Poetic Research Department

Sarah Messer
Thresholds of Finding and Becoming
History and the Found Poem

A Greased Tail/Tale

In 1999, while I was a creative fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, I was happy to discover Henry Reed Stiles' Bundling: Its Origin, Progress and Decline in America, a tract so controversial in its time (1871), that it was banned in Boston. The slim book was devoted to the study of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century custom of "bundling," which Webster's Dictionary defined in 1864 as "to sleep on the same bed without un-dressing; applied to the custom of a man and a woman, especially lovers, thus sleeping." According to Stiles, some argued that bundling was a harmless and somewhat useful custom, allowing young people to court each other without wasting fuel or firewood (i.e. talking all night in the dark, in bed); others argued that it was the gateway to lascivious behavior and was responsible for the lost chastity of young women and many of New England's bastards. Within the context of this debate, I came across a footnote at the bottom of page thirty-five:

…from Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, etc., etc., printed by command of his late Majesty King William IV, under the direction of the commissioners on the Public Records of the Kingdom. MDCCCXLI. Folio. From page 369, the Gwentian Code.

"A woman of full age who goes with a man clandestinely, and taken by him to bush, or brake, or house, and after connection deserted; upon complaint made by her to her kindred, and to the courts, is to receive, for her chastity, a bull of three winters, having its tail well shaven and greased and then thrust through the door-clate; and then let the woman go into the house, the bull being outside, and let her plant her foot on the threshold, and let her take his tail in her hand, and let a man come on each side of the bull; and if she can hold the bull, let her take it for her wynet-werth (face-shame) and her chastity; and, if not, let her take what grease may adhere to her hands."

I stared at this passage for hours. Under the terms of my fellowship, I was researching customs of colonial New England for my book, Red House, a hybrid history/memoir about the seventeenth-century house in which I spent my childhood. And though it is probable that the Hatches (the family who build Red House in 1647) bundled, there was no way that I could prove that any of them fell under the laws of the Gwentian Code—they were from County Kent, England, after all, not Wales. So, even though I really wanted to write about this strange law, I couldn't build an argument for mentioning it in Red House.

But I couldn't forget it either. I found the image, the exacting tone, the bull, the door-clate, the woman's circumstance—everything—completely haunting. Why were the first two locations of clandestine activities a bush or brake (thicket)?—i.e. in the wilderness? Why a bull with a shaved and greased tail? Why involve the threshold, the door-clate, the house itself? The specificity also astounded me—a bull of "three winters," where the woman should place her feet, how the tail should be "thrust," the two men on either side of the bull pulling it forward. But most importantly, the outcomes did not really seem to match the psycho-sexual implications. I don't mean to be crude, but it seemed to me that a woman, wise in the ways of sexual acts, would be more likely, not less, to be able to hold a greased bull's tail. I couldn't understand it.

Because it wouldn't work in Red House, I attempted to use the passage in various other forms—short essay, short story, even text within a painting/collage piece. But in the end, I'd always return to the poem. But what kind of poem?

Needless to say, I transcribed the passage in a notebook and then proceeded to carry it around with me for the next ten years.

A small gesture of the past moving through

When I first started using history in my poetry, it was in response to my revulsion with my own confessional voice. I turned toward the historical persona poem out of desperation to get away from myself. In a sense, sitting alone in my room before a blank notebook, my head felt very small.

I was bereft in my romantic relationships, and so I wrote about whalers' wives who were left on shore longing for their absent husbands; I wrote about Puritan women wrongly accused of witchcraft or sexual misconduct. Hiding behind these characters, I felt less guilty about indulging my emotions of anger, grief, obsession in the seventeenth rather than twentieth century.

But this does not necessarily make for good poetry. Soon, I became bored with the poems. Like playing one note over and over again on the piano, "Abandoned Woman, Abandoned Woman." At some point I decided to look at the man (the sailor, the soldier, the outlaw) who left the woman persona behind. What was he up to? Why did he get to have all the adventures? Then it occurred to me (since poetry is also fiction) that I could make the person who left into a woman—could change a "he" into a "she." I began to research women who historically crossed these boundaries, and in that research moved from the seventeenth century into the nineteenth. And then the poems finally grew interesting and eventually became the book Bandit Letters.

A persona poem (of any time period) allows the writer to embody the life and mind of another—by filtering one's own emotional experience of the world through the lives of other bodies, one can achieve a greater empathy and humanity. At least that's the goal, I thought—to contemplate the lyric moment in history, which is a moment of epiphany.

A small gesture of the past such as this collapses history. The strange ritual test of chastity with the bull's tail was the kind of subject I wanted to write about, one in which history was no longer linear/horizontal, but vertical, meaning it sunk down deep into some core, some essence of human-ness—or the depths to which humanity can sink. The moment of the footnote was one of trial. The moment the woman stood in the doorway and put her hands on the greased bull's tail. What would it have been like to inhabit that moment? Who had come up with this?

I tried, in the beginning, to write a poem in first person from the woman's point of view. I tried also to write from the point of view of the men, the village. But none of it worked. "Evolution of Rape Law" is the sole survivor of the earlier group of seventeenth-century poems because the subject matter was so strange that it completely overwhelmed the poem. And perhaps this was my curious dilemma: what I found was far more interesting than what I could make from it. Like discovering an extremely beautiful stone, but finding no way to carry it in your hands.

