A Woman Possessed: Rebecca Dunham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and The Flight Cage
Mary Wollstonecraft described Scandinavia, in Letter II of her travel discourse Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, as a place where “[t]he waters murmur, and fall with more than mortal music.” Rebecca Dunham has likewise crafted her second full-length collection The Flight Cage into a most majestic and musical descent. She captures the blended elements of water and flight to beautifully depict struggles common to women over three centuries.
Dunham’s muse is Wollstonecraft, the 18th century feminist and writer who penned, among other works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Letters Written during a Short Residence. Dunham assimilates Wollstonecraft’s quotes, passages, or experiences into at least 31 of the 45 poems, allowing Wollstonecraft to direct, animate, and inhabit The Flight Cage and providing the collection with immediacy and life. If Dante had Virgil to guide him, Dunham’s companion is clearly Wollstonecraft.
Dunham breaks The Flight Cage into three sections: “Terra Incognita,” “A Short Residence,” and “Séance.” These segments are quite distinctive from one another, but themes of water, descent, and loss thread through each portion, cinching the collection together.
The opening poem, “Mary Wollstonecraft in Flight,” sets the tone for the volume with its brilliant construction and enjambment. The author creates a cascading feel by breaking seven of the first eleven lines between adjectives and their associated nouns:
So many rivers. Blood churning through the veins, rain’s roped course down my wet and unbound hair, the Thames’ cold body below. His forked voice licked my ears clean. Men are strange machines.
Coupled with this marvelous, musical tumbling, Dunham juxtaposes Wollstonecraft preparing for a suicidal plunge:
I have nothing to fear from the water’s mean slap. Let my lungs be coin heavy. Let their two ruched pouches swell pink and full as I sink, let Putney Bridge be my final perch and the October wind, my screech.
If Wollstonecraft guides the speaker through “Terra Incognita,” she possesses her in “A Short Residence.” In a remarkable set of 25 short poems designed to complement Letters Written, Wollstonecraft’s voice accompanies the speaker through every aspect of modern life, from ironing clothes, to using a swimming pool, to hosing dead mice from an air conditioner.
The section consists exclusively of poems composed of three cinquains. The close of each piece roughly forms the opening line of the next, creating a quasi-sonnet crown. The fact that each poem is structured differently and is slightly longer than a sonnet is significant. This construct exemplifies the speaker’s, and Wollstonecraft’s, attempts to repeatedly break conventions, and their inability to truly free themselves.
While dissimilar structurally, “A Short Residence” is thematically akin to Mary Winegarden’s poetry volume The Translator’s Sister. In Winegarden’s book, the speaker threads it with passages written by her dead sibling. The two women often seem to converse. Dunham’s speaker, however, draws an understanding of her own situation by introducing select passages from Wollstonecraft’s treatise. In Poem VIII, the speaker notes:
The rainwater means death:
the fear of annihilation – the only thing
of which I have ever felt a dread. It creeps beneath the walkout door, soaking carpet, and so we turn the air on.
And later, in Poem XXI, the speaker explains:
This is a kind of sense, when
the sting of my fist makes me hit it again, just so I don’t have to feel it. Whether hospitals or work- houses are anywhere superintended with sufficient humanity, I have frequently had reason to doubt.
“A Short Residence” is cage-like, uniform in size and spacing. The poems are welded together, and as with a sonnet crown, Dunham links the first and last pieces: the first poem in the section begins, “Brick and butter leaves thread // the breeze that banners our side porch,” and the last closes, “threading and rethreading // the legs of transparent ties.”
Dunham’s use of literary references in the final section, “Séance,” is significant. Three of the section’s nine poems cite stories or poetry as inspiration, connecting the reader to women whose writing reflects a kinship with Wollstonecraft.
