I had often wondered what happened to Madeleine Hennessy. Back in July1979, when I was twelve, my father returned from the American Library Association’s annual convention with a small bundle of literary magazines and one poetry chapbook that he’d picked up at an exhibitor’s booth — probably from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (now the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses). The magazines, all published that year, included Wascana Review, The Yale Review, Ploughshares and Shenendoah. The chapbook was called Pavor Nocturnus and Other Poems, by Madeleine Hennessey. It was published by an outfit called washoutchapbooks in Schenectady, New York.
This was my first poetry chapbook, and I was entranced. My brothers and I were putting out a quarterly nature magazine at the time, so I had an interest in well-produced zines and zine-like publications. Pavor Nocturnus was perfect-bound, 32 pages long, and printed on heavy stock. The illustrator, Ed Bruhn, was given his own brief bio at the end. The front matter credits him not only with the cover and photography, but also with something called radiation field photography: five, full-page, enigmatic images of tree leaves seemingly in the process of dissolving into the page.
Of the author, I learned little other than that she was, apparently, young, and that some of the poems in the book had originally appeared in other places: Shaman, The Hollow Spring Review, Yankee, The Greenfield Review, and Ploughshares — in fact, the very issue of Ploughshares included in the bundle. The back cover was graced by a blurb from Joseph Bruchac, the prolific Abenaki Indian author and storyteller and long-time editor of The Greenfield Review: “The landscapes of memory, magic and sorrow are mapped in these poems of Madeleine Hennessy’s with both power and grace. PAVOR NOCTURNUS is a strong first book of poems and one which I’m glad to be able to recommend.”
Memory, magic and sorrow: yes. The magic, in particular, was something I appreciated. My favorite poets at the time were, as I recall, Loren Eisley — better known as a science writer — and Robinson Jeffers. I hadn’t yet discovered those two great wellsprings of inspiration for post-war American poets: Tang and Song Dynasty Chinese and medieval Japanese poetry; and 20th-century Spanish and Latin American poetry. Pavor Nocturnus may well have been my introduction to a kind of understated-yet-dramatic, surrealist-tinged style which, all these years later, seems to have become my own, as well. I’m not good at describing poetry, but let me give a few examples so you’ll see what I mean — and why I was so taken with the book.
In “Prizefighter,” Hennessy writes in the “expected voice” of another — a new technique to me at the time.
The world is roped
I embrace you
I pummel again.
I go for
cheeks and flank,
face bubbles and splits.
You go down
broken. Arms curling
back to mama.
I hear the roar,
Sounds of money.
Hands are upon me
I really liked the way she wrote about poetry in a couple of pieces, suggesting that it is something dangerous and vital and not merely an artifact on the page:
Poems I have not written
I have not written for you.
I might see
those hooked letters catch your skin,
the soft ones curl around each limb.
In my kitchen
pouring the tea
the curve of the handle
would break your hand and spilling,
the white pages scald your eye.
(“Poems Not Written”)
wake with a bomb.
I rush in my flannels to read
the maps that were my poems.
My bladed tongue agitates the wireless;
who is digging trenches along my bones
wearing a gas mask instead of a face?
Growing up in the country, I was always on the lookout for poems that offered an unsentimentalized view of wild nature. Some of the pieces in Pavor Nocturnus satisfied this craving. One appeared to have been written in response to Robert Frost’s most famous poem, which I had committed to memory a couple years before:
A loss is consuming the road,
the step of a girl not taken.
She haunts the long tunnel of leaves,
she aches with both hands
and dreads the sky’s domestic turnings.
(“Something of a Loss”)
There was a lot in the book that was over my head, but that didn’t turn me off — I always kind of enjoyed getting lost. For example, I’m not sure what I got out of this description of a falconer’s longed-for catch, brought back by the falcon:
It would glitter before you–
a handful of light
in the shape of water,
some patched shadows
with light as borders.
You’d see filaments
tilting in trees, and learn
the secret light-breathings
Then you would be falconer,
then a master.
Your arm extended
into its own clear shape.
A love poem dedicated to someone named Tom did nothing for me, though it now strikes me as excellent. But a number of poems privileged the perspectives of children, such as this one about a team of landscapers:
They call to one another
eyes of neighborhood children
in the hedges.
They consider fencing
against the rabbits, their hands
a threat of metal.
Dirt collapses like a dream,
a shift in purpose
toward borders and rows.
The marigolds poised,
symmetry of measured grasses.
Everything ravaged to order.
I was a little taken aback by the ease with which Hennessy mythologized herself in a few of her poems. This seemed of a piece with the poems in others’ voices, suggesting a fluid boundary between self and other, observer and observed. I think this made a big impression on me, because I was kind of a strange little kid (hard to believe, I know!) who spent a lot of time pondering metaphysical questions, such as whether the self is a real thing or a purely social fiction. (I eventually decided in favor of the latter.) My favorite poem in the book was the one that also appeared in the thick, Vol. 5, No. 1 issue of Ploughshares:
Letter to my Mother
This may come as a surprise to you
but as a child
I belonged to another family.
