Jane Satterfield’s third collection, Her Familiars, is comprised of poems that range in style from full use of the page to the villanelle and sestina. These poems often address the experiences of women, both historical and contemporary. Satterfield’s received forms, neat as needlepoint, do not shy away from discussing topics including emigration, colonialism, and the enormity of torture and bombings. She also manages to address the random shuffling of an iTunes playlist in a long poem on early American history.
The iTunes party shuffle poem, “Collapse: A Fugue,” asserts binaries of low to high music while musing on the colonization of Jamestown. Satterfield writes:
A colony is an agendaed endeavor—A crapshoot against collapse
This era of history is richly personal as she uses text from a multitude of sources and highlights the plight of the pregnant women coming to America:
Imagine the peril & pain:
exceeding sharpe travill in great
extreamity . . . the childe
stied in the birth & came crosse
with feete first.
The pregnant women are apt in this poem. Their uncertainty, change, expanse, and new life are shared with the colony through “peril & pain.” Likewise, the historical female is powerfully explored in a sectioned poem about a potter in industrial England, “Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street.” The voice is inclusive and explains both her craft and doubts:
I had sisters
who went out dancing four times a week–could I dare reveal
my figurines earned mention
in trade gazettes?
Satterfield’s poems often pose questions in a political light. On her childhood involvement with the Girl Scouts, Satterfield asks, “What badge were we after, what wisdom? Citizenship? Government?” Yet, more often than not, one joins Girl Scouts by the arrangements of others and is not making a choice of civic engagement. The larger issue here, it seems to be, is identity making. Satterfield writes, “She knows how far / the smart girl gets—badge & suit, official blessing, unwitting agent of someone else’s grand undisclosed plan.”
The smart girl exists in opposition to her counterpart. In the following poem “American Idol” the narrator lists ephemeral reality shows and uses the phrase “Posh & Becks,” referencing the tabloid pet name for Victoria and David Beckham. In comparison to Satterfield’s researched descriptions of 1603 Jamestown, “Posh & Becks” appears almost in hot pink, a bizarre reprieve. A hair stylist compliments our poet who wonders if she indeed “could sport / a posh bob, / [if] I could go that blonde.” This poem hinges on binaries—opening with an invocation to Plato the poet seems to question whom she’d be should she absorb vapid pop culture and the hairstyle of a Spice Girl.
Identity is significant throughout Her Familiars. In “How to Be a Domestic Goddess,” a poem inspired by Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861, highlights the absurdity of demands on the role of a wife and mother, while also acknowledging the warmth of that strange world; Satterfield shows the “pater familias” carving a fat turkey and considers, along with Mrs. Beeton, how many guests are indeed appropriate for a dinner party. Beyond cultural critique, Satterfield is witty and opens the poem with her respects:
A round of applause for Mrs. Beeton
Victorian icon extraordinaire
correcting proofs for The
Dictionary of Every Day Cookery
even as she goes into labor.