Sunday, July 1, 2012

John and the Hired Girl

I've been working on a new poem within my Skimino Cycle titled "The Hired Girl."  As the title indicates, the poem focuses on the hired girl that John and Mary Ratcliffe hired to help work on their farm.  According to depositions from friends and neighbors in John's Civil War pension file, John and Mary hired multiple girls to help out, to some of whom John apparently (according to the depositions) took a liking.  That he had an affair with one is definitely known-- Mary names Melissa Hendricks in the divorce papers that she filed in 1873.

I don't know much about Melissa, which is making it difficult to capture her personality and voice in the poem.  She was rather "flat" in the first draft-- commenters who read the first draft said as much, and I have to agree with them.  Here's one little bit of information I know about her:  she was 18 years old in 1870, which means she would have been around 20 or 21 when the adulterous act occurred.  She was listed in the 1880 census as unable to write, but interestingly, she was not listed as illiterate (can one know how to read, but not write?).  She was living with her parents in 1880.  Not much in the way of facts around which to build a personality.

Each of the poems in the Skimino Cycle has required a fair amount of imagining to build the story around the facts.  But, the others involved people (mostly John and Mary) for whom I have enough information from which to create a well-rounded character.  This is not the case with the hired girl.  I am having to create her personality and character almost from scratch, and ultimately based upon how I think she related to John and Mary.  The problem right now is that, as a character, she is mostly a reflection of other people, without any real personality of her own.  I think she turned out that way in the first draft because I was trying to avoid making her come across as either exploited by John or as a seductress.  The result, however, was that she came across as "flat" and without any sort of feelings or thoughtful expression-- in a way, as dull and unintelligient.

The poem is narrated by the hired girl-- we are in her head as she goes about her activities.  The physical setting is the kitchen of the farmhouse, which is where I envision much of her interaction with John occurred.  The kitchen seems like a good setting-- the family hearth; the focus of much daily activity; where John would rest after returning from his trips out onto the prairie for hunting, fishing, and trapping (activities in which he engaged a lot, according to the pension file depositions).  If Mary is out in the fields, managing the daily activity of the farm, the kitchen would be a good location for John and Melissa to spend time.  Friendship and then intimacy could develop there, but also because it's a family space, Mary would have opportunity to interrupt and observe the relationship between them.  And, because ultimately the kitchen is Mary's kitchen, there is a violation of space even if there is not yet a violation of trust.

So, where to go with Melissa's character?  The difference in ages between her and John would suggest that she might see him as a "father figure" type, someone older and wiser from whom she can learn.  Someone who is more mature and perhaps understanding than the younger men of the community.  Perhaps she has a learning disability (which is why she can't write) or some other disability that makes her less attractive to younger men, but which John, with his war wounds (physical and perhaps mental), can empathize and see past.  They find solace in each other; they spend time together; they share a mutual understanding of each other's condition; and this leads ultimately to physical intimacy.

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