His Forked Voice Licked My Mortal Ears Clean

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In The Flight Cage, Rebecca Dunham adopts and manipulates the personas of historical, usually literary, women to explore the various confinements and resistances that they—and by extension, all women—endure.

True confession: I’m lazy when it comes to history. I have yet to read about any historical event without first having my interest piqued by hair-sprayed, exfoliated actors in ensemble-cast Hollywood productions. I’d like to thank The Tudors for inspiring me to read up on Henry VIII and the origins of the Church of England; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for getting me to catch up on the James-Younger Gang and the American Old West; and someday, I swear I will sit through enough of Pearl Harbor to want to learn everything I can about the non-Michael Bay version of WWII.

In our heavily televisioned/movied/YouTubed zeitgeist, I don’t think I’m so uncommon—for further evidence, see Oliver Stone’s bank account. It is uncommon, however, for a book of poetry, however well wrought, to have a widescreen-esque effect on the atrophied curiosity centers of my brain—but Rebecca Dunham’s sophomore book, The Flight Cage, has done it.

In The Flight Cage, Dunham adopts and manipulates the personas of historical, usually literary, women to explore the various confinements and resistances that they—and by extension, all women—endure. But this is no dehydrated micro-historical dissection. Dunham’s construction of sense detail is rock-solid, near-hypnotic, and emotionally evocative enough to bring the blood, coin and wing imagery that repeats throughout this collection into palpable relief.

Since my undergrad days, via the Norton Anthology version of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, I’ve known Mary Wollstonecraft as an influential early feminist philosopher. I sort of remember a dim flicker of interest in her suicide-attempt-laden affairs and in her daughters, both legitimate and il-; but even those didn’t grab my imagination as much as Showtime-Ann-Boleyn’s brocade-framed bosom or the drawling paranoia of Brad Pitt as Jesse James—that is, until I read,

So many rivers. Blood churning
through the veins, rain’s

roped course down my wet
and unbound hair, the Thames’ cold
body below. His forked

voice licked my mortal ears
clean. Men are strange machines.

Those first stanzas of “Mary Wollstonecraft in Flight” rendered Wollstonecraft more immediately than any of my early literature courses.

Wollstonecraft’s persona informs about two-thirds of these poems. Other personalities include accused—and accusing—Salem witches; Dorothy Wordsworth (wife of “Wm.,” as he’s called in the book); Elsie Viola Kachel, wife of Wallace Stevens and the model for the “Mercury” dime; and two figures without whom no extended metaphor for women’s confinement would be complete: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emily Dickinson.

How does one render a vibrant, dynamic portrait of a woman—and, even more difficult, the complex set of variables that has affected women across centuries—with a few stanzas-worth of words? Dunham’s multi-tiered approach to sensory detail is buttressed by layers of internal and end rhyme, repetition of word and symbol, and a precise, microscopic focus that renders familiar scenes fresh and newly faceted.

“Ergot Theory” references the hallucinogenic, rye-grown fungus speculated to have contributed to the hysteria of the Salem witch trials from the perspective of one of the “so-called Afflicted” who served as a witness against the accused. The poem references T.S. Eliot’s frustrated, verbally impotent Prufrock: “Through the kitchen, doctors / come and go, muttering that I’m / delusional,” and concludes with a haunting image of culpability as the speaker grinds affected rye into flour:

. . . I rock the grindstone back
and forth, either instrument of evil
or its victim. Back and forth, its
rhythm is the rhythm of a woman’s
skirted body, tolling Gallows Hill
like a church bell clapper.

The book’s middle section is comprised of 25 linked poems based on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Dunham weaves lines from Wollstonecraft’s writings with lines of characteristically lush imagery and anachronism. Wollstonecraft’s musings about confinement, weariness, and the fertile minefield of the female brain are stitched together with images of X-rayed bones and “the swimming / pool liner’s cloudless sky” (25). Less straightforward in their points-of-view, these poems create the impression that Wollstonecraft has ridden a plutonium-enhanced DeLorean to the 21st century—or that a contemporary mother is channeling Wollstonecraft, echoing the latter’s exile in Scandinavia through modern-day kitchen windows. In Letter 6, the speaker cooks dinner for her daughter while watching fishermen return from the sea:

. . . I dread to unfold her mind, lest
it should render her unfit for the world she is

to inhabit. In the cove, fishermen land
for dinner. Hake and haddock pour from nets
like silver coins from a bag. Piles of bodies,
piles of pots. They gleam on the dock
like no human flesh, and ready for the broth.

But perhaps all 25 poems in this sequence, while commensurate with the number of Wollstonecraft’s original Letters, are too many. Lack of a clear speaker or narrative might not be a problem in another series. In this sequence, though, ungrounded as it is by titles, a single voice, or static setting, what begins as a rich conversation between Wollstonecraft and our contemporary speaker becomes a jumble of dissonant voices.

That said, Dunham’s ability to conflate historical and poetic speakers may be the most poignant of this book’s strengths. It’s as if Dunham has recorded the collective unconscious of intellectual women. The final section’s title, “Séance,” offers a clue to Dunham’s success. Throughout, these poems seem inhabited by her subject-speakers, as if Dunham were an entranced medium scribbling on a slate. Rather than persona poems, these are possession poems, transmitting messages from agitated spirits encaged in culture and obligation as much as by the burden of their own intellect and choices.

In “Yellow,” a poem possessed by Gilman’s protagonist from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the speaker revels in death-like sickness, arranging herself in bed like a well-preserved corpse as her son looks on. She dreams of dropping him: “I think that I am made for loss . . . / Earth takes back all that we neglect. A comfort I am not ready to accept.” The speaker can neither bear to relinquish the part of herself that the world has declared a sickness, nor to surrender those beloved things that tie her to that world. In The Flight Cage these speakers—whether historical figure or modern woman—are as much possessed by the cultural requirements of womanhood as they, in turn, possess and transform it.

Saara Myrene Raappana’s most recent poems appear or are impending from Harvard Review Online, The Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, and The Gettysburg Review. She’s a managing editor for Cellpoems, a journal that distributes poetry via text message. On good days, by the grace of T9, she can text ten characters per second. More from this author →