Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sarah Mitchell Sonnet

I don't know why I always turn to sonnets when I think of writing in forms. The sonnet is entirely unnatural to me. It counters my narrative instinct. Maybe that is why I seek it out. For limits. For balance. Anyway, I have attempted at last the Sarah Mitchell poem. I see now that it will have to be a series, sonnets or no, but here is one offering. Matt's own poem from his March 25th posting inspired me to post one of my own. Reactions to this poem are welcome, since it looks like it might turn into a long term project (if it wasn't already!).

X: In which Potawatomi braves capture Sarah "Sallie" Mitchell, "sister-cousin" to Nancy Hanks

Just as we approached the river, Dan
stopped. Thinking I'd ask if this were the Rockcastle,
I opened my mouth, but he half-spun and ran.
Just like that, the Indians surrounded us until
they formed a knot, became a ganglion, a net.
My mother fell. Run, Sallie. Salleee!
she screamed. Or was it Dan? His hand out,
a shaky bridge across the water. My knees
pushed against my skirts. I hiked them up.
My twelve-year-old body a single pulsing thought:
Run! Thought moved muscle into motion, but
how could I not pause to look toward Mama
where she lay, a heap of skirts. His knife
would take her scalp but slice in two my life.

I'm not sure if that ending is cheesy. I think it might be. The idea I am trying to convey, or rather the image, as I have said before is the one of the blade of the knife separating two eras. I don't think I've been successful, but it's something, and it's on paper (on screen?). Let me know what you think.



P. S. The image is artist Bradley Schmehl's rendering of the capture scene.


Barbara Sabol said...

Jill, It's not easy to write a narrative in sonnet form, given the sonnet's dialectic structure, but you have a strong beginning to a sonnet that tells a powerful story, with a compelling synthesis in the final couplet. You wondered about whether that couplet works - as a resolution to the poem, it feels somewhat open-ended, with a "and then what happened" expectation - so, a continuation in a sonnet series form would be great! At first reading the inverted syntax ". . . slice in two my life." sounded a bit awkward. But on a solely auditory level, it has a rich double meaning of ". . . slice into my life" which can also be heard in the text on the page.
Other strong features: wonderful slant rhymes, that are subtle and musical like Rockcastle/until;" "net/out," which add to the flow of the narrative. The tone of fear, even desperation progresses from line 5 to 11, with an effective unity of syntax and rhythm that reinforce the sense of threat and mayhem and motion - Adrenyline runs through those lines.
There were a few points of confusion about figures and places in the story: I wonder if naming the relationship of Dan to the speaker in the first line might fill in some back story, and fill out the rhythm there, also; ". . . my (brother), Dan." I wondered if the water in line 8 was metaphorical or represented a real body of water. If she's crossing water, I could imagine a "river" or "salt pond" and the story would be that much more visual. An epigraph from a historical doc might flesh out the back story some, too. Just some thoughts. . .
Reading this poem makes me want to know more about Sallie Mitchell; it's engaging, pulsing and cinematic -really, it's amazing how much happens in 14 lines! I hope to read future versions of the sonnet and its continuation. Thank you, Jill!

Jill Koren and Matthew Vetter said...


Thank you for such a generous and detailed reading! And I appreciate your suggestions so much. I do think it would be important to make Dan's relationship known. He is, in fact, the brother who ends up rescuing her and bringing her back to the family. The story is fascinating. I have all kinds of plans for it now.

Thanks again, and happy writing to you!