A bird picking up the shiny bits

Over the ten-year period in which I did not succeed in writing about the bull's tail, I still continued to use history in my poems. But I moved away from the persona poem. Perhaps, because of my frustration with this gem of a find, I began to just use fragments of what some poets call "the found." Instead of reading about an historical moment and then creating a character or a voice, I simply lifted the language. Groups of words, whole phrases, and then I filled in the blanks with my own writing. I was, in this way, like a crow or a magpie, looking only for the shiny bottle-cap or piece of tinfoil; I'd find a shining line or two and then carry it off to my nest (the poem) and begin to weave. Sometimes the lines would change, sometimes they would stay and be placed in italics.

Over time, I realized that I was attracted to a certain tone (particularly in nineteenth-century texts) that doesn't exist any more. A certain kind of instructive formality. The poems "Debt" and "Triangle Side Show" both employ this technique. The result, when it works, is a resonance between the lines of antiquated and contemporary voice. On a smaller scale, I was still trying to collapse history, but this time not through experience, but through associative leaps of language. This technique raised an obvious question: if you can't reach a desired emotional depth (the verticality I spoke of above), how can you craft a poem? Well, if you can't manufacture it yourself, one way to get it would be to go out and find it. Steal it. In devotional hymnals and catechisms I found a certain desperate longing; in the "conduct of life" books of the 1800s, I found an intimate yet corrective tone. It was a way to build a poem from the outside in.

A game of arrangement

Many times I thought of simply putting my transcription of the bull-tail incident un-altered into a book and calling it a poem. How could I begin to match the outrageousness of the original document anyway? And over time, this way of thinking affected more of my work. The poetry became more "purely found." Meaning: none of my original writing was present. I became a collagist, an architect, an archeologist. If I was present at all in the poems, it would be in the arrangement, what I chose to leave out or put in from the original. "Flower of the Standard Talking Machine" is an example of this: a collage poem of titles from a 1910 record catalogue. Another poem, "America, the Hallelujah," is simply a list of the first lines of hymns from a congregational prayer book called "The Singing School."

And true, within the field of found poetry, these debates rage. What is truly found? The answer is: the document itself. The actual document. In this kind of logic, the entire set of holdings at the American Antiquarian Society could be seen as one giant found poem. In this kind of logic, the section of the Gwentian Code I transcribed above had already been altered by Mr. Stiles by the mere fact that he had placed it as a footnote in a book about bundling. The purest found poem would be a facsimile of the original, which I assume is somewhere in Wales. But that would still be a facsimile. I had seen the transcripts of the original Red House land deeds, for example, that had been signed by the Indian chief, Josiah Wampatuck—they had been published in several history books about the area. But when I visited the Massachusetts Historical Society and looked at the original documents and the X Josiah Wampatuck had signed 350 years earlier with his own hand, and a goose quill, to mark his name, I realized I was holding my breath. In this moment, the true collapse of history occurred. There at the source, staring at the X, the document itself—same document, his hand, my hand, eyes staring at the X.

I am not sure there is really a way to replicate this. I am not sure, following this line of thought, there is a way to improve upon primary historical documents through art. This might be blasphemous to say, I realize. But still, there it sits, the neat house at the end of the road of this argument. And so, it brought me back to square one. An impossible closed loop.

Just chance

And yet. Ten years later, with some ease and for no apparent reason, I sat down and wrote a poem in close third-person point of view about a woman who may have had reason to appeal to the court for her chastity. I wrote about the bull's tail incident, finally. In the end (minus the ten years of struggle) it was easy. I kept the title, "The Evolution of Rape Law," since, in some cases, that probably was what it was. And in others, perhaps just regret. In the end with all the finding and stealing and collaging and arranging and erasing and embodying and enworlding, it's still important to acknowledge the mystery. I have no idea, in the end, how that poem finally arrived. Maybe I just needed to think about it for a while. I realize that this is a completely dissatisfying conclusion. It seems ridiculous to say simply, "some poems are like that." Still, it felt like a gift. Which is close enough to the X, the mark I was trying to reach.

Further reading:

See a variety of "Conduct of Life" books for found material used here. Alexander V. Hamilton's The Household Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Daily Wants, W.J. Holland & Co. (Springfield, 1873). Several lines of "Debt" are from this text.

See also, Standard Talking Machine Record Catalogue: 10-inch. Double-disk,fall and winter, (1911-1912). Out of this, I made "Flower of the Standard Talking Machine," a completely found poem collage.

"Triangle Sideshow" borrows from nineteenth-century carnival broadsides and dime novels from the collection of the American Antiquarian Society. "The Ventriloquist," (part III) began as exquisite corpse collaborations with John Dillon using our own language and found material from the following texts:

Conversations on Natural Philosophy in which The Elements of that Science are Familiarly Explained, and Adapted to the Comprehension of Young Pupils, Rev. J. L. Blake, A.M. Gould, Kendall & Lincoln (Boston, 1835).

Elocution Simplified; with an Appendix on Lisping, Stammering, Stuttering and other Defects of Speech, Walter K. Forbes. Charles T. Dillingham, New York, 1877.

"Excuse" is based in part on the Tsimshian legend, "Bear Who Married a Woman."

"Evolution of Rape Law," as stated, is based on the "Gwentian Code of Wales," referenced by Henry Reed Stiles in his book Bundling: Its Origin, Progress and Decline in America (Cambridge, Mass., 1871). Reprint: Applewood Books, 1985.

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