By Laura Secord
Livingston Press, 2022
Reviewed by Lisa Hase-Jackson
An Art, a Craft, a Mystery by Birmingham Poet Laureate Laura Secord, aka Mojo Mama, is an immersive narrative chronicling the lives of Secord’s ancestors Lydea and Kate Gilbert between the years 1636 and 1669. Told in tandem from each woman’s point of view, poems in this debut collection describe with historic accuracy an epic and engrossing story of hardships from America’s early beginnings.
The first poem in the collection, a sonnet, captures succinctly the role women in Puritan society were expected to fill:
We kept the small alive from day to day,
Kept households warm, kept bread made.
While men sat in the meetinghouse
in ceaseless debate
on sin, redemption, destiny…
yet when the men took notice,
they doubted and named it witchery.
Here, we not only get a sense of how domestic work is undervalued by Puritanism but how behaving contrary to a narrow, prescribed role could result in banishment from the community or even execution. Secord’s choice of the sonnet form for the introductory poem is particularly fitting given its popularity in the 17th century, when these events unfold, and suggests that received forms will recur throughout the narrative arc.
Laura Secord earned her MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada University. While a student, she revised the manuscript that would eventually become this carefully considered collection. Having discovered that her ancestors had been found guilty of witchcraft in the 1600s, and by gleaning facts and context from her husband’s research into her ancestry, Secord renders a vivid and convincing poetic narrative. By becoming intimately familiar with the time period, the landscape, and most of all, the mindset of the women who tell of their experiences in these pages, Secord gives voice to the voiceless and brings to light those who have been overlooked by history, undocumented and repressed.
The saga of Lydea and Kate Gilbert begins with the second poem of the first section. A sestina, “Hasty Rose Ring,” depicts a slice of domestic bliss as Lydea finds her “man / home from the seas.” She and their three children decide to celebrate his return with an impromptu homecoming including “party treats” purchased “With a shilling from spinning.” He shares his “seadog yarns. / as children screech and giggle” before “he falls to coughing.” Lydea remains “hopeful wrapped in his arms” though “his body shivers.” Within the span of the poem, and despite the many treatments and remedies administered by both Lydea and Kate, Lydea’s husband dies. “The Surgeon says, It’s plague,” which spreads to all three children who subsequently fall ill and follow their father to the grave, leaving Lydea and her niece Kate living in their “darkest tale” with vestiges of survivor’s guilt – “yet…not coughing.”
With no means of support, Lydea arranges passage for herself and her niece on board the ship Truelove in exchange for indentured servitude upon arrival in America. Here, their journey parallels that of 17th–century American poet Anne Bradstreet’s. Unlike Bradstreet, however, Lydea and Kate travel below ship’s deck in dim, crowded, unclean conditions and will, once they arrive, become dependent servants. During the three-month voyage aboard the Truelove, Lydea and Kate witness a fellow passenger jump overboard and tend to several others who become ill, including one woman who gives birth on board. The women rely on remedies derived from herbs, tinctures, and experiences they gained while living in London.
Supported with historic documentation and familial connection, Secord relies on factual evidence and emotional truth to incorporate some of Anne Hutchinson’s history into Lydea and Kate’s narrative. A close friend of Anne Bradstreet’s, Anne Hutchinson was intelligent, educated, mother of 14 children, and a dynamic speaker who held prayer meetings where women debated religious and ethical ideas. Her belief that the Holy Spirit dwells within and exists regardless of good works, which the church required for admission in the church, was considered heretical. By casting Lydea and Kate as Hutchinson’s house servants, Secord is able to represent the intimacies of Hutchinson’s ordeal. In the “The Hutchinson Debate,” a contrapuntal poem that explores a conversation between Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane and John Winthrop, a prominent Puritan of the time, illustrates how Hutchinson’s dynamism and eloquence, along with her ability to draw crowds of people, are interpreted by prominent male figures in the community. Where Vane describes Hutchinson as “a woman who preaches / better gospel than your black coats” Winthrop characterizes her actions as “dangerous errors.” While Vane insists that Hutchinson is “Renown as a sympathetic healer, capable of helping women raise / families in this hostile world,” Winthrop insists she’s “Overstepped the boundaries / from the kitchen and the nursery.” Winthrop’s final words on the subject of debate concludes the poem: “It’s time for this woman / to be subdued once and / for all.” Hutchinson is deemed a heretic and jezebel, tried as such, then banished from the community, leaving an indelible impression upon Lydea and Kate. Before leaving her home and community, Hutchinson releases Lydea and Kate from indentured servitude and the women must once again seek shelter and community.
