Squall: Poems in the Voice of Mary Shelley by Chad Norman, illustrated by Judith S Bauer Guernica Editions, 2020
Review by Sharon Berg
Chad Norman has earned respect for his craft as a poet, producing some seventeen books before this one. This tidy, illustrated volume from Guernica Editions is introduced by George Elliott Clark, who suggests Norman renders Mary Shelley: both as the creator of a masterpiece (Frankenstein, 1818) and the critical curator of a spouse-maker’s legacy. (Mary Shelley’s Tempest, George Elliott Clark). I don’t like disagreeing with a Poet Laureate, but I feel I must.
This book puts most of the focus on Mary’s grieving, especially over her husband’s death, ignoring both her own writing and the way she promoted her husband’s work before and after his death. It’s possible the buzz for Percy Bysshe Shelley would have subsided soon after his departure from Earth without her labour. Yet Norman fails to illustrate this.As the subtitle indicates, his stated goal is to revive the voice of Mary Shelley, reflecting how Mary’s character Victor Frankenstein gave his monster both life and a voice. Many biographers have skewed her story while others rewrote her renowned novel over the years. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (b. 1797—d. 1851) presents a challenge others have struggled to interpret. As background information, Mary is the progeny of two well known activists: political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, and early feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. It can be of little surprise, therefore, that from early on — in the home of her father, and in her adult life — Mary aligned herself with people who were anti-establishment, even as the egalitarian and nature-loving Romantic Age (1798—1837) developed around her. Her mother and father both published arguments against the institution of marriage she seems to agree with when she first aligns herself with Percy Shelly. She’s seventeen and he’s twenty-one when they profess their belief in free love. It’s only after she’s disowned by her father — losing financial support while pregnant with Percy’s child — that the two decide to marry.
The culture of the day was loosening its choke-hold on morality and social standards, overthrowing formal rules and traditional procedures, yet, acknowledging the achievements of women continued to be problematic. Mary and Percy found their way between the stepping stones of free love, egalitarianism, the construction of childhood, and the abolition of slavery, while women continually struggled to be anything more than mothers or companions to men.
Yet Norman charges forward, interpreting Mary’s reaction to the news of Percy’s death by drowning in a boating accident:
Storms are thieves sent
to replace thought
like reminders tighten on wrists
resting in my lap –
(The Reflection Where Time Floats, 1822)
Is it sheer bravery, mere assumption, or an appropriation of voice rooted in blind privilege that a man assumes license to restore the voice of this female child of a suffragette?
Over the years, some historians credited Frankenstein to Lord Byron, while others claimed Percy offered his lover so much editorial wisdom he co-authored it. Neither case is true. Still, accepting women as intellectual equals was difficult, so the first publication of Frankenstein was anonymous and the monster was given no name. There have been many interpretations of the story over the years, some doing it justice, others being questionable. Still, Jill Lapore (The New Yorker, Feb. 5, 2018) says the 1931 production of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, rendered the creature not only nameless but speechless, as if Mary Shelley’s words were too radical to be heard in polite society.
Radical words! Not only did Mary Shelley lose her voice in 1931, but women continue to find it difficult to be accepted as equal to men in 2022. Mary and Percy were together eight years. She was twenty-five when he died. This book is tiny given the size of the project it outlines, and that presents another challenge. Mary Shelley led a highly complicated life filled with writing, publishing, and personal travesties before she died at fifty-three. It might be argued one book can’t do all things we might wish for in the story of this historically important woman novelist. While Norman offers the death of her husband, the deaths of friends, and the deaths of three children all in different years:
All the children were dead.
Our brave shunned circle
spun back to three,
like the day we left London,
the minds of parents
striken with the ills of
debts and domination.
