What Woman That Was: Poems for Mary Dyer

By Anne Myles. Final Thursday Press, 2022. 60 pages. $14.95/paperback.

I think the most startling revelation that came from this fascinating collection of poems is how very little is known about Mary Dyer’s life and thinking. This is, of course, a reality well suited not only for legend and myth but also for imaginative reconstructions, such as are offered in the poems of What Woman That Was.

We do know that Mary Dyer was a colonial Puritan turned Quaker. She was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. Dyer is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs.

The author of this book, Anne Myles, came to this project because of a fascination with Mary Dyer that focused on a deeply felt connection to Dyer as a strong, independent woman called to act during times when the Quakers were thought to hold “[b]lasphemous opinions, despising government and the order of God,” as quoted from Massachusetts’s anti-Quaker laws.

To appreciate these poems, it helps to remember that on March 22, 1638, Anne Hutchinson was commanded to depart the city of Boston by the ruling assembly. Dyer rose to accompany her in leaving the assembly, “which a stranger, observing, asked another, ‘What woman that was?’”

Answering this question, is the driving force of this collection of poems.

Hutchinson’s strong religious convictions went against the established Puritan clergy in Boston, and her charisma and supporters helped create a theological schism that threatened the Puritan religious community. Hutchinson was eventually tried and banished from the colony.

In the invocation to Myles’s collection of poems, we learn how it was that the narrator of these poems began to experience her connections to Dyer:

Still I kept moving toward you,
watching my reflection
in yours, as you go searching

for what you lack, or long
for you instead, hidden figure of
another lost woman I can’t

let go of.

The speaker here appears to be seeking the courage, wisdom, and feeling of being called by a higher power that she senses drove Dyer to make the difficult decisions she made when she chose to accompany Hutchinson following her condemnation by the assembly in Boston. Both women courageously stood up against the domineering male power of their time to act out of a faith inspired by a higher calling. In Dyer’s voice, the author writes:

I feel the rising to speak of it now
as once silently I rose to follow
in the reach of this bitter city
sensing the way of it
my body a kindling
my voice a flame.

The narrator sees Dyer as an “Esther / before King Ahasuerus . . . the breathing Word,” and she, the narrator, feels powerfully drawn to the courage and strength she imagines in Dyer.

These poems are the product not only of Myles’s imagination but perhaps also the fear that she is speaking only of herself—listening to the “strange tones” of Dyer’s spirit “as they mingle with [my] own.”

I found the poetic meditation of this work compelling, similar to what Jessica Jacobs has created in reconstructing Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert experiences in her powerful collection of poems Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), which Jacobs aptly calls a “self-portrait by proxy.”

Anne Myles enables us to imagine the adult life and Quaker calling of Mary Dyer, and, in a manner that some are beginning to call autoethnography, gives new life to a significant early Quaker.

Michael S. Glaser, a former poet laureate of Maryland, has recently moved to Hillsborough, N.C. His new chapbook, Elemental Things, was released by the Poetry Box in February.

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