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The Afflicted Girls, poems by Nicole Cooley

Louisiana State University Press, 2004

ISBN: 0-8071-2946-1
Review by: Joanie DiMartino


As a poet with a background in women’s history and museum studies, I have been enjoying the resurgence of poetry books focusing on historical events and perspectives.  When I discovered Nicole Cooley’s The Afflicted Girls, a full-length collection of poems featuring the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, I was eager to read her treatment of the tragedy.  The witch hysteria and subsequent trials, which took 19 lives by hanging and one by pressing to death, has captured the imaginations of historians and fiction writers for over three centuries now, and the entanglements of religion, emotion, and personality were ripe for a poet to delve into and portray.

The Afflicted Girls is a powerful, evocative study of one of the most complicated events in American history.  Cooley’s collection is both sensitive and strong, and she captures the intimate lives of participants—both the accused and the accusers—in rich imagery and language.  The book also includes poems from the perspective of a historian-narrator from contemporary times, seeking, as all historians do, to try and understand how such unique events took place.  The metaphor that threads both historic and contemporary poems together is that of the voice, of the throat.  The opening poem “Archival: Silence” sets the tone, and ends with the lines: “History choked me   History took hold/of my throat.”  The reader is never far away from Gallows Hill within these pages.

Nor is the misogyny of religion or Puritan culture very distant.  Cooley’s poems suggest the restrictive sphere of girls and women as an impetus for the accusations.  The title poem offers the reasoning behind the hysteria:


“Who said vengeance? They love

the meetinghouse’s cold, whitewashed walls
where their accusations scrawl and climb

the surface in beautiful script. She’s a witch,
a witch. I name her a witch.”

The voiceless, it seems, will ultimately find a way to be heard, heedless of lives taken as the human need for expression surfaces.  This is also an argument put forward by current historians, as a better understanding of women’s lives throughout history sheds a different light on events often interpreted through a male perspective.  Yet Tituba, the enslaved Carribean-Indian woman often recorded as beginning the witch hysteria through fortune-telling, remains the most elusive—and voiceless—of actors in this drama.

The historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries ignored what little actual documentation existed about Tituba’s life, choosing instead to embellish her story by describing her as African, rather than Indian, and claiming that she practiced Voodoo, bringing occult magic from Barbados to Massachusetts.  In her scholarly book, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (New York University Press, 1996), Elaine G. Breslaw offers a comprehensive study of Tituba.  She notes that the fortune-telling techniques described in the trials were actually of English folklore origin, not African or Indian, and that accusations against Tituba stemmed from racism, rather than any evidence previous to the trials of her participation in occult rituals.  Cooley’s collection is well-researched, and her poem “Testimony: The Wake of History, TITUBA” displays a sensitivity not only to the person Tituba once was, but also to the intricate, intimate role she held within a Puritan minister’s household:


                        “His fingers circle my wrists. His ribs
                        lock over mine, press me against the pantry wall.
                        His voice, pure threat. Confess.

                        Upstairs, his daughter spins and twists
                        in bed, calls out my name.
                        Later I will hold her tightly
                        while she shudders in my lap.”         

Nothing about New England life in the 1690s was easy, and nothing regarding the causes of the Salem Witch Trials is easy to explain.  Cooley’s collection should be admired for not only the skill she shows as a poet, but also for not oversimplifying history.  If the strength of this collection lies in the historical perspective of the poems, however, then the book’s weakness lies in the poems set in contemporary times.

The sequence of “Archival:” poems are placed throughout the book, yet for the most part they do not add insight to the collection as a whole.  The reason for this is that the message within each “Archival:” poem is essentially the same: history is “crowded with everything that has already been said” and the historian-narrator longs to reach through the texts to discover what did indeed occur.  This sentiment is accurate and admirable; however, I’m not certain it warranted a full sequence.  The “Testimony:” sequence, hold some of the most powerful poems in the book.

The historical persona poems do not follow through to the hangings and aftermath.  Rather, Cooley begins to leave the past with a prose poem where Mary Warren, an afflicted girl, is now herself accused of tormenting others through witchcraft.  I believe this was a deliberate decision by a seasoned poet.  Poems of gore and brutality can run the risk of desensitizing the reader, or at best be seen for simple shock value (and what poem about such a topic can compare to “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton?).  Instead, I would argue that Cooley chose to refrain from the possibility of slipping into melodrama, a style the contemporary town of Salem, Massachusetts, offers in excess.  I must admit I laughed out loud reading Cooley’s “The People vs. Bridget Bishop, July 1999,” and “Genealogy,” as she deftly captured two modern—yet very different—perspectives attempting to capitalize on the drama of the past.

The poem second to last, “The Salem Witch Trials Memorial,” is, like the memorial itself, a capstone piece for a series of events, or in this case, the poems.  Words taken from the victims’ testimony during the trial are engraved in stone around the memorial, and within the poem hold the structure of each stanza like a poignant, metaphorical scaffolding.  The text of victims serves to humanize those swept up in events beyond their control; while people of the 21st century may not comprehend belief in spectral evidence or the devil’s book, we can, however, understand the force of language.  Cooley ends this poem with the phrase, “the past is all lies written in your hand.”  Regardless of portraying the lies or truth of that fateful year in Salem Village, The Afflicted Girls captures the human complexities in stunning, poetic clarity.    


About the Reviewer:  Joanie DiMartino holds a master’s degree in public history from Rutgers University.  She has worked in the history museum field for fifteen years, where she often pairs poetry and history.  Her chapbook, Licking the Spoon, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007.  She currently runs The Tipped Inkwell poetry seminars.

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