LAURA MADELINE WISEMAN Reviews
Salem in Séance by Susana H. Case
(WordTech Editions, 2013)
In “Letter” Susana H. Case describes how Nathanial Hawthorne, ashamed by his great-grandfather’s role in the Salem witch trials adds the w back to this last name, a letter that had been “dropped/ three hundred years before” in order to “dissociate” from his lineage (80). Case writes,
He, as much as anyone,
understood the importance
of a letter. (80)
In Case’s debut full-length collection of poetry, Salem in Séance, she explores the crimes of city officials, religious figures, and landowners, as she gives voice to the victims of the witch murders, an event where more than two hundred people were accused and “twenty were executed—nineteen by hanging, one by crushing” (7). An event that Case reminds us can still be watched as a reenactment today, “It’s true it happens every summer/ now in front of tourists” (36).
Just as in Arthur Miller’s time, Salem has much to teach us about our own witch hunts. In 1953 when Miller’s play The Crucible was released, the country was entrenched in the Cold War and McCarthy and his allies hunted down communists. In this century, terrorists here and aboard were hunted in the wake of 9/11 and the residual racism of that event echoed far and wide, as Amy Waldman reminds us in her novel The Submission. In the first section of Salem in Séance, “Detentions,” Case reminds us just how the hunted offer up the confession the interrogator seeks. After several beatings by her owner (50), in Tituba’s confession that “lasts three days” (22), we see how the slave seeks to confess to anything:
because she needs
to figure out what the whites
want to hear. (23)
Too, such imprisonments were often about the opportunity for those in power to seize property and money from those being examined. In “Elizabeth Cary,” the wife of a wealthy merchant and mariner escapes to New York with help of a bribe. Even while the Carys are in asylum elsewhere, “The others conspire to get what/ we have, divide it among themselves” (25) and later we learn of the Porters who also fled the Massachusetts Colony to New York “where they hide” (59). The Porters send the town “a vessel of corn” (59) in their absence, but still the sheriff “pillages their estate” including “twelve hundred pounds” of sterling (59). In another poem Case tells us exactly what the witch trials are always about: politics, “And property,” “And taxes,” “And elections,” “And jobs” (72-73).
Thankfully Case is on the case this century to tell us about the women involved in the trial and how the trial was also about the control of women:
and sex. Women
Women with politically weak
fathers, husbands, brothers.
Women in control
of their own finances.
Women who want control.
Dangerous women. (73)
In “Without Powerful Friends” Bridget Bishop notes how “Men. They are the worse of all” in the ways they accuse others of witchcraft and how they accuse her of biting “them in their beds” (30). Bishop retorts, “they would like to bite back” (30). In “A Thing like a Great Dog” Tituba tries to describe the devil, calling it hairy “like a hog” or a dog, or “a thing like a man” (2). In “Crone” Bridge counters the witch accusation from a neighbor who overheard a spat she had with her husband and says:
I know something about fights in marriage,
know something about husbands
after my three. (28)
The Bishop couple is “forced to stand gagged/ in the market” for their “conjugal crimes” (29). Like the title of the poem, the word hag and crone are returned to repeatedly in Salem in Séance, a way to point to the types of women those in power, and some would argue in our own time, feared: the middle-aged woman in her prime. As Bridget Bishop notes in the excerpt from the trial transcripts “Maiden, mother, crone—there must be a bitch/ in the goddess” (28). Thank god(dess) there is and thank the second wave of the feminist movement who gave a name for such witch trials: a women’s holocaust.
What is smart about Salem in Séance is Case’s sociological perspective. Case is a professor of behavioral sciences at the New York Institute of Technology and has a Ph.D. in sociology from City University of New York. Case is keen to point out a sociological view on what the girls would have been understood, labeled, or diagnosed with today had the trials taken place now with the girls as the main accusers. When Elizabeth Cady asks of the girls, “What is wrong with them, their tender meat,” Case answers, “Today we’d say neurotic, anorexic” (24). In “Gospel Witch” when “Mary bites herself,” Case notes “The early self-mutilator” (56). In “Cursed Children” she counters Betty Parris’ claim that she must be bewitched because she feels sickly and “Household chores are difficult/ for me” (47). Case returns, “You’re only nine, Betty Parris!” (47). So much for “the visions of afflicted girls” (53).
An aspect of the appeal of Salem in Séance is reading a story most of us know: the witch trial. Another appeal is the way, like Carole Oles does in Waking Stone, Case addresses her subject(s) in asides and allows the subject(s) to speak back to the poet in a kind of séance. At one point Case asks Ann Putnam, “Can you still misunderstand/ who were the powerful, who did the evil?” (38). It is good for us that we have Case to undo some of this evil, nearly four hundred years later because it takes “a conspiracy of witches” (22), crones, and bitches to do the job. With intelligent verve, Case has done the job well offering readers a multitude of voices, archival documents from the period, and enough sass that readers hope that we, like Case, have a little bit of Bridget Bishop—“I must be a witch (29)”—inside of us.
Laura Madeline Wiseman has a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches English and creative writing. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including the full-length book Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012) the letterpress books Unclose the Door (Gold Quoin Press, 2012) and Farm Hands (Gold Quoin Press, 2012), and the chapbooks She Who Loves Her Father (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), Branding Girls (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Ghost Girl (Pudding House Publications, 2010), and My Imaginary (Dancing Girl Press, 2010). She is also the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her writings have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Arts & Letters, Poet Lore, and Feminist Studies. She has received honors from the Academy of American Poets and the Wurlitzer Foundation. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com