|cover credit: Anaphora Literary Press|
Anaphora Literary Press (2013)
Reviewed by Sally Deskins
Poet Laura Madeline Wiseman burrowed through hundreds of historic newspapers, three books, and letters, poems, and hymns while researching her great-great-great-grandmother, Matilda Fletcher Wiseman (1842-1909). Although “a photograph of Matilda has yet to be found,” the author introduced us to her kin in Men And Their Whims. With Queen of the Platform, Wiseman lets readers in deeper with the 19th century lecturer, suffragist, and poet, as well as Wiseman herself. With her graceful rhythmic flare, and real and imagined homey narrative, she presents upended views of the meaning of equality via the men around her suffragist ancestor in the time before women could vote.
In Men and Their Whims, readers see deep insight into the relationship between Wiseman and her brother, Civil War veteran and accused murderer George Felts (1843-1921), as well as her first husband, John Fletcher. But in Queen of the Platform, readers see more of Matilda through her second husband, Wiseman’s great-great-grandfather, minister Albert Wiseman.
Readers peruse Matilda’s first meeting with Albert in “A Door Opens.” He is seen as a “doorway of light,” which foreshadows his heartening presence. In “Prothalamion,” the title refers to a poem by Edmund Spenser, composed for the twin marriage of the daughters of the Earl of Worcester. Although Albert Wiseman does not become married to two women, perhaps his two marriages are to Matilda the woman and to her speaking career. She writes:
“Do you wonder
that when you travel alone
whether he will light the lamp,
clip the paper headlined
by Matilda Fletcher,
for the distant roar,
for a whistle
to pierce the night?
Don’t wonder. He will.
His heart is man.”
As the story continues, we observe Matilda as a professional woman before women could vote. She asks herself honest and still resonant queries in “Votes for Women:” “Who deserves rights? Which of us gets to be fully human? ...Which doors are shut to women? ...What do I want to do?”
Matilda’s active spirit is risen again as she dines with Susan B. Anthony in “Traveling with Luminaries with Friends,” wherein the author takes readers on a dreamy spin, as many-a-women have wished to dine with their heroes. She writes: “…She squeezed my hand. / I felt myself go pink as I thought of my talent / for the platform, my ambition, this life I chose. / I squeezed hers and said, I’m adding my voice.”
The anticipation and excitement for the cause mounts with “A Spirited Lecture.” Wiseman writes: “Equal Rights Party delegate meeting to nominate their presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, New York, May Day, 1872.” And readers feel the thrill as the author describes the sounds, garb, the moment the first woman was nominated for president: “All arms lifted in the call to her, Victoria! A country girl / turned millionaire, Victoria! A Wall Street Broker, Victoria! / / A leader who listened to voices, Victoria! A namesake / of victory, Victoria!”
Perhaps the most striking poems of the book come from the last personable pieces that read as though they are written from the author’s point of view, and instill feminist mutual support. In “Speaking to My Dead: Matilda Fletcher Wiseman” she movingly questions her own research, echoing that of Matilda’s previous own questioning and self-actualization. She asks:
“Will the dead hear me, Matilda, if I call? Will you?
You patented a traveling trunk for women. You wrote bills
passed into law. All of your brothers served in the war
You’ve been dead a hundred years. I begin this search for you.”
Wiseman then collages descriptions of Matilda in “Spell for Appearances: Clipped Notes on Matilda” and “Charms Against Critics: Contradicting Opinions,” exemplifying the cyclical nature of politics, sexism in media, and hearsay. Too, the ever-diligent life of a professional woman in “II. Judge Hilton and the Women’s Hotel” is displayed as doors literally open and close for Matilda. Wiseman describes:
“…Lady physicians couldn’t
Have libraries in their rooms. Lady artists couldn’t have
Easels. Lady musicians couldn’t have instruments.
Sheesh, she hated to kneel to any man for charity.
It isn’tLike a kingdom. But if it were, he’d never be selected as King.”
Ironically or considerably, then, the author claims a man as Matilda’s main support system—as almost the reason for her strength and contentment: “a good husband.” For example, in “III. Secrets, Spells and Love”:
“Her neighbors seethed. She had an enchanting disposition
and a good husband. Wise woman! All this, her secret.”
In the 1960s, a feminist slogan was preached widely: “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” With Queen of the Platform, Wiseman suggests that there is a great man behind—and moreover, beside—each great woman. In “A Memory of Trains, of His Consumption,” she explains: “Is man an angel? / —mine were, Al, John, Geo.” Again, Wiseman challenges perceptions of feminism and justice, with her poignant and heartfelt writing via the perspective of the inspiring Matilda and the men around her, whose “names are written in water / and this history is all that we have / rippling between us” (“The History Between Us”). These lost stories of strength and endurance are brought to life as echoes through Wiseman herself: “I write to you” (“Speaking to My Dead: Matilda Fletcher Wiseman”).