Serial Hubbie: Mentally Ill or a Great Prophet


By Lori Cayer

Here is what I knew about Mormonism before reading Marita Dachsel’s Glossolalia. A fourteen-year-old prophet, Joseph Smith, got some tablets from God and started a church. He was given revelations, one of which was to take plural wives and it had to do with eternal salvation. I understand they don’t do that anymore because it’s not legal but that some sect of them still must or that reality show called Sister Wives would have to be classified as fiction. I know they store end-of-the-world amounts of food and there’s something people make fun of regarding underwear that I don’t get, but I’ve never given the whole thing a lot of thought unless I see them in their dark suits coming down my street. They look nice and you don’t have to wait till they’re close enough to see what’s written on their brochures to know who they are. Mind you I love a good armchair psychoanalysis and Glossolalia lit a complex fire in me.

Glossolalia coverThe opening poem prepares the reader for what’s to come. A concrete poem, small and focussed, it stands as epigraph, metaphor for wife, and an illustration of what wife is, explicitly, to Joseph Smith. It depicts not just the entrance to one woman, but to all his women at once and probably also his way through to God. This is the poem in its entirety:

Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife.

Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife.

Wife. Wife. Wife.            Wife. Wife. Wife.

Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife.

Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife. Wife.

Dachsel gives a good sense of the man through this detailed work including four punctuation pieces, transcriptions of the actual Doctrine and Covenants, which explain plural marriage. He is further elucidated through the eyes of the women from whose points of view these poems are written. The language is tight, clean and uncomplicated but with certain depth; Dachsel makes her points deftly without crowding the page, and just as there are many types of people in the world, there are no two wives alike. They appear in many voices and compositional styles, none of them formal.

The wives are clear-headed, enraged, disappointed, circumspect, resigned, some even grateful and cognizant that the marriage arrangement was an economic exchange for a safe and well-appointed life, but for most a guiding factor was also that they and their children would join Joseph in the celestial kingdom. The term Time and Eternity refers to being married or ‘sealed’ for Time: that on earth while alive, and Eternity: that after death and lasting forever in the eternal kingdom. A number of these women had extant husbands who were just as vulnerable to the proposals of marriage: could they provide as well for their wife and children, could they provide eternal salvation, could they live with having denied God’s covenant?

The scattered, broken and unfocussed poem about (poor) Elvira Annie Cowles Holmes suggests a woman no longer able to cope.

One: lone, hollow, wee, woolen.
Ween we: we wheel, we howl,
New, whole. We woo,
hone, hewn.

Two others that I loved for their pure play with language (Melissa Lott and a pair of sisters he married Maria and Sarah Lawrence) are set up in three columns. Melissa Lott is best read in columns but Maria and Sarah Lawrence can be read across and also down each column for a bonus of four poems in one.

Another describes in repetitive point form how an unwanted sexual encounter with Smith might have gone:

“He creeps in.     I pretend to sleep…”

“shift wiggle lap     hand on hip
on hip     hip to belly
hand on hip to belly to breast”

Some of the wives focus only the daily physical reality of their particular job in the household: sweeping, laundry or one wife feeling as though she’s the subversive patriarch to her tomato plant/wives and finding there what joy and fulfillment can be had despite the structure in which it is held.

Two of the strongest are long poems made up of several small sections giving us a larger view in to the minds of the ‘writers’. Patty Bartlett Sessions, whose lot became that of a midwife, is an example of one of the few wives who managed to find something deeper than drudgery in her assigned task: to bring life into the world and to care for the sister/wife/mothers.

Being the first hand
to touch a life
is a powerful thing.

I have wondered
what imprint
I have left

what has been
left on me.

Dachshel uses italicized text to reproduce writings attributed to the real women, with very moving results. They appear sometimes as short lines standing as epigraphs, as at the beginning of Emma Hale Smith: Four which opens with this quotation from the real woman: “My husband was my crown.” Or they appear as lines in the poems, and in two cases they are the contents of the entire poems.

One of those stands out as a beautiful stylizing of a large piece of text written by the real Lucy Walker. An erasure poem, Dachsel prints the whole text over three pages, but in greyscale, then strikes out most of it leaving only the words she wants to use to isolate her interpretation of Walker’s words and with them create the poem. It was a good choice for this piece to leave its lines not completely blacked out because seeing behind the strike-through lines allows us to still read the woman’s original words. As history is always somewhat occluded, so this poem allows a peering in to the long passed dilemma faced by this woman when asked to be one of Joseph’s wives.

Some of the poems present Joseph in a positive light, giving the impression that at least a handful of these women did indeed love him as a man and husband as well as a leader and prophet. These poems seem to come from a more wistful, longing pen and at least one of these wives takes silent pleasure in how her presence torments Emma, Smith’s first and only legal wife. The only one to bear his surname, Emma was the planet all the other wives revolved around and around whom Joseph also revolved. She hated the practice of polygamy within her own marriage and was forced to publicly deny its existence for the safety of her husband but likely also to save face for herself. She successfully sought to have some of the wives removed from her house where Joseph had ensconced them. She held immense power in the marriage and the household knowing that her position was paramount, and as such she gets four poems of her own in the collection.

I did not ask for this life but accept it as my calling. (….)        
What I know: not all eggshells are fragile.
Not all twigs snap.

Joseph Smith felt strongly about some ideas and he had the power of personality to turn them into reality. Nowadays we channel our zealotry into a global menu of choices; religion is not the only available source of the esoteric any more. I don’t know, maybe he was a prophet commanded by God, maybe they do exist outside mental illness or cult leader-like manipulation but there is material out there speculating on what his psychiatric diagnosis would be today. Some of the poems in Glossolalia refer to his violent mood swings and drinking, his visions and the months of steady dictation of them.

All of this suggests a kind of glossolalia of his own. A popular retroactive diagnosis for him is bipolar disorder, though I like schizophrenia for him too. Straight up sex addiction crossed my mind, but he had a lot more going on than just that. As for paranoia, people really were out to get him—a couple of the poems refer to his moving and hiding from pursuers who ultimately did kill him. After that I guess maybe he should have been called a polywidowist, but that didn’t last long because a lot of his widows subsequently married Brigham Young. I Googled this bit and I am glad to have more background on the man, but it is certainly not needed to appreciate this book.

Glossolalia is speaking in tongues, related to religious fervour. I can see how this word works as title for this book: the zealous nature of the women’s involvement and the sound of 34 women, each speaking her own personal ‘language’ and plurally all speaking at once creating a psychological babble that went unheard in its time. Dachsel’s poems let us hear them speak. Stoic and pious like the women themselves, these poems are about small moments lived in extraordinary times. Rhoda Richards says it best:

My heart lives in this box.
Open it.

Anvil | 96 pages |  $18.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927380406

One Comment

  1. ted landrum
    Posted June 3, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    a powerful read. thanks Lori.

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The Downlow on Parnassus

Lori Cayer

Lori Cayer is the author of two volumes of poetry: Stealing Mercury (Muses’ Company, 2004), and Attenuations of Force (Frontanac House, 2010). She also reads poetry for CV2 magazine.