Book Review: Oakes’ poetry uses plain but powerful language

The Bowling Green Daily News, Saturday, March 19, 2011

Just in time for Women’s History Month comes Elizabeth Oakes’ latest volume of poetry, Mercy in the New World. Oakes is a Western Kentucky University English professor emerita with two earlier collections of poetry to her credit: The Farmgirl Poems, which won the Pearl Prize for Poetry in 2004, and The Luminescence of All Things Emily (2009), Emily being the poet Emily Dickinson. All three titles are available from

Additionally, Oakes is co-founder and co-editor of the Kentucky Feminist Writers Series. Thus, “Mercy in the New World” nicely unites the author’s dual interests in poetry and feminism.

The Mercy of the title is a composite of two historical women from 17th century America: Mercy Dudley Woodbridge and her sister, Sarah Dudley Keanye Dacey. The entire Dudley family came from England to America in 1630. The historical Mercy was herself a poet, although none of her writing is extant, and Sarah preached and was excommunicated from the Puritan community because of her views. A third sister, Anne Dudley Bradstreet, is remembered as America’s first published poet. These facts and others found in the prologue give us helpful background information.

The 49 poems in Mercy in the New World are arranged in five chronological sections which trace Mercy’s experiences, from her arrival in 1630 and her early religious experiences in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to her divorce and excommunication from the church in the early 1640s, to her eventual arranged marriage to Philip Dacey and the surprising happiness their simple life together brought (late 1640s and early 1650s) and finally, to her old age in the late 1650s.

Mercy is keenly aware of her environment - the browns, the weathered grays and the darkness in general that surrounds her. Yet even from the earliest, she can also marvel at the summer light that “gilded the children” and the vibrant reds, golds and oranges of that first fall (“Fall in the Wilderness”). In “Dreaming of Color,” she questions, “Is it [God] whose / thumbs caress my lids / as I dream of color?” Eyes, sight and blindness are, in fact, a major concern in several of the poems, including the lovely concluding one, “What My Eyes Cannot Help But See.”

Another motif serving to unify the collection is hands - Mercy’s hands, Philip’s hands, even God’s hands. In “God’s Loom,” she reflects:

Like a shuttle, God’s hands
move over me and through
me, weaving me into this
new world, into His.

Several of the poems recount the effects of Mercy’s questioning of Puritan dogma. The most emotionally wrenching of these is “Divorce, Disinheritance, Excommunication.” In it she says, “My / father stayed in the room when they voted, / as did my husband. I did not expect that.” Later she recalls, “When they excommunicated me, I went into the forest / where God waits for me” (“The Gift of Prophecy.”)

The major journey Mercy undertakes is undeniably a spiritual one. And in poem after poem, the spiritual plight of the 17th-century woman surfaces, as in “How God Comes to Me”:

God, they tell me, does not come
to women (only that once), and
we must catch reflected light
from father, husband, brother,
even son.

Mercy’s God, a god of love, is far different from the stern deity of the Puritans. She sees God not in church, but in the natural world, in humble work, even in childbirth. “Is there anything / men do that is so / like God’s love?” she asks in “Giving Birth.” She is ever alert to the spiritual equivalents of the most ordinary tasks like washing clothes, churning or making pie, and she especially finds God in the sea, the sand, the moon and the wind.

The title, Mercy in the New World, operates obviously on more than one level, and in a poem from the last section, “Praying in the New World,” she says,

My name
is Mercy, and
I have given
it to myself
at last.

The language throughout the poems is appropriately plain yet powerful. In “My Muse,” Mercy admits that (unlike sister Anne Bradstreet) “rhyme gets in my / way, like the skirt that catches in the thorns.” The figures of speech that occur are drawn from nature or from the routine tasks of a housewife. And throughout, lines like the following from “Outliving Philip” reflect the sure touch of the born poet:

I find him now in the glow
of fire, stealth of new snow,
dust as it swirls in the sunlight
over our table, silence that
funnels on through the centuries.
The perfection of “funnels” in the line above is undeniable.

Imagining ourselves in other people’s lives is, after all, what literature is about. And Mercy in the New World, with its dedication, “For the lost, whose lives we can only imagine,” provides us just such an opportunity. Its poems are a fitting tribute to one of those lost voices, especially this month when we pay homage to women’s history.

                      — Reviewed by Janet Schwarzkopf, WKU English department retiree.