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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
A is for Anne 
by Penelope Scambly Schott

Turning Point, 2007

Reviewed by Lana Hechtman Ayers

A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth by Penelope Scambly Schott is a series of narrative poems exploring the life of the nonconformist Puritan Anne Hutchinson.  History tells us Hutchinson was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for theological beliefs considered heresy by the Church of the Commonwealth, but what the dry pages of history texts omit is exactly what poet Schott focuses on: the heart and mind of Anne herself.  In addition to bringing Anne to life and humanizing her story, Schott provides a visceral sense of the sociopolitical atmosphere of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in the territories as well as in England.
Early poems in the collection center on Anne's childhood, giving the reader a sense of how Anne came to be the remarkable progressive woman she was.  Many of these poems spotlight the close and nurturing relationship between Anne and her father, Reverend Francis Marbury, who was himself a radical socially as well as in the church. He did not think education was wasted on a female and schooled Anne regularly in reading, writing, arithmetic and liturgy.  Marbury disagreed with the harsher practices of the Church of England and was put on trial for his dissention, the result of which cost him his parish.  After that time, his concentration on Anne's education became even more vehement.  In the poem "Daughter of a Dissenter," Anne claims herself her "father's dearest scholar":

     see how he leads me through deep waters.

     Denied his parish, my father ravishes me

     with argument of fiercest precision,

     chapter and verse correctly quoted.

Not only is her father sharpening her wits, but he is also giving her as extensive a knowledge of scripture as his own.  After Marbury's death, the grieving Anne continues her serious study of scripture, as much a way of keeping her father close in her heart as having a relationship with God.

Later, at age twenty-one, Anne marries successful merchant William Hutchinson and together they have more than a dozen children, though not all survive to adulthood.  After the death of two daughters from plague, Anne and William follow Joseph Cotton to the colonies and settle in Massachusetts Bay.  In the poem "Unpleasant Weeks Aboard the Griffin," Schott imagines for us how Anne's independent thinking got her in trouble as early as the crossing over:

     We hear Sermons every day.  Yesterday,

     one Reverend Symmes spoke contrary

     to what I know.  This morning on deck,

     I raise the point.  He takes it amiss

     I am rebuked 

Upon arrival, Schott imagines that Mr. Cotton himself rebukes Anne as well, warning her to hold her tongue.  Anne's first opinion upon seeing New England is, "The uncobbled streets look shabby and mean."  

Anne begins having scripture meetings in her home for the women of the colony.  Men start attending these as well, and the number of attendees swells to rival that of church service itself.  The leaders of church and state of the colony become incensed.  Anne is interrogated in her home, her family members and friends are harassed, and eventually she is imprisoned and put on a series of trials.  In addition to being called a dangerous instrument of the devil, she is accused of vanity, of thinking too much of her own mind.  Schott's rendering of Anne's voice  is acutely evocative in the poem, "Regret at Night," recording her thoughts during incarceration.

     Does the rain regret falling?

     Or Christ undo His covenant with me?

     First, above all, I must guard my soul.

     But how to care for my young children?

     At this late hour, I hunger to touch them.

The result of the trials and Anne's refusal to recant or confess transgression is her banishment from the colony.  Anne's husband, a staunch supporter of his wife, makes a new home for them in Rhode Island.  Six years later, William dies at the age of 56.  Still pursued by Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, who continues to ask her to admit guilt, and fearing the Bay Colony may take over Rhode Island, Anne flees with her children.  They settle in the Dutch colony north of New Amsterdam.  But all is not well there, as is foreshadowed in the poem, "I have Quit Rhode Island."

     It is quiet, so quiet, that the man whom I hired

     to build us this house said he was scared 

     of eyes that hide in the woods.

Within the year, Anne's house is attacked by natives and burns to the ground with her and her family inside.  Only a daughter, Susannah, survives because she is taken and raised by the natives.  The book ends as it began, with poems in the voice of this daughter, remembering her mother.  Here are some poignant lines from "What Susannah Can Remember Later."

                                  She stood

     unmoving in the doorway and prayed aloud.

     Welcome me, Christ, for I am saved.

     Her hair caught.  In the gleam of the flames

     she became as beautiful as a shooting star.

Penelope Scambly Schott achieves great mastery in A is for Anne by breathing life into one of history's most influential, important, and under-sung heroines.  Anne Hutchinson, for whom a statue was erected in front of the Boston State House in 1922, and for whom a parkway in New York state is named, occupies little more than a line or two of print in the most inclusive classroom texts.  Here, finally, she is revealed to the readers, a woman of flesh and bone we can relate to, a woman devoutly spiritual, and of uncommonly rational and resolute mind.  This is a tale of authorities' misguided efforts and false pride that has reverberations for our modern times.  If only all of history could be rendered with this much humanity, perhaps we would learn not to repeat our past egregious errors of judgment. 

LANA HECHTMAN AYERS is a manuscript consultant and publishes the Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Series.  She lives in the Seattle area with several black and white cats.