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The Afflicted Girls: Poems Paperback – April 1, 2004
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"Cooley has summoned the discipline and the craft to maintain a perilous balance between historical researcher and poet. This is a deeply absorbing and powerful rendition of a story whose own power has been too much for some writers."
About the Author
Nicole Cooley is the author of Breach, Milk Dress, The Afflicted Girls, and Resurrection. A native of New Orleans, Cooley directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College–CUNY, where she is a professor of English.
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Nicole Cooley starts here from a popular point in American mythology, the Salem witch trials. When you're tackling something that's been done so many times, you have to take a different tack than others have. Cooley elects to spend much of the book telling the tales from the points of view of some of the more minor characters. Everyone's shown us the Salem witch trials from the points of view of the accusers, the Mathers, etc. But when did you last see the story from the point of view of, for example, Giles Corey, who was pressed to death, or Nathaniel Cary, who broke his wife out of prison and helped her escape? Later on in the volume, Cooley leaves the confines of both Salem and the seventeenth century and draws comparisons between the Salem trials and other incidents in the country's history as well:
"...Heat drums against
their necks. They want to believe a spirit
can lift them out of themselves. They want
to believe they lift each other. Light
as a feather."
("The Afflicted Girls, New Orleans, 1978")
It's solidly-written and it works. Worth checking out if you run across it at the store. *** ½
The good thing is that Cooley keeps her history solid. She did your homework, she cites her sources, and she isn't distorting the "facts" to suit her rhetorical ends. These are all things that poets have a bad reputation for when they take on history, even for a moment--see Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," when everyone just shrugs off the sloppy use of Cortez in the name of "poetic license." Cooley seems to be undertaking a whole new way of approaching "poetic license," redeeming it and moving it forward in a way that is perfectly in tune with her moment in literary history. Having the poems themselves be so moving and well crafted is icing on the cake.
I read the book through in one sitting, and it let me see the way she strikes a nice balance between recurring images, motifs, etc., and finding something new to say and do in each poem. I liked the way Cooley uses the language of the historical figures in a musical and impressionistic way--I know it must have been difficult to provide enough of their voices to convey character and period flavor without letting it crowd out her own voice. Cooley works the two voices together well to let them modulate with one another without being overly theatrical or artificial about it. The mark of a pro.
Cooley makes the wise decision NOT to make her central focus a study of motive: why the first four girls started the lying and why others joined in. This has already been done so many times by other writers taking on the Salem witch trials, most famously of course in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." It was a much better call to investigate what the actions of all parties came to mean within a context of femininity, religion, self-sacrifice, truth & fiction, mystery and history, etc. These aspects of historical investigation make the vehicle of poetry an asset, even a necessity, and not just a clever add-on. It also, importantly, makes it seem like the poetry is there to serve the cause of these misunderstood women, rather than the poet coming across as a creative writer trespassing on the intimate past of these people for her own personal profit or convenience (as in so much bad historical fiction). This is especially strong in "The Waste Book" (the conclusion of which is my favorite pair of lines in the volume).
I had several favorites in this collection--probably "The Salem Witch Trials Memorial" has all of the things I like best all together. The structure works brilliantly to capture the way the mind and the eye work together in a setting like that, and emotionally the interruptions of the names and phrases continually shadows and emphasizes the poet's own (and the reader's) thoughts. The final line is genuinely chilling and appeals to both heart and head in a way that encapsulates the project of the entire collection for me. "Testimony: the Parris House" is another one that sticks to the ribs. So does "Publick Fast"--image, structure, and character all come together well here, and this one is I think best illustrates Cooley's fine musical ear.
I was moved and stimulated by what is written here. Cooley sees both wide and deep, and her writing is simultaneously (not alternately) clear and suggestive.