History of Gone
Reviewer: Cindy Hochman
And I have no face, I have effaced myself
—Sylvia Plath, “Tulips”
A surefire way to get a reader’s attention is to start off with the bona fide disappearance, draped in mystery, of a writer. Throw into the mix the fact that this literary wunderkind had published two acclaimed novels by the age of 14, and after the age of 25 was never heard from again. Has this piqued your interest?
“We need lost women like ancients needed fire…. Just press and flip the pages with an eraser…. Her life plays like a film short with a stunning opening and a stolen reel.”
The writer explored in Lynn Schmeidler’s ambitious and astonishing History of Gone is Barbara Newhall Follett, and you would be forgiven if this name does not ring a bell (yes, out of curiosity I had to get me to the Google. Did you?). But the relative obscurity of Schmeidler’s subject turns out to be no impediment to one’s enjoyment of these poems. On the contrary, the poet’s passion and immersion into Follett’s intriguing life is highly contagious. The book begins with an ample clue, citing a more readily familiar gone girl (“Like Amelia over the Pacific, Barbara into a December night”). The young girl’s exodus was December 7th, and although the year was 1939, two years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this date adds ominous coincidence and connection to historical tragedy. Schmeidler has done her investigative homework so that we don’t have to (although the story itself is so fascinating, we might be compelled to do some further reading, and my hunch is that the poet would not discourage this). It is evident that Schmeidler has embarked on some heavy-duty sleuthing, rendering her portrait of Barbara Newhall Follett rich and three-dimensional. The backstory presented to us on the first page is concise, yet it gives us everything we need to know to join the search party in a meaningful way.
She’s forgotten! How are you?
I’m researching a Lost Life I’m obsessed with…
(from “She is a Dark Matter Candidate”)
Drawing on archival correspondence, and no doubt a close reading of Follett’s books (The House Without Windows and The Voyage of the Norman D.), Schmeidler offers us much insight into this star-crossed prodigy. But the fact remains that even the real detectives on the case had uncovered only scant information about her disappearance and were left befuddled (the body was never found), so conspiracy theories flourish: was she kidnapped by pirates? (This is not as far-fetched as it seems, as Follett had done a stint as a deckhand on a schooner.) Did she drown while on the ship? Abduction by marauders aside, Follett’s mother suspected that her daughter’s unfaithful husband, Nickerson Rogers, had something to do with her untimely departure. In this regard, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” surely comes to mind, especially as you read the following lines by Schmeidler, which seem to depict the caged conundrum of domestic confinement that had so tormented Gilman, and possibly Follett too:
My Job Is to Convince You
by staying put and loving not only you but the leaf belly-up at our door
rust stains in the sink
flatware. I’m trying. I’ll practice seeing through walls
to show you I love you I’ll bake you bread this hot afternoon. I’ll make a new life
of jars on windowsills.
The concept of gone has myriad connotations in a writer’s sphere. Death is of course the most obvious one, but words on the page can provide sufficient, if temporary, escape as well, and are the bailiwick and mainstay of both author and reader. For Sylvia Plath, effacement was synonymous with a diminishment or even elimination (and we all know how that ended). Many poets, including Schmeidler, are fascinated with erasure, which is the poet’s means of dissipation. And even writer’s block can be linked to absence—that is, the gone-ness of imagination, which can be every bit as devastating as true loss. In Schmeidler’s poem “Biofacts,” she observes that “Everywhere you look there’s a finger bone of some gone woman.”
her purse dehisced—child’s clavicle
thimble of snow
arch of ballet shoe
Early on, the poet poses the pivotal question what is a person? thus igniting a discussion about identity. This becomes significant when, at a certain point, the narrative moves from biography to autobiography, as the poet shapeshifts, situating herself into her subject’s self. For example, the first chapter is called “The Shes.” With the second chapter, we encounter the more personal “The I’s.” Schmeidler seems to meld into Follett, and vice versa, as the two writerly beings converse and converge with like minds. In the poem “Don’t Just Stand There, Steal Something,” Schmeidler notes that “Nothing bad can ever happen here in the first person singular / present tense,” and one cannot help but wonder whether the “something stolen” in the title is Follett’s essence itself. Here, Follett becomes mythologized and deified as Artemis (female warrior of the hunt) and, similarly, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (i.e., strong women). But Schmeidler’s use of the fire metaphor can be interpreted as both tenacious and tenuous (in “Free Is a Very Short Word,” the poet writes, “They bit their cheeks / in fear she’d flame like leaves”; in “Rage of Spring Milk,” Follett is seen as “all heat and spin,” and most telling, in “Come, Fire,” a manuscript burns, signaling extinguishment—the all-too-early burnout of her bright but brief embers).
It is most apt that the final poem in History of Gone is an erasure, drawn directly from Follett’s own words. The name of this poem, “Dear Yesterday,” is ripe with requiem and remembrance, and it is easy to correlate the missing/obliterated words with Barbara Newhall Follett’s puzzling fate. The most notable word in this poem is “I,” and it should not be lost on the reader that the vertical pronoun in this context can just as easily refer to the poet as to the novelist, so closely bonded are they through these poems.
Among her other appreciative shout-outs, Schmeidler thanks Barbara Newhall Follet as “mirror and muse,” and longingly avers “what I’d pay to be you reading me.” By doing so, she speaks for every creative soul yearning to be found.