Julianna Baggott's second volume of poetry, the 2006 Editor's Choice winner from the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, is written in the voices of women ranging from Mary Todd Lincoln to Monica Lewinsky. Each poem situates its speaker in a particular historical moment: Lizzie Borden addresses the male jury at her murder trial; Mary Rockwell contemplates her son's fencing injury; Camille Claudel speaks from her studio and from the mental asylum where she was a patient. Whether the speakers in these poems are angry, grieving, desperate, or resigned, they all are armed with eloquence and insight into the circumstances that have shaped their lives, including societal expectations of feminine
behavior. Arguing her innocence, Lizzie Borden uses these conventions to her advantage, reminding the jurors:
We ladies only know what we are taught.
We are your creations:
porcelain hands, hearts sublime.
We are not real-that's why
there were no footprints in the dust: We float
In "Ida Saxton McKinley, the First Lady, Seizes during a Dinner Party," the speaker describes epilepsy as both "stored grief released / violently into the air" and "a secret pleasure." Explaining her illness to her husband, she notes:
The newspapers will call it a fainting spell
How delicate! How ladylike!
But this rugged habit is fit for cowboys.
(Do not look at me with your round eyes.)
Electric, one doctor said.
(Am I now a modem contrivance?)
McKinley values the "comfort" she derives from her seizures and the opportunity to escape her husband's-and the public's-expectations of proper behavior, which extend even as far as diagnosis-fainting spells are deemed more appropriate for a First Lady than epileptic seizures. Both poems highlight one of Baggott's strengths; the women in her poems speak with irony and humor as well as with anger or resentment. They also are well aware of their own complicity and guilt; while several of Baggott's subjects have entered the historical record as victims, the women in these poems do not see themselves as such.
The strongest poems in the collection are those in which the speakers address a specific, rather than a generalized audience; the poems addressed to other women are especially powerful because they allow their speakers to exist apart from the famous men in many of these women's lives. In "Dorothy Day's Daughter, Pregnant with Her Ninth Child, Begs Her Mother for Charity: A Bedtime Prayer," " the speaker confesses:
As a little girl,
I hated the smitten poor who followed you,
hauling their sun-boiled faces and stench.
But see how you have forced me
to become one? How else to be loved by you?
By countering Day's career as a charity worker with the suffering of her daughter's family, Baggott's poem revises the historical record to allow for a more complicated portrait of Day, one that is less flattering but more accurate. Although a few of the poems in this volume are less surprising than a reader might hope, Baggott has crafted a gorgeous collection of poems that succeeds in clarifying and expanding the historical record. "Marie Curie Gives Advice to Her Daughter Irene before Her Wedding" concludes with the lines: "My hope, daughter, is that / what you love doesn't come to kill you, / eye by eye, ear by ear, bone by radiant bone." Baggott's poems succeed in illuminating the interiors of her speakers' consciousnesses and of history itself.