Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Hired Girl

I took a break from work on the next set of poems in my Skimino Cycle series.  These poems were going to focus on the period of time when John Ratcliffe had his affair with Melissa Hendricks, the young woman whom John and Mary had hired to help out on the farm.  The affair is the act that led to Mary's decision to file for divorce.  It probably wasn't the only cause (although that's speculation on my part), but it certainly was the action that was spelled out in the divorce papers. 

I had drafted a poem narrated by Melissa, but initial comments from others was that it seemed a little flat.  Melissa (unnamed in the poem) seemed too one dimensional.  I agreed.  My goal in the poem was to introduce her as a character in the series of poems and to place her in some sort of work-a-day context.  I also wanted to try to place her in the context of John and Mary's relationship, knowing that as the hired girl she would be somewhat of an outsider, albeit well-informed outsider and observer.  And, knowing that she had an affair with John, she is not, or at least would not remain, an impartial observer.  I wanted to establish empathy for John on her part; establish that she cared for him in some way, that there was something that attracted her to him.  But, I wanted to be careful that she did not come across as a seductress, plotting to eventually get John into bed.  I also didn't want to make her come across as having a sort of school girl crush on John.  He was probably a fairly good looking man (his Civil War enlistment papers describe him as having dark eyes, dark hair, dark complexion); friends described his physical build as trim and fit.  They also described him as being a neat and tidy dresser.  But, family lore has it that he was depressed and bitter after the war, in part because of the wounds he suffered.  Depression runs in the family, so this seems plausible.  So, John had qualities that might have been attractive to a young woman of 21 (Melissa's age at the time of the affair), but he had qualities that would have been less attractive.  What was it, then, that attracted the two of them to each other?  And, did the affair grow out of love?  Or, was it simply something that happened as two people who enjoy each other's company and maybe need each other find themselves drawing closer together? 

Back to the poem itself-- I read my initial draft again this morning.  I read the alternate version that I had drafted.  That version, which tried to get more into Melissa's character, made her seem shallow, naive, maybe even a bit dull of mind.  Given John's upbringing and background, I can't see him being attracted to someone who was dull of mind, and I don't want the affair to be based solely on physical attraction, some mid-life crisis where John is simply looking for fling with a voluptuous young woman.  Maybe it was, and there is a comment from one of his neighbors in a statement in John's pension files that he had an eye for the women, but as author and storyteller, I don't want it to be simply about sex.  As I read the initial draft again this morning, I felt a little more comfortable with the words, with the story line.  I made a few changes to improve cadence and flow, and made a few changes that may help improve my characterization of Melissa and her feelings toward John.  But, as I read the poem again, I realized this is not a poem that delves deep into her character and persona, and neither did I want it to be that.  Rather, the poem is a young woman voicing her thoughts on a particular day, in a particular moment without getting introspective or into self-analysis.

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