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Women & Voodoo
August '08


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The Afflicted Girls
ISBN-10: 0807129461
By Nicole Cooley
Book Review by Barbara P. Lovenheim

August 2008

Nicole Cooley, in her book-length poem The Afflicted Girls, uses a New Historical approach to this often written about and still fascinating subject. She includes archival material from the trials and history, poetry, voices of the people of the time, and herself as she does research. She concentrates on the voicing: who will speak, what will they say, and who will be heard? She also stresses the fact that women were the ones who felt the wrath of the patriarchal society: “We’ll rid this village of the Devil. We’ll crush the lies out of their bodies”(29).

The archival material is in several sections: Silence, Fantasy, The Devil’s Book, Video Diary, The Archive of the Future, In the Reading Room, and Error, Imprint, Tear. This primary research is interspersed throughout the poem, grounding it to the historical moment. In the first Archival: Silence, the poem is written in couplets that begin to break down in the last three stanzas. It begins with opening the trial book whose pages “crack into pieces”. This image is juxtaposed to Gallows Hill where the “rope burns the neck,” and the victim is asked, “Have you any last words.” The woman only has “stories splintered,” and the rest of the poem has gaps where the words cannot say what happened. The poem ends with “History choked me/History took hold of my throat,” so the woman cannot voice her experience, and the poet is attempting to do so for her.

There are many specific poems in different poetic styles that voice individual connections with the horrors of the witch trials. John Winthrop speaks about the fear concerning the stability of the church. He does this through a call/response format like that used by a reverend. The quatrains are stepped to show movement, and the italicized one line response follows each four-line stanza. He ends with “Remember that the Invisible world is full of women,” stressing the misogynistic perspective that is the underlying impetus for witchcraft accusations and punishments. Winthrop’s position is reinforced by the poem An Alphabet of Lessons for Girls in which “Vengence against witchcraft is justice.”

Cooley voices the frustration of the girls of the town who are marginalized simply because they are female. They are not allowed to go to school and learn. They are taught to sew and not to think. In The Afflicted Girls, the poem is in couplets that slowly break down as the poem unfolds, first with a shorter second line and then into one line. The girls “speak in unison” and wish “to have a single voice” in order to combat the structure in which they live. They have “this fury of happiness” when men say their names because then they are recognized as human rather than objects.

Tituba, Parris’s Indian servant, is given voice as well. In Testimony: The Wake of History, this terrified woman speaks: “In Salem, the New World sticks to my tongue/like wool. She is a dark-skinned woman who has no rights and represents the dark side of human existence to the town. Tituba is “the small, painful ache/where myths originate” and fear is stamped on her body. As she is examined about witchcraft by Reverend Parris, she feels as if the words are being dragged from her body. There is dialogue in this poem as well as different numbers of verses in the stanzas to show the irregular aspects of the interaction between Tituba and the community.

The individual testimony from the afflicted girls is interspersed throughout the book and holds the reader captive as each voice is explored. Testimony: Bride of Christ by Elizabeth Eldridge Parris, the Reverend’s wife, is in free verse. She lies sick in bed after the birth of her daughter Betty and speaks about the oppression from her husband who demands a never-ending obedience hence the format of the poem. As a consequence of his power over her, he forces her voice back inside her body: “Bury my words in the dirt.” 

Cooley also uses a prose-poem format for the voice of Mary Warren the servant girl who worked for the Proctors and confessed for a time that she was not afflicted. The prose gives the material a frenetic sense as Mary is hounded by Proctor to tell the truth, yet she is terrified of the other girls and their reaction. Her testimony is interwoven with italics since she wavers about what she wants to tell. She also uses different types of sewing stitches to show her connection to events: “In the court I bite my lips and whisper the lesson Fear Proceeds From Love Love is Fear-Buttonhole Stitch.” The image of sewing, a female activity, gives an acute sense of Mary’s dilemma.

As a female poet, Cooley writes about herself as part of the text. In Genealogy, she is asked if she is a descendent of the women accused of witchcraft. She writes as part of a female lineage that links generations of women together. She also is directly part of the poem Archival: In the Reading Room, where she discusses her research. Each of the tercets begins with an image as she connects with the subjects of her work. Her desire is “to drag the narrative out of that century” as she sits in a room that is over three-hundred years distant from the events.

The penultimate poem titled The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is written in tercets divided by the names of those who were hanged. A stone memorial is important, but a written one is essential as well. The women speak out in each of the tercets in their own words. Rebecca Nurse, the elderly midwife and wise woman of the community who was taken from her sickbed to jail states: “I can deny it to my dying day.” Her body was eventually disinterred and reburied at her homestead with a proper monument.

The afflicted girls spoke in a voice that made the community listen to what they had to say. Their oppression was released in the terrifying disruption of witchcraft accusations. Those who were accused have only the court records as their testimony. Since they were women, they did not count for much, were disposable. Cooley resurrects the voice of their suffering, the female voice and gives it poetic form in order to be heard: “I am innocent to a witch.”

About the Reviewer: Barbara P. Lovenheim has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Rochester, and she is presently working on an MFA in creative writing poetry at New England College. She does a regular book review column for Temple Sinai in Rochester, NY where she writes a monthly review on a book by a Jewish author.

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