not getting any closer to
margery kempe gives birth in a hairshirt
a wifthing par excellence a female patience
figure in her fourteenth confinement
a comfortably finds a delusion that suits
her status & lets no one come near or else she might
shatter herself into a shardy mess
in lieu of an education margery
kempe learns her prayers by heart & by rote
& maybe she mums them while chained
up in a stockroom in her postpartum
your daughterthing is sound
asleep your little
girl is sound
Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s wifthing (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2021) after spending time previously examining two of the collection’s component parts as simultaneously-produced chapbooks: margerykempething (2017) and qweyne wifthing (2017) [see my review of such here]. What had now been seen as separate structures is now built into a larger, uninterrupted, single-length work: a suite of twenty-five individual poems each titled “margerykempething” that leads into a suite of twenty-five individual poems each titled “qweyne wifthing,” before leading into a suite of thirty individual poems each titled “goodwifthing.” Presented as a single, book-length suite made up of short poems instead of as three distinct, discrete suites, how does one thread bleed into the other?
Throughout wifthing, McCarthy blends contemporary perspectives with Medieval experiences in the terrain of women through mothering, daughtering and the dreaded, dissolute “thing-ness” of how female work, thought, action and birth have been devalued generally and very specifically, cited as little more than the property of men. She writes a dialogue of previously unspoken, unrecorded and unheralded women and their experiences, writing to recover the absences and dismissals of history. “you get what you get & you don’t get upset,” she writes, in an early “margerykempething,” “margery kempe gives birth in a hairshirt / queen victoria in a shift nightdress / gives birth nine times & then her daughterthing / gives birth in same a braid with & against / the wisp patience is not her pigeon [.]” Or, as the poem that immediately follows opens: “there were two types of daughterthings the ones / who purposely stepped on ginkgo ovules / & the ones who picked their ways around them [.]” She writes on female agency, from childhood to marriage; she writes on female desire, sexuality, motherhood and the complications that can arise postpartum. Engaged with deep and ongoing research, McCarthy explores the lives of Medieval women, writing the two sides of the long view: “you are the shape of my midlife crisis / margery kempe where is your body / the cairn to mark you,” she writes, early on in the collection. As she cited in the chapbook edition, “margerykempething” took its title from the Book of Margery Kempe, the manuscript of which that sits in the British Library. It is an edition that sits as a single copy, giving Margery Kempe the title of “first English autobiographer.” When a digital version of “medieval mystic” Kempe’s manuscript was released online in 2014, Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian:
Kempe lived in Norfolk from around 1373 to 1440. After she had given birth to 14 children, she made a vow to live chastely with her husband, and embarked on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany. Her devotion was expressed through loud cries and roars, which often irritated bystanders, but she became famous as a mystic, and claimed to have conversations with God.
Biggs said the memoir, which has just been digitised by the British Library, was “perhaps the first autobiography written in English”, and is also “a remarkable record of the religious life of a woman during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries”.
McCarthy herself cites the 2000 Longman edition as her source for quotations, but the 1985 Penguin edition, her “undergrad copy,” as her “sentimental source,” writing out the details of Kempe in a line both straight and slant. The second suite, “qweyne wifthing,” centres itself not on a singular specific text or individual, but on multiple, citing David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Linda Simon’s Of virtue rare: Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the House of Tudor. McCarthy has worked into and through the terrain of Medieval mystics, women, their labour, tales of mothering, birth and other related topics throughout the whole of her published work-to-date, all of which have appeared with Berkeley publisher Apogee Press: bk of (h)rs (2002), Verso (2004), Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (2010), Marybones (2013) [see my review of such here] and Quiet Book (2016) [see my review of such here]. As she spoke of her interest in Medieval subjects as part of an interview for Touch the Donkey:
I’ve been in love with the medieval for most of my life. This definitely has something to do with attending Catholic school—the art! The syntax of Catholicism, too, led me to studying the medieval. I think that most people are irrationally attracted to certain historical periods. The way medieval literature & art employ narrative—fragmented or episodic narrative, specifically—also the sense of simultaneity, layers of time in the work—it makes sense to me. On a more personal note, the lives of the saints were like fairytales for me. I mean, when I was a little Catholic schoolgirl we learned about all the girl-saints, about Mary—& those stories stuck to me. My school taught us a great deal about medieval women mystics, about Joan of Arc, about anchoresses in their cells, & it was very ‘cult of the virgin’ when it came to Mary (at least as far as I remember). Even as a child I think I understood that those stories all had to do with power, with women’s bodies, with literacy. I think the nuns taught us about the mystics to counteract “woman is a temple built over a sewer” & “woman is defective & misbegotten” & the rest of the church fathers (which I also remember well, clearly). When I walk into The Cloisters or the Musée de Cluny or the medieval galleries at any art museum, I want to sit down & think & be quiet. I feel that way in medieval churches as well—it’s what left of religion for me.