In Sarah Mangold’s bold fourth collection, Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, the definition of “woman’s work” changes. Highlighting the contributions of both taxidermist and naturalist Martha Maxwell and Delia Akeley, the wife of “the father of modern taxidermy,” Mangold examines the perception of women who existed in and made significant advances in a male-dominated field. Relying on language and imagery extracted from historical natural-history texts and taxidermy manuals, Mangold’s poetry also explores an aspect of the female experience that defies discipline and cultures–what it means to be erased.
Employing a variety of forms, structures, and erasure techniques that work together to form a book-length poem, what becomes clear to readers is that–much like a taxidermist carefully selects not only their subject, but also their materials–Mangold astutely chooses what experiences and images to unpack. Initially, the speaker relies on a rather universal stereotype that women must not show emotion and must always present themselves as cheerful, perhaps even toxically positive: “Who cannot empathize with her enthusiasm // all diseases arising / from the shadow.” The speaker acknowledges their femalehood, but instead of letting it define them, acknowledges that, in a sense, this femalehood is erasing them: “To my shirt is pinned / badge of femininity// I remain a mere / photographic plate.” The tone shifts into one of defiance, and the speaker embraces being a “classifier for her own reception.” The latter half of the poem celebrates the scientific motes and the small observations that sparked the speaker’s passion for the empirical and biological. This passion derives from the speaker’s acknowledgement of their coexistence with nature in “crevices of wilderness” where the speaker has “often been charmed.”
The poem develops contemporary insights about objectification, and the message is clear and powerful—one that will resonate with recent embraces of the body positivity movement and the role of women in nontraditional career paths ranging from combat roles in the military to significant contributions to the arts and sciences. The speaker acknowledges their natural inclination to reject “classification and counting” and likens women to flowers in their emergence and entrance into “realms of history and speech.” Words such as “hidden” combine with images of “fluorescent tubes between daylight and moonlight,” forming a metaphor for how society and scientific communities hid the significant female contributions to the sciences. The speaker poses a revelation: “Female endeavor and scientific classifiers. Promising / nothing less than the reproduction of space.” Readers can infer that since scientific classifiers are often unknown or confusing to the general public, so are female endeavors in the scientific realm. The speaker also poses a disheartening observation: women, no matter how promising their career in an academic community, are often overlooked, ignored, or simply barred from progressing in their fields.
The collection holds other philosophical insights that force readers into other environments of female erasure, such as taxidermy–a predominantly male-dominated industry that in recent years has seen increased female interest and representation. Mangold invokes the adventurous spirit of American explorer Delia Akeley, who married taxidermist, artist, and inventor Carl E. Akeley. Akeley assisted Carl in his groundbreaking diorama Four Seasons of the Virginia Deer. In one section, the poem’s speaker conveys disbelief, asserting “Everyone seems to think / it extraordinary for a woman,” an observation applicable to Akeley’s life, especially since, after her divorce from Carl Akeley, she began conducting her own explorations and became one of the first western explorers to travel the desert between Kenya and Ethiopia. In other instances, the collection celebrates the Transcendentalist-like spirituality and interconnectivity working with nature as a taxidermist offers the speaker. The speaker states, “You must know how Nature / found me and I found Nature.” Interestingly enough, the speaker upholds a philosophy practiced by many modern female taxidermists such as Elle Kay who advocate that taxidermy is a labor of love for animals and devotion to conservation: “Give the animal its exact attitude / Then proceed A movable horizon // Your hand will nearly always / be able to keep up.”
Preservation is a key motif in Mangold’s collection, since the poem itself preserves the memories of women overshadowed by their husbands’ accomplishments. Later, more women appear in the poem, including a mysterious Mrs. Morrill who “painted landscapes never seen.” Like the role of taxidermy in conservation, painting takes on a significant role in preservation. The speaker observes that Mrs. Morrill’s paintings created “a message for the future,” and that they also prepared Morrill “for her coming tasks.” The following section defines these tasks, inviting readers into the meticulous, painstaking work such as “Skinning Skin-making.” A set of brief directives follows: “Master the robin / Now be careful Cut very slowly.” The directives create a sense of control, and not only the physical control and agility required for painting or taxidermy, but also the societal control of women in a patriarchal society.
As the poem segues toward its conclusion, the speaker’s tone and observations sharpen, and the poem’s forms tighten. Again, the collection takes on a contemporary tone as the speaker reflects on war, a theme that will resonate to anyone paying attention to current events. The speaker implies that if society wrenched itself from its patriarchal chokehold, perhaps war would not be an easy option or the go-to solution. The speaker reflects, “How fortunate it would be if all invasions and / conquests resembled those of these / daughters of the skies.” This section utilizes spacing and the consumption of the page’s wide expanse to create a sense of dreaming as well as the sense that peace is intangible. Standing independently is the phrase “love signals,” a gentle reminder of what matters most in a cruel, and often heartless, world.
Though erasure is at the forefront of Mangold’s poem, the poem’s ending is anything but silent. The final installation relies on color words to paint a portrait of survival. Opening with a “golden surface / of tomorrow,” the speaker takes up “palette and turpentine” and embraces their role. The speaker’s desire for recognition grows, but they resolve that they are used at the whim of others. The “birds which were maps” become synonymous with the speaker’s desire, and the speaker equates them with “architectural expressions of aspirations.” The poem ends with the image of a “bowl of milk” used “for drawing / fat from a duck.” The implication is stark–the road to equality and recognition will not be easy to find.
About the Reviewer
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming Black Spring Group in 2022. She teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College.