Two Reviews by Carrie Shipers

Nicole Cooley's The Afflicted Girls
Sophie Cabot Black's The Descent

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Nicole Cooley, The Afflicted Girls: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2004. $16.95 paper (ISBN 0-8071-2945-3), 50 pages.

In "Archival: Silence," the opening poem of Nicole Cooley’s second collection, the speaker confronts the physical shape of the past as well as the insufficiency of official history: "A slipcase keeps the book of voices safe / till I untie the string holding the broken // spine together Then I wait." In this episodic exploration of the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s, Cooley grants voices not only to the "afflicted girls" of the book’s title—the young girls whose accusations began the anti-witch fervor—but also to those responsible for hearing the testimony and those forced to defend themselves against the girls’ accusations. Skillfully intertwining court testimony, Biblical texts, and a stunningly spare lyricism, Cooley investigates the questions of who can speak and who can be heard, questions that resonate throughout the book, culminating in the final line of a poem about Giles Corey, who was pressed to death for refusing to testify: "Nobody can see the lesson: nothing can drive the voice out of the body."

Although many of the speakers of these poems are female, one of the book’s most moving poems is "Testimony: Escape, July 30, 1692," which is told in the voice of Nathaniel Cary, who helped his wife, Elizabeth, escape after she was named as a witch. In this 10-section poem, Cooley captures the confusion and grief of a husband who refuses to believe in his wife’s guilt:

As if the body weighed down is safe.   
As if she could rise from the dirt floor   
to afflict the sleeping town.   
As if leg irons eight pounds each   
could stop panic, cure the girls.    

I am allowed to visit once.    
I cannot touch her.

Throughout this collection, Cooley moves gracefully between the political and the personal, underscoring that the close connection between the two is not the solely modern phenomenon we sometimes think it is.

In the final third of the book, Cooley alternates between historical voices and a more modern speaker, presumably a surrogate for the author, who struggles to make emotional sense from the raw materials of history. In "The Salem Witch Trials Memorial," the penultimate poem in the collection, the speaker confronts her fascination with this centuries-old story, but her thoughts are interrupted by the voices of those who have died: "You’re a trespasser into someone else’s past and, / I am no witch / still, memory is nothing but this cold dirt, a plot of land." Readers familiar with the Salem witch trials will find no reason to complain about Cooley’s scholarship, while the less-informed will have no grounds for confusion; although the book includes a timeline and a notes section, its power is derived from the fullness of its imagining and the dignity Cooley grants her characters. The final lines of "Archival: Silence" read, "History choked me History took hold / of my throat," and Cooley’s collection does the same to its readers.

Buy The Descent at

Sophie Cabot Black, The Descent. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004. $14.00 paper (ISBN 1-55597-406-6), 73 pages.

Sophie Cabot Black’s second book, The Descent, explores a natural world full of portents and the potential for misunderstanding. As the speaker in "And Then," the first poem in this collection, declares, "That was how it began, the many voices / Gathering, the language you thought you invented / Breaking into noise no longer understood." Throughout this book, the clarity of Black’s language and the spare quality of the lines work to focus the attention of the poems’ speakers—and readers—on the unexamined edges of loss and survival. Yet for all their elegaic qualities, these poems remain perpetually poised to take flight into rapture.

In "The Harrowing," a poem emblematic of the entire collection, Black’s angle of entry, slant though it may be, is spoken with elegant authority: "To enter the field without speaking / Of the bad years is to trust what is // Buried, or at least sleeps." This quality of syntactical misdirection—many poems are composed of only one or two complex sentences—allows the poems to enact the small realizations from which they draw their power. The concluding couplets of "The Harrowing" are sufficiently pragmatic, and chilling, to call to mind both definitions of "harrow":

So that one after another we rely on meaning
Nothing, even for what is left behind. In this place, to stay
Only as long as it takes; how to enter   
And allow for leaving without getting caught.

Although the reader may not always know in which direction Black’s poems are traveling, there is never cause to doubt that the poet will take us exactly where we need to go.

In the book’s middle section, the keen observations of the natural world that characterize the previous section become more intimately focused in a series of poems addressed to an elusive "you." "It is all / About return, enough faith to live // On whatever remains," claims the speaker in "Break Me to Prove I Am Unbroken." Yet just as nature repeatedly seems to offer a promise of redemption on which it refuses to deliver, so does the speaker’s beloved. In the last poem of this section, "Heaven, Which Is," the speaker describes heaven thus: "Not as place to discover / Anything: the blank page, the white / Noise, the raw of just being there."

The poems in the third and final section move toward apotheosis without privileging simplistic notions of happiness; in these poems, as in the rest of the collection, small moments of precisely rendered insight provide more than sufficient satisfaction. In the penultimate poem, "In Light of All," the poem’s play with language and syntax works to disguise, but not conceal, the seriousness of what is being said. "While the light in which all that has happened / Happened in so many ways that finally the light / Became what happened" is a description that could easily be applied to this collection as a whole.

Carrie Shipers holds a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  She currently lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.

Carrie Shipers can be reached at