Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Salem in Séance Poems by Susana H. Case
Salem in Séance
Poems by Susana H. Case
Review by Dennis Daly
Witches (i.e. those who have signed the devil’s book) cannot get through the Lord’s Prayer without stumbling, or recite the Ten Commandments in order and intact. So, for a stutterer like me, saying "h-h-h-hallowed be thy name" in the greater Salem of 1692 could be the onset of some serious judicial trouble. And, indeed, all sorts of spasmodic tics, flaws and quirks convinced that pent up joyless citizenry that Satan’s diabolical plan to destroy the Puritan Church had neared its triumphal conclusion.
Susana H. Case uses her poetic rendition of these happenings to give voice to some of the twenty executed women and men of those times and also to describe the complicated motivations of the accusers and political backdrop involved in the progression of this hysteria. She also engages her subjects with direct comments creating snippets of dialog in many of her poems. This unusual convention is not always successful but when it is it adds mightily to the poem’s power.
In her poem Sarah Good Case summons the voice of one poor soul going through one hell of a midlife crises. Here is part of Sarah’s story,
the villagers cannot abide me: my poverty,
curses I admit
I have made upon their livestock.
[You make excuses for them!]
But I must, I am wrecked
since the loss of inheritance
rights, my downhill slide,
know the ruin upon me
makes my eyes look hollowed out,
more like seventy than thirty-eight.
Even my four-year-old
gives evidence against me. And my husband,
William, affirms if I am not already a witch,
I soon will be one…
Yes, her husband William must have been one understanding son-of –a bitch.
Another one of the accused does better in the husband department. Elizabeth Cary, the title character of a more uplifting poem in Case’s collection, puts it this way,
though he has never broken the law
before, Nathaniel is influential
enough—mariner and merchant—to arrange
my escape from the eight pounds
of weight, from what would otherwise
be my fate. New York, bless
Governor Fletcher, no friend
of Massachusetts (the two governors
almost slug it out on Martha’s vineyard),
provides asylum. My husband
loves me. The others conspire to get what
we have, divide it among themselves.
For prison keepers who live in penury, and
for those like my Nathaniel
rich enough to assure salvation, praise
the Lord for the glory of bribery.
The poet gets a number of things right. The victims of the Salem Witch Trials are not model human beings. They are earthy country folk with their own fears and shortcomings. Case’s portrayal of four year old Dorcas Good, in the poem of that same name, by her mother, Sarah Good, is riveting. Sarah explains,
four years old, a fluttering
little bird whom I suckled
not so long ago, I admit
is a disordered child. They searched
her too, found a nipple on her finger
which could nourish a snake. If my salvation
after death depends
upon her goodness, I am ruined.
This child, her ways wicked and strange;
All is fury, all is pain.
Case in her poem Without Powerful friends portrays the case of Bridget Bishop, who, among other things, was accused of killing her husband with the use of a voodoo doll. After the first stanza Case interjects an account of Samuel Shattuck’s testimony against Bishop. Shattuck complains that in 1680 Bishop had bewitched his eldest child. This section works quite well. Later on in the same poem Case’s updated language and comments work less well. Bishop speaks,
…If I zoomed three hundred
years into the future, those about me
would still wish me hanged.
[It’s true, it happens every summer
now in front of tourists]
So there it is. I adore my big hats,
taverns, my old house—unlicensed
place of amber-colored cider and play—
my play at shuffleboard,
have no reason for shame
from that forbidden game.
[I’d bet you’d like a cigarette.]
The section of the book called Accusations includes the poem Cursed Children. Case gives voice to Betty Parris, the nine year old daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris. Here the poet’s interjected comments are biting and effective. The poem begins,
…Household chores are difficult
for me. [You’re only nine, Betty Parris!]
I am sickly, do not know
why I should be sickly. Unexplained
sickness sticks to mother.
[Take a closer look at your father.]
I do not know what you mean.
In the poem Master Witch Case recounts the execution of George Burroughs. Burroughs, a former minister himself, does the unthinkable. At the hanging he recites the Lord’s Prayer without a hitch. What to do? Enter the helpful Cotton Mather. The poet concluding the piece explains,
The crowd grows apprehensive.
Everyone knows what a witch must do
is make a mistake.
Then for those unsettled
in the crowd, Cotton Mather reminds them
the hanging must proceed;
George Burroughs has been convicted
by a skillful and temperate jury
(and perhaps he is a Baptist).
Sad, corroded village.
Such was the darkness of the day—
These perceptive and passionate poems by Susana Case are not only well worth the read but a good way to give sentient voice to historical injustice. And poets certainly have a plethora of that raw material.