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 Cooleys 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 books titlethe young
girls whose accusations began the anti-witch fervorbut 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 books 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 wifes 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: "Youre a trespasser into someone elses 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 Cooleys 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 Cooleys
collection does the same to its readers.
Sophie Cabot Black, The Descent. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004. $14.00
paper (ISBN 1-55597-406-6), 73 pages.
Sophie Cabot Blacks 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 Blacks language and
the spare quality of the lines work to focus the attention of the poems
speakersand readerson the unexamined edges of loss and survival. Yet for all
their elegaic qualities, these poems remain perpetually poised to take flight into
In "The Harrowing," a poem emblematic of the entire collection, Blacks
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 misdirectionmany poems are composed of
only one or two complex sentencesallows 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
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 Blacks poems are
traveling, there is never cause to doubt that the poet will take us exactly where we need
In the books 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 speakers 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
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 poems 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 firstname.lastname@example.org