(A Grim Depletion, 1819)
his focus remains Mary’s grief due to the loss of her husband:
you live bodiless in my body,
gone under forever
as this loud hour brings a dusk
willing to save our farewell
(The Laws of Italy, 1822)
He fails to mention Percy’s literary recovery by Mary, but neither does he suggest that she continued her own writing. Instead, he echoes the tale of Mary keeping a piece of Percy’s body as a relic for the remainder of her days. When Shelley’s body was discovered, ten days after drowning, it was already decomposing. He was incinerated on the beach, a rough cremation that rumour tells us left part of his heart, calcified by tuberculosis, unburned.
By the guilty sea
I hold the heart of Shelley
(The Laws of Italy, 1822)
While she kept this remnant in a box, wrapped in a poem written by her husband, along with locks of hair from her dead children, rather than Percy’s heart it seems what Captain Trelawny may have saved and passed to Mary was a piece of his liver.
Norman presents variations of a phrase alluding to that box after the title of each and every poem:
Mary crawling through the surf;
a small sealed box washed ashore
(The Unknown One, 1922)
Mary holding her breath underwater;
a small sealed box floating above her
Mary lying in the surf;
a small sealed box on her belly
(The Mule, 1814)
This structure develops as an unhealthy whine that supplants all her other griefs. It fits with a Romantic version of the story, but stretches the imagination to believe she kept that box by her side. In fact, it was discovered in a desk drawer after her passing. Does he simply prefer the myth to any evidence regarding this relic?
The lives of Mary and Percy Shelley were far from lacking in trouble or grittiness. Norman may approximate Mary’s voice at times, but the task he assumed is oh so daring:
To quit the jeers
looming on London’s tongue
three isolated faces,
three wild pupils,
setting off the whip’s triumphant crack
as dawn confirmed
the choice to explore
the edge of the Continent;
(The Choice Revisited, 1814)
Mary Godwin’s personal story presents an unexpected twist soon after meeting Percy Shelley, an admirer of William Godwin’s philosophies. Her father disapproved of her relationship with this married man. The result was they fled to Europe. More hurtfully, Mary’s stepsister Claire travelled with them in what reports of the day suggest was an open, sexual relationship. It’s known that Percy Shelley leaned toward threesomes. Yet, did Mary resent Claire as Norman suggests?
moments my husband chose to chase
what his whimsied mind had clearly whetted
for the stepsister
I insisted be put to an employer.
traitorous & close,
became the sheer foe.
(The Physical Tribe, 1822)
Both daughters were disowned by William Godwin. Not only was Percy married, but his wife Harriet was pregnant at the time. Certainly, Mary, Claire, and Percy behaved heartlessly toward Harriet Shelley. Much to the upset of William Godwin, whatever truth there is to the story, the three became known across the continent and at home as The League of Incest. Still, while there’s evidence Mary resented Claire’s inclusion in her home at times, she remained in the household for most of her life. Life is nothing if not complicated.
Certainly, Mary and Percy did not enjoy an untroubled partnership. Time spent in the company of her husband — while both open and stimulating — was fraught with illness, financial troubles, emotional problems, and deep griefs. They had four children though only one survived. There was rumour of another daughter fathered by Percy with an unknown woman. The Shelleys extended care to a daughter Claire birthed after an affair with Byron. The household was constantly rocked by family dramas, suicides abounded among both their family and acquaintances and Percy Shelley’s ill health and emotional trials led to hallucinations and the need to live far from the damp climate of England.
Still, focusing on Mary’s grieving over a box containing Percy’s heart, no matter what event or year Norman chooses to illustrate in his verse, rubs the wrong way.
I woke to behold,
the aching ink
in the page’s kind silence,
the fierce erect quill
my tiny life lived within.
(The Nigredo, 1820)
Tiny life? This suggests Mary needed Percy in a way that is completely unwarranted. It brings us back to the issue of assumptions that lean toward appropriation. In 2022, what reason can be found for leniency toward a man who presumes to speak for an important woman, her losses, or her griefs?
Chad Norman continues to do things his way … as any true poet must in the current age. His poems are published in countries around the globe. He continues to arrange/ host events, helping other poets. His collection, Selected & New Poems, out from Mosaic Press, brings together 30 years of poems.