Many contemporary writers who research historical figures – particularly figures who are female – to use as subjects for a novel or collection of poetry, do so with the intention of “uncovering” them, dusting off the years of neglect to showcase that had they been born in the right century, they would be lauded. The contemporary writer will use their project to give the historical woman the voice she never had. What makes Queen of the Platform, Laura Madeline Wiseman’s eleventh collection of poetry so different from these other books is that the protagonist of this historical research already had a voice. A loud and influential voice. This book is less the powerful contemporary writer reaching into history to unearth something lost, and more the writer allowing herself to be lost in the rich and varied experiences of a powerful woman who has much to teach a contemporary readership about the nuances of power, gender, and the importance of language.
The queen of the platform is in fact Wiseman’s great-great-great grandmother Matilda Fletcher Wiseman, who as a nineteenth century lecturer, poet, and women’s rights activist was on the front lines of the suffragist movement with women the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The collection opens with one of Matilda Fletcher Wiseman’s poems, “The Heart of A Man,” which catalogues some of the many things that a man’s heart is: a toy, a fruitful field, a doorway into heaven, a faint and fading line. As suggested by these few items, the list is surprisingly complex. The items add up to a nuanced understanding of what “a man” is, which might seem to be using “man” in the old-fashioned, all humankind sort of way, but the last two lines reveal that this is not about humanity as a whole, rather about women’s relationships to men: “The source of a woman’s bitterness, / The chalice of her joys.” This is a fitting introduction to Matilda as well as the collection, which looks not only at Matilda and her successes, but at the complex relationships she had with the men in her life, namely her first husband, second husband, and brother.
Most striking to me are the poems which show the responsibility, the burden, Matilda seems to feel for communicating. In the collection, men are often speechless or quieted by larger forces in society, such as war and work. In “Fairy Tale: Toads and Diamonds,” Matilda offers an explanation as to where her responsibility to communicate might stem:
By wit and repartee, our sisters had tongues.
With hands a flutter, we played word games at night
as woodhouse toads croaked, that old fairy tongue.
Our brothers, those discharged from the war, the dead,
severed or split, in the dialect of trauma, had tongues.
We asked if they needed anything – lips pressed open,
then shut, No, fluent in only one language, that tongue.
In “The Grant Question,” again the tongues of men, specifically those closest to Matilda are silenced:
They press me, Matilda Fletcher, Why speak for U.S. Grant?
. . .
d) Who else stumps for Grant – Stanton, Stone, Anthony, Harper,
Beecher, Douglass, etc.
e) The Maimed – you, Geo, your ears ring. Our six brothers,
tongues scarred from war.
Here Wiseman highlights the ways in which women took the reins politically, citing for us this rich history of strong women. Though, like many of the poems in this thoughtful collection, the end impresses most effectively with Wiseman’s ability to create either a jarring and vivid image or an inspiring call to action:
Why Speak for Grant, Geo? My answer: I can. And, I want to pass
the Matilda Fletcher Bill. I want my name as law.
Another feature of Queen of the Platform that makes it more engaging than other collections that utilize research, reimagining and the persona poem, is that Wiseman allows herself to become a character. The third section consists of first person poems from the point of view of the writer trying to reconcile why she is bothering to embark on this extensive research. The first poem in the section presents a vulnerability which brings a more intimate tone against the sometimes research-heavy details that work to place in the reader in the correct political and social time period. In the poem, “Speaking to My Dead: Matilda Fletcher Wiseman,” the speaker is trying to invoke the spirit of her impressive ancestor in an attempt to create connection:
Will you hear me Matilda Fletcher, if I speak to you?
I research you books and articles in newspapers.
Though you are dead one hundred years, I search for you.
. . .
I dreamed you heard me Matilda, as I spoke to you.
You spoke on suffrage, education, and civil service. You
spoke with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Though you are dead one hundred years, I write to you.
The language in this poem, as in “Lunch with Matilda’s Ghost,” becomes imploring and even a bit playful as the section progresses. Readers can feel the connection growing between poet/speaker and Matilda. It’s this feeling of family and female community that makes this collection of poems more than an expertly executed exercise in research and craft. As Matilda felt the responsibility to communicate, so too does her young great-great-great granddaughter. These poems are a testament to testament, to remembering that women working now for gender rights are not without a rich and textured past. As well that feminism is not just for women, but like Matilda Fletcher Wiseman, the pursuit of gender equality must strive not only for women, but for men as well. These poems use the situation of one historical figure to highlight the ways in which both men and women are trapped through restrictive public policy. And like her great-great-great grandmother, Wiseman doesn’t rely on political message alone, but uses the beauty of simple, but crisp figurative language and the art of narrative to draw readers to the platform.
Queen of the Platform is available for purchase from Amazon
Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley. She earned her PhD with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in North American Review, The Fourth River, and The Midwest Quarterly, among others. A selection from her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was chosen as a finalist for the 2012 Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry and the manuscript as a whole was named an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. All Day, Talking is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press, August 2014.