In “A Far Leap,” Kate reflects on this turn of events. “Almost as suddenly as we lose our place… / Lydea / has arrived with cousin Thomas,” soon to say “good-bye to the gables, the fine / glass windows.” Kate and Lydea wrap their feet in “extra rags / to protect against the miles of snow.” They “trek the frozen winter lands” with a Native American scout until they reunite with extended family beside “the Great River” where they are “given dry clothes” and “fed warm pottage.” Positions for each are found in different towns and they must separate. Lydea laments, “I lose my precious strong-willed girl / hoping that she’ll be wise enough / to hearken to life’s dangers,” which, as we have seen throughout, are quite considerable.
As a newcomer to the colony, and with “no husband, / land or title,” Lydea is well aware of her status, yet she must make her way. She sets to work and does her best to acclimate, noting that “folks…settled years before… seemed / cold,” yet “With healing / skills” and “nursing through labor and sickness,” she is eventually accepted.
I saw them take Alyse Young and drag
her away in chains, to be tried for witchcraft.
Last March, we trudged the snow to nurse
the town through shaking chills, coughs and fevers.
When illness caught her, I came to her, soothed
her chest with cedar poultice, made her tea
from wild ginger, kept her fire, fed her family,
did her spinning. As she healed, the light
returned to her eyes and glossed her auburn
hair. She shared her seclusion
as a young wife in this village, wanting to teach
her daughter old-world fairy stories
and celebrate her singing, when no one
her approves delight’s imaginings.
Lydea is soon “called to the house of Goodman H.D. / to dress the whip marks on his wife’s back,” her “punishment for a voice too brash and harsh.” She conveys how “The court ordered six stripes to her naked back,” “in a public display on the Palisado Green,” then describes the scene from her perspective: “Standing at a distance” where a crowd gathers around the woman’s “small frame” and to watch with “men / with muskets ready, and women glaring.” Lydea notes that as the woman is “flogged,” “her arms fought bravely to cover her breasts.”
Besides painting a violent scene that underscores the rigidity with which certain moral codes, particularly those for women, were enforced, “A Lashing” reveals a pattern of abuse against women and foreshadows eventual accusations of witchcraft that soon will be leveled first at Lydea and then Kate.
After an afternoon in the forest gathering herbs with her Native American friend, Lydea returns to town to find “the Constable and a crowd / of Goodwives waiting.” “There she is,” they say, “the Witch.” The Constable knocks the basket of herbs from Lydea’s hands, binds her wrists and makes her climb “into a cart bound for Hartford jail.” She goes before the Magistrates who “wear lace collars to read their verdict” and indict her for “not having the fear of / God” and proclaim her “hanging set for December.
The remainder of the narrative is told entirely by Kate who misses her aunt’s guidance, friendship, and nurturing. Kate loses her husband and is harassed when she does not sell her land or marry another man until, in “5 May 1668,” she is “dragged from [her] bed, one morning / bound and accused of witchcraft.” She is imprisoned and must face the testimony of the people in her community whom she had believed were her friends and neighbors, people she and her aunt had helped and nursed to health. She is found “guilty of witchcraft” and sentenced to hang just as her aunt and many women before her were.
Like Bradstreet, Secord investigates contradictions that exist between harsh Puritan concepts of a judgmental God and love of nature. Using received forms, like the sonnet, pantoum, and sestina, Secord blends modern language with the lilt and pace of formal poetry to create a beautiful marriage of form and function that allows the poet to approach difficult and violent moments of survival and visceral imagery without devolving into pure pathos. Modern comforts of running water, heat at the flip of a switch, access to warehouses of food, and modern medicine obscure harsh living conditions of the17th century–how every day was a literal struggle for life and death–especially for women. Secord brings these realities into sharp focus to revive the past and remind us of America’s early mores meant to control women, mores that bubble up even today.
Lisa Hase-Jackson holds a Master’s in English from Kansas State University and is pursuing her MFA at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her poems have appeared in Kansas City Voices and Pilgrimage, among other literary journals, and have been anthologized in Lift the Sky. She is the editor of 200 New Mexico Poems and editor-in-chief of South 85 Journal.