Pattie McCarthy’s experimental poetry collection Wifthing blends traditional sonnet forms, medieval female experiences, and contemporary feminist issues. The collection divides into a triptych: a series of twenty-five poems titled “margerykempething” followed by a series of twenty-five poems titled “qweyne wifthing,” and the final series of thirty poems titled “goodwifthing.” One section carefully threads into another, weaving motherhood, daughterhood, femalehood, and the dreaded states of objectification and nothingness experienced by women throughout history. Meticulously researched, the power of McCarthy’s collection lies in its reliance on repetition of words, phrases, and sounds, which create cycling, methodical, poetic incantations.
The collection’s first section invokes the memory of Christian mystic and religious pilgrim, Margery Kempe, whose autobiographical writings provide an insight to the middle-class female experience during the Middle Ages. Kempe, who birthed fourteen children, resolved to live chastely with her husband and made religious pilgrimages to Venice, Bethlehem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. As these experiences serve as the platform for each poem in the “margerykempthing” section, McCarthy’s repetition of uncapitalized statements like “you are no good wife” and “& is arrested & is arrested” propel readers into an emotional state mimicking quiet chaos. Other lines bring the harsh realities women of Kempe’s era experienced as they aged and became “useless” in the eyes of their society: “she needs something to keep winter off her hair & the process has already failed.” Notably, though these lines embody the ideals of the Middle Ages, contemporary women experience these same oppressive philosophies in modern society. Thus, McCarthy’s collection transforms into a poetic manifesto for contemporary women as it highlights how the past is not so distanced from the present.
Another driving force in the “margerykempething” section is pronouns, specifically “you” and “we.” Many of the poems open with accusatory statements: “you are the shape of my midlife crisis”; “your grammar has driven me outdoors”; “your little girl is a vocabulary.” “You” and “your” work together to place blame. In other poems, readers find collective power and strength in the repetition of “we” statements: “we in the offing we shardy mess we / doubleheader we possessinging nothing”; “we escape the fire we lucky creatures / we latin we goodwives we daughterthings.”
The collection’s second section “qweyne wifthing” embodies the experiences of multiple women rather than focusing on an individual. While the section continues relying on repetition to form and propel its message, readers grasp frightening snippets of Middle Age reality that parallel modern, oppressive standards placed on women: “she / makes her body by making other bodies”; “your age fucks you you’ve got to lean / into it.” The section’s focus on the body mimics the sexual and physical objectification women endure from a young age, reinforcing the ideology that women have no worth once they pass a certain age. A woman’s body is only productive if she is bearing children: “the body is not an anchor or / a treaty it’s a bloody mess it is / a peace cow.”
The second section relies on yet another harmful attitude toward women that informs modern stereotypes about womanhood, wifehood, and female existence—a “sins of the mother” mentality that confines women and inhibits social and economic mobility. For example, McCarthy chooses to focus on the experience of witches:
if one’s mother is a witch
or even if one’s mother has the stink
of accusation upon her people will
say one bewitched the king of england into
bed & marriage.
Interestingly enough, McCarthy eventually applies the image of the witch to Elizabeth Wydeville, known as “The White Queen” due to her links to the royal House of York:
elizabeth wydeville on her witchy
knees a sack filled with words she paid the devil
to steal from the mouths of her slanderers
she him in honey & hats & lead.
In this section’s final few poems, Lady Margaret Beaufort, a major figure in the War of the Roses during the fifteenth century, also takes a central role in the collection’s section. The repetition of Beaufort’s name in statements like “margaret beaufort thinks that you are weak / margaret beaufort is disappointed” echo the first section’s accusatory tone. Beaufort transforms into a personal “patron saint of worrywort,” and in the same poem the speaker once again invokes Elizabeth Wydeville as a witch: “with her witchy / hands clutches her sons under actreo.” In the section’s ultimate poem, Wydeville and Beaufort become nearly inseparable. Ampersands separate their names: “elizabeth & margaret protected / her body with a slow progress.” The close proximity communicates a single message: one woman’s experience can parallel another’s.
“Goodwifthing,” the collection’s final section, incorporates more modern imagery. The speaker opens the collection with the statement “tastes like something on fire in my mouth.” However, the nothingness bestowed to women of a certain age begins taking shape, and the poem’s form follows accordingly:
my invisible scrutinized midlife
goodwyf body minivan & tankini
my children say back to me phrases I
say to them in darkness things fall silent.
Despite the final section’s modernity, the witch imagery reemerges:
mercy only goodwyfs from the other
side of town are witches that’s obvious
in my tongue of wool & flax is the law
in my autumnal teaching costume I.
By the collection’s end, the imagery becomes physical, and readers see “a goodwifthing has saint’s knees witch’s tits.” The speaker also utilizes the Salem Witch Trials and the persecution of females as representative of the female experience:
I guess I believe the salem afflicted
were faking & suffering both that both
can be true that mercy short meant with her
heart what she said with her mouth.
The poem elicits the image of Mercy Short, a fifteen-year-old servant girl from the seventeenth-century New England witchcraft crisis. Short suffered episodic afflictions, most likely stemming from previous trauma, and McCarthy’s incorporation of this little-known character from witch trial history sends a powerful message, one resonating with ongoing social conversations surrounding women’s mental health.
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 from 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.