Dunham opens the final section with “Elegy for Mrs. Danvers,” inspired by Daphne de Maurier’s 1938 novel “Rebecca.” In the story, the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers jealously guards the memory of the story’s namesake. Some critics suggest Mrs. Danvers is actually possessed by the dead woman in order to deny happiness to her recently remarried husband. At the close, Mrs. Danvers burns Manderley, the estate of Rebecca’s husband. Though du Maurier does not mention the demise of her antagonist, Dunham’s speaker declares Mrs. Danver’s fate as that of self-immolation:
The end is always the same. Caught in Manderley’s gut, its frame erupts about her iron form – a living beast whose muscles shift chinoiserie over embered skeleton.
In “Yellow,” inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the speaker confesses, “I think I am made for loss.”
Dunham eventually reconnects with her muse in “Confinement Ghazal,” but under brutal circumstances. Wollstonecraft, dying after childbirth, “shivers in sepsis, shaking. Then the puppies // are on her, pulling milk from glutted breasts, eyes closed.” The poem intensifies, and it seems the speaker, Dunham, and Wollstonecraft all merge into one woman:
Crotch shaved, chloroformed, they strap my mother down, slice her open, and pull me free, pinced in a metal claw. Push, Rebecca. The doctor readies his knives and it is as if the hand of God himself is there to set me screaming.
After that excruciating scene, the poet shifts tone. “Nought to be heard but the screech owl // and you,” she writes in the opening line of the next poem, “Séance,” thus trading the world of the living for that of the dead.
But “Séance,” as it turns out, is no relief. Wollstonecraft returns to her sister Bess, trapped in her insanity-inducing marriage, and violence ensues between the two. Mary declares,
I give you my back, lost cargo, a shipwreck. Your lips will not mold mine to your design. Tendrils of hair vine your neck. Like rope, I twist them to whips in my fists. You refuse to see. What I want is you, on your knees.
In the collection’s final poems, Dunham returns full circle to Salem, witnessing the imprisonment of Sarah Good, the first condemned victim of the inquisition. Ms. Good’s daughter, as well as Ann Putnam, accused Good of witchcraft. Awaiting execution, Good declares:
. . . Motherhood’s an omen that pricks and pinches, a needling in the gut, drenching us all in blood-soaked rags that we change in a privy’s oak dark shame and oh, we are all afflicted.
This poem represents a closing of the cage, a confirmation that imprisonment and permanent enclosure is the universal fate of women.
“Oubliette,” the final poem of the volume, written in loose villanelle format with varied meter, remains true to the theme of descent; the title comes from the French, meaning a dungeon accessible only from the top, roughly translated as “forgotten.” The poet touches on the famous “Man in the Iron Mask” and his anonymous, indefinite incarceration. As with the quasi-sonnet crown in “A Short Residence,” the speaker attempts to readjust her parameters. And again, she cannot break free. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the poem is the speaker’s resignation:
This is not a lament. My face wears a mask I cannot lift. Knock on it and it will sing . . .
She closes, stating,
I speak through it and a voice rises up and out, a thin wind. This is not lament, but refrain. Knock on it and it will sing.
The word “refrain” is especially significant to the construct of a villanelle, indicating the recurrence of specific lines in accordance with traditional patterns; however, in this case, the word carries much more weight as a verb than a noun. If one reads “refrain” as imperative, the entire poem shifts from hope (in that it is not a lament) to one of complete imprisonment and submission. What remains unsaid overwhelms the speaker, and by refraining, she admits there is nothing left useful to say.
Domestic images dot The Flight Cage. Bowls, pie pans, and lace litter the poems. One terrifying aspect of the volume is that violence is contained almost entirely within a domestic setting. Though pre-Victorian London was notorious for street crime, the criminality Dunham records occurred in houses, privies, and kitchens. It was inflicted not by lurking strangers, but men sharing the victims’ bedrooms.
From Wollstonecraft’s terrible perch, descending to a squalid dungeon, Dunham records 200 years of abuse. She provides no denouement to the narrative arc, no reconciliation or feel-good end. With this courageous admission, the poet is completely true to her subject. There is no escape from the cage.
Dunham confirms what Wollstonecraft declared in 1795, when she wrote that the world is a prison to women. Dunham notes, “I must even ask my employer’s permission // to take a walk,” and the prison fetters are, “tattooed like links // across the wild expanse of her skin.”