chiasms. A chiastic passage would be shaped similarly, but the mirroring is of ideas and not just words: A-B-C-X-C-B-A. Each letter represents an idea, with the central or final idea occurring at X. The X is the climax, so to speak. The passage then works its way back to the beginning.

Why all of this nonsensical rhetoric, and what does it have to do with dyslexics? I don’t have a clue. I’m guessing, though, that dyslexics have a unique ability to understand chiastic thought processes. And you know what else? I empathize with intelligent people who are trapped inside stupid people. I am was. I was the stupid kid, the one who fell apart at the sight of story problems and couldn’t process instructions and couldn’t cope with school in general. I couldn’t succeed, just like many dyslexic children. Yet as an adult, I intrinsically understand chiasmus. Go figure. This post has no other reason, except la razón de ser.

p.s. Next week, I’ll be out of town, but will cull some posts from my first blog, The Female Quixote.


Pisces: The Two Fishes of A. Leon Miler

Two Fish by A. Leon Miler

This is an ode to the fish who swim this river, up the ribbons of green, swimming toward an indefinite conclusion. This is an ode to the sign of Pisces, of which we are under, awaiting the water-bearer to return, to ladle the water in the rivers and seas, to pour out his might. This is an ode to the glimpses of color and light hidden in the water, of copper rays and red topaz, faceted as stones worked by a craftsman, who in this case happens to be A. Leon Miler, via the works of God.

This is an ode to my dad, who is my favorite artist for many reasons. If not for the swaying of the lines, the colors, the idiosyncratic ideas, then for the grins on the fishes, which remind me that neither he nor I ever take too much of life seriously–even if it seems as if the hook is in our mouths, and we’ve been baited, pulled free, and thrown back. We keep swimming, unfazed, our fins grazing others, grins on our faces–in the same direction.

I pray that God will bring my dad blessings–because of the years he’s worked diligently–sorting his life and slotting art into second place–because he’s always blessing others first. And, as a matter of fact, if God wants to know (and he already does), my dad brought poetry into my life, all of my early love for T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. Of course, both my parents must take credit for instilling my Christian faith in me. How they managed, I don’t have a clue, but somehow God managed to work through them to reach past my cynicism, know-it-all-ness, and my general hard shell of inhumanity.

And so those fish–yes, the Pisces in the image above–must be my mom and dad, swimming the river. The slender one is my mom, and the one with a deep grin–that’s my dad. As with most art, this watercolor works on multiple levels: Christians are under the sign of Pisces bringing the Good News to the world, and my parents brought the Good News to me, so they are the fish. But others are fish, too (thank God, not the ones caught for fish-fries). 

Someday, along this river, Christ will return as the Water Bearer and gather up his multitude of various and multi-colored swimmers. Do I sound silly to you? Well, I’m not. I’m utterly serious. Yet, I still have this grin on my face. Thanks, Dad.


The Gastric-Erotica Book Scale: Five Flaming Stars!

I have a confession to make. I don’t enjoying cooking, and I don’t particularly like eating, either. If my family didn’t need me to play cook for them several times a day, who knows how often or regularly I’d enter the kitchen? You’ll think I’m a little nutty, but as an extension of my weirdness, I forced my house designer (otherwise known as husband) and builder (aka brother-in-law) to add a breakfast nook into the already tight floor plan so I could hide all vestiges of eating and meals in a back corner and not obsess over food thoughts spilling over into the pristine areas of my home.

Knowing this, would you be surprised if, when reading my works of fiction, you found an overabundance of food descriptions? Call it gastric-erotica. Call it food porn. Call it what you will, but you’d have to admit that my fiction is rife with gratuitous scenes of graphic eating. Salty olives burst in mouths, tart-sweet apples crisply expel their juices into gaping maws, roasted meats fall into succulent heaps onto plates. And, oh, does the wine ever flow–the cups run over with flowing sweetness. Take this, for example: The other night, my husband took me for a date, and I ordered a rare prime rib with a side of horseradish and a glass of Chianti, all of which taste better to my memory than they did in actual fact. I don’t need to describe my dinner any further, do I? Doesn’t a rare steak, seared on the outside, running with juices on the insides, dipped in spicy sauce, sound visually appealing? Or maybe you’re vegetarian. Doesn’t the image, then, of an Indian paneer in a creamy tomato sauce by the side of basmati rice seeded with cumin give you tremors of delight? The synesthesia is overwhelming–so encompassing that my mouth is tasting what my mind virtually smells.

I have another confession: If the fiction I read doesn’t provide me with enough gastric-erotica satisfaction, then it isn’t great literature. In my flaming food scale, I need to read books with at least three stars. I long for graphic food descriptions, and a lot of them, at that! I need to mentally taste those kippers or blackberry pies or egg-salad sandwiches made with butter and dill, or creamed spinach by the side of lamb chops laced with mint.

What are your favorite bookish food descriptions? Edmond’s Turkish Delight or tea with Tumnus? Hannah’s savory casseroles in the midst of five-course meals? Redwall’s Skilly n’ Duff?