Ruth Carr, Feather and Bone, Arlen House, p88,
Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Ann McCracken were both born in the 1770s, and both perhaps better known in history through their respective brothers’ actions. Carr’s third collection concerns the lives of these women, “not a biographical history” but “a personal response”.
The women are largely dealt with separately – four poems at the end bring them together, but it is Wordsworth that dominates here, coming first and given twice as many poems as McCracken. This might suggest that Carr felt a closer kinship to Dorothy than fellow Belfast native Mary Ann; although for the contemporary reader, it is perhaps easier to connect to the ideal of a conflicted pastoral life from the Wordsworths than the heavy political context of the McCrackens.
And so we are introduced to the orphaned Dorothy through images of nature, “a little girl wary of bruising | a butterfly’s wing”, running towards the laughter promised in “dew-soaked grass” and “the gurgling Derwent”. Dorothy’s Country foreshadows a theme of the book, that of identification, trying to separate the true Dorothy from that of Wiliiam’s sister.
Hear how a blackbird begins its own song
without trying. Try to unhinge who you are –
let it wing out your body
In The Embryo of Song, dealing with William’s own isolation, Carr quotes William in describing Dorothy as “a hidden bird that sang”, sister and brother finding home in each other after losing their parents, only reunited in her twenties. From there, we see her first counter with Coleridge – his spellbinding voice “a river from somewhere else you half-imagined”, echoes of the Derwent – quickly moving to Coleridge and William’s falling out in 1810, a loss that Dorothy feels heavily. Carr waivers across the line of friendship and romantic feeling between the two; when Dorothy describes a scene of bullocks in a field with a “granted ease in their bodies, their | handsome woolly heads”, it is easy to imagine similar admiration being transferred to Coleridge.
Carr sets out the Wordsworths’ simple but harmonious life in short poems of home-making, describing “re-used tea” made for intellectual debated by the fireside, “a stone slab floor | with a stream bed below” used as a makeshift fridge, the making of candles, the costly payment of the window tax rather than having to forego available light. In A Way of Life, we see the measures taken and sacrifices made, not only as a housekeeper, but as a writer of her own merit.
Speared as many stitches as words, shirt after shirt,
stocking after stocking.
Papered the wall with newsprint above the buttery
trying to line little lungs against the damp.
These were the patterns that cut and pinned your life.
For years the walking worked its balm
Giving this arrangement, Dorothy could easily be painted as a tragic figure, a spinster who forsook her own writing and indeed her own life for servitude to her brother (“had you walked your own wild gait | instead of reining in to serve his rhyme”), then largely usurped by William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson. And whereas Carr indeed addresses all of this, she also takes pains to show Dorothy’s own gifts for describing nature, her contentment found in companionship and long walks, her knack for survival and making-do. Carr has clearly studied The Grasmere Journals and found a women overlooked and worth shouting about.
Similar, we are first introduced to social worker and abolitionist Mary Ann McCracken as “their little sister on spindly legs”, an intentionally pitiful image to begin with, quickly contrasted with the schoolchild in her element, solving mathematical problems, “a mission to make things balance”. One has to admire Carr’s witty foreshadowing here, also using the absence from the classroom of the Poorhouse girls to allude to social imbalances. Likewise we see “a pamphlet at your elbow by the loom”, early signs of McCracken’s interest in social reform.
The McCracken poems require a bit more context, especially political, Carr choosing wisely not to go into the story of Henry Joy and the United Irishmen, but to keep the focus on Mary Ann’s own part in the story. Kilmainham Letters quotes from her writing to her interned brother, Mary Ann’s resolve displayed in the lines “entirely your hand slipping through the bars | to one who reads in the same light”, kinship not only familial but political. Given the context, some of the poems here weigh more on the political than personal side: ‘The Moderate Men are Sound Asleep’ has the feel of a reform pamphlet’s calling-to-arms. We also see bold contrasts to the Wordsworths’ own pastoral idea, with a violence and anger far removed from anything seen at Alfoxden House:
Two women can bear it no longer
Cotton frocks and straw bonnets,
baskets packed for a picnic
head down through streets where
all they hear are the floggings,
the lash and its answering cries
subduing their curfewed town.
The weight of dealing with such civil unrest – “Heavy as Cavehill about your shoulders” – is recognised by Carr, asking of McCracken in Just whether she ever longed to “cast it aside” and return to happier times with her brother. It is Carr’s ability to show empathy and realise the human hardships that stir the reader, such as when Mary Ann is given permission to take on her brother’s membership of Linen Hall Library after his execution.
Was that the hardest part,
drawing a line through his name?
Was it a salve to nestle yours below,
to take a familiar title from the shelf
and sit where he might have sat
Despite their different backgrounds, we do see similarities between the two women. Compare McCracken’s “salve” and Wordsworth’s “balm” of walking, the frugality, reusing teabags and the “cost of counting of neighbours, of flour sacks, cambric”, this particularly jarring when compared to “muslin in purest white for the gaoler’s wife”, pecking orders firmly established.
The danger of any themed collection concerning a third party subject is that the poems can be too concerned with history and portrayal. Thankfully, Carr is wise enough to put just enough of herself into the mix. Whereas the poems may be in the voice of Dorothy, William, Mary Ann or an omnipresent narrator, Carr drip feeds in her own voice, showing us her admiration and wonder for her subjects, without every coming across as unctuous or conciliatory.
The success of Feather and Bone lies in that the collection leaves you wanting to find out more about Wordsworth and McCracken, and does not ask too much of the reader from the offset. Admittedly, this reviewer came to the book knowing the barest details of these women’s lives; but supported by brief introductions and a healthy amount of notes, the effectiveness of the poetry has not been lost. Carr’s writing has developed greatly since her last collection (nine years ago, too long!), and it takes a skilled mind to find the right balance of biography and imagination to use poetry to bring these women to life in such a complete way. As stated in ‘Wept by her Brother’s Scaffold’ (the unfair inscription on Mary Ann’s headstone), it is “purblind to narrow her to that heart-pour of tears”. Carr has widened the scope of two lives here, and let us hope that the teaching of popular history will follow.
Feather and Bone will be launched by Arlen House at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on Sunday 17th December, 5pm.