And even as your child I knew it.
They lived on the side of a mountain
in a thin house of boards.
The walls went many ways.
I learned to walk at angles,
to come and go
without a crash.
Each morning I slopped water
from the well
to the screams of another mother.
We had a father who had a car
that he parked on a slant
near the slanted house.
Mother, when I was your child
I wondered about this other family.
I woke alone and they appeared:
on the tilted porch,
mother yelling at the well.
Probably every child fantasizes about having been somehow switched at birth or given up for adoption, and dreams about a different life where all his or her desires would be met; I know I did. This poem struck me with its implication that the speaker’s apparently real childhood was, in fact, the fantasy of some much less well-off child. I went to school with kids like that, and my parents had told us repeatedly not to resent their occasional bullying or meanness — we were to assume that they came from “bad backgrounds,” whatever that meant. “There but for the grace of God go I” was (and still is) one of my mother’s favorite expressions.
So whatever happened to Madeleine Hennessy? As the years went by, I kept expecting to see reviews of her books, or at least encounter more of her work in literary magazines. Back in 1979, she was one of a crowded field of talented young poets just beginning to make a name for themselves. Among other poets appearing with her in the Ploughshares Special Poetry Issue that year, I see from the Notes on Contributors that Ellen Bryant Voigt and Heather McHugh had just published their first books, while Linda Gregerson and Jorie Graham are only described as having published poems in a few other magazines. The Winter 1979 issue of Shenendoah — the other thing in the bundle that really caught my fancy — included a three-page poem by a then-unknown Louise Erdrich.
When I first began using the internet twenty years later, I did a search for “Madeleine Hennessy” and couldn’t find anything (other than, eventually, the Ploughshares listing). I repeated the search last November, and something finally turned up. It was an obituary from The York [Maine] Weekly, 2002.
Madeleine Joyce Hennessy, 53, of Trumbull, Conn., died Tuesday, March 26, 2002, at her home after a courageous battle with cancer.
Born Sept. 18, 1948, in Syracuse, N.Y., she was the daughter of Richard and Doris (Howe) Hennessy of Cape Neddick.
She was a member of the Trinity Episcopal Church in the Nichols section of Trumbull. As warden she was instrumental in the development of the Trinity memorial garden. Madeleine was a dedicated member of the adult choir, and participated fully in the life of the church.
Madeleine always loved written language. As a little girl, words and their power fascinated her. She began writing poetry before the age of 10. An outstanding high school English student, she won the English medal upon graduation from Notre Dame High School. Madeleine majored in English and earned a BA degree from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in 1970, where she was also named in “Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.”
Madeleine’s first post-college job was with the Schenectady County Department of Social Services. She began in 1970 as a child welfare adoption worker and was promoted to foster care case supervisor before resigning in 1984 to move to Connecticut and to raise her first child.
While living in Schenectady, Madeleine developed her talents as a poet. For more than 10 years Madeleine was a member of a local poetry group, where her contributions as an insightful critic were considered invaluable. She was a contributing poet and on the editorial board of The Washout Review, a quarterly magazine published in Schenectady. Madeleine also published regularly in Yankee Magazine. Pavor Nocturnus and The Christmas Poems of Madeleine Hennessy are her two self-published poetry books. While extending her talents as a poet, Madeleine developed an interest in newspapers. Her career path included positions such as a nursery school teacher, editing and proofreading, and she was a consultant for various companies. Most recently, she was employed by Micro Warehouse as senior catalogue manager, where she was loved and respected by her coworkers. Madeleine was a devoted mother and was dearly loved by her many friends. She was an inspiration to all who knew her.
Besides her parents, she is survived by her daughters, Caitlin Anne Smolinski and Julie Grace Smolinski of Trumbull; a sister, Doris Blaisdell and her husband, Thomas of York; two brothers, James Hennessy and his wife, Sandy of Newton, N.H., and Richard Hennessy and his wife, Joelyn, of Madison, Miss.; a brother-in-law, Jeff Blum of Westport, Conn.; her devoted companion, Gerry Lemay of Milford, Conn.; several nieces and nephews.
She was predeceased by a sister, Mary H. Blum, in 1996.
Funeral services were held Saturday, March 30 in Connecticut. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent in her name to Trinity Episcopal Church Memorial Garden Fund, 1734 Huntington Turnpike, Trumbull, CT 06601, or to the Connecticut Higher Education Trust, P.O. Box 150499, Hartford, CT 06115, to benefit the education of her daughters.
It’s sobering to to think that a poet of such talent and vision might choose obscurity, devoting herself to family and community rather than the “arm extended / beyond [her]self / into its own clear shape.” How many others are there, I wonder, who have made the same choice?
All images in this post are by Ed Bruhn, from Pavor Nocturnus