The Speaking of Tongues

History is full of powerful figures, but the lives and impacts of the ordinary people around them is often over looked. This is not the case in Glossolalia, a collection of poems from Marita Dachsel. Dachsel transports her audience back in time to the 1800’s, to visit the rise of Mormonism and polygamy during the height of Joseph Smith’s power. However, rather than focus on Smith, her beautiful and moving collection of poems takes readers into the shoes of Joseph Smith’s 34 wives. Each poem brings us a different perspective, and takes us through a myriad of different emotions: love, longing, loneliness, pride and anger. Although almost completely fictional, Dachsel’s writing temporarily transports her readers back in time, to analyze the different perspectives her subjects had of themselves, their sister-wives and their infamous husband.

The title of the book, “glossolalia” is a term meaning the “speaking of tongues” during times of religious fervor. The book of course, has a heavy religious tone, with bits of scripture thrown in between sections of poems. The contents of the scripture often offset what we read in the poems. In most passages, the scripture depicts women as little more than commodities bound to their husband, a stark contrast to the living, breathing women Dachsel creates. Dachsel fuses such personality and vibrancy into her poetic monologues that I felt as though I understood each woman and had received a vivid snapshot of a particular time in their life. Each woman gets her own monologue to establish character, the only exception being Smith’s first wife, Emma Hale Smith, who gets four. To better inform her collection, Dachsel consulted many books regarding the birth of Mormonism, Smith and his many wives.

I haven’t had much contact with poetry since university, and am happy that this collection has brought me back into the fold. Glossolalia tells of the domestic life. The secret thoughts these women think to themselves and dare not share with anyone. It examines chores, sex, sisterhood and childbirth. Dachsel is a wonderful wordsmith, invoking strong feeling through her work. There is such contrast between each character, and it is most striking when the subjects are sisters. The poetic monologues of Emily Dow Partridge and Eliza Maria Partridge couldn’t be anymore different. Emily’s is full of anxiety and self-conscious dread, while Eliza’s monologue is haughty and focused on making biting remarks at Smith’s disapproving first wife. I felt connected to each of these women; each had their own voice singing through the page, even if their poetic monologue circled around the drudgery of their housework. The stories span from boredom to lust: Hannah Ells’s life is quite literally so boring Dachsel uses few other words to express it, creating both a melancholic and humourous poem, whereas Almera Woodward Johnson speaks of a late night sexual encounter. The construction of this poem is so packed with sensuality it’s best to read with a fan near by. Who knew Mormon sex could be so steamy?!

Dachsel also experiments with form, scattering words about the page, or throwing up three columns of words which, depending on how they were read, express the thoughts of competing sisters who were married to Smith. One of my favourites is a story of 17-year-old Lucy Walker’s engagement to Smith that is almost entirely crossed out, with only a few words remaining. After a little research I found that those stricken words are taken either from a diary, or interviews with Walker. Dachsel has carefully chosen those words that she would like to stand out and uses them to construct three small poems on comfort, sorrow, and release.

I finished Glossolalia craving more, and I commend Dachsel for making me sigh, smile and sweat. This charming little collection should be on the list of any poetry fiend.