In her first full-length poetry collection, Abby Minor’s provocative, stream-of-consciousness poems explore the past and present treatment of American women and their right to bodily autonomy. Divided into four thematic sections, the book discusses assumptions about women and clashes with radical pro-life stances. A series of research-based poems then considers the life, arrest, and death of the notorious Ann Lohman (also known as Madame Restell), who “provided abortions, contraceptives, and other reproductive services” in Manhattan during the mid-1800s.
Minor uses a documentary-style poetics, which she labels as a film noir, to describe Lohman as a “shiny giantess / and a great conductor” of abortion access for women in New York. The poet also details Lohman’s suicide and the desperation she felt toward the end of her life, having been deemed a wicked woman by society. Minor includes statements and questions from interviews with Lohman about female virtue and men’s fear of women being in control of their bodies. The speaker of these poems is very emotionally connected to Lohman, inspired by her bravery and feminism during a troubling time — which Minor connects to America’s traumatic present.
In addition to commentary and facts about Lohman, Minor’s prose poems meditate on haunting contemporary issues surrounding abortion: “Then there was the eminent gynecologist saying, Shall the West and South be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” Minor compares this to one nineteenth-century reformer’s belief that white women having abortions was akin to “Race Suicide, white lady’s killing all the children she’s not having.”
Minor creatively reveals six scenes from Lohman’s trial in 1847, noting how wholesale and retail agents across America wanted to teach women about the “perils and terrors of an invasion of the course of nature.” The dark and at times weirdly humorous word choice demonstrates a mistrust of women, as well as a lack of understanding about women’s bodies and the impact of childbearing. In these trial poems, Minor writes about a woman named Maria Bodine, who details her abortion after having relations with her boss. The victim-blaming ensues:
Bodine’s lawyers called
Lohman the most terrible
being ever born & Lohman’s
lawyers called Bodine as foul,
corrupt, loathsome, guilty a
thing as ever polluted God’s
blessed earth by her pestilential
presence. The beau/boss Mr.
Cook was never called
to court …
Minor’s poems move from prose to lyric throughout the book; both styles are direct yet meandering. She confronts the concerns of Lohman and her clients head-on, interpreting their experience as “a story about arrangements / of time.” Throughout the book, Minor calls attention to the horrifying and embarrassing irony that women in America are still dealing with loss of bodily autonomy “about a hundred and thirty eight years after the Madame’s death.” The speaker walks around Central Park and imagines Lohman’s veil over the city. She assures herself that Lohman was good for New York, despite her negative reputation: “No dead man will catch me stooping / to prove that she was good.”
Toward the end of the collection, Minor’s poems become more autobiographical, with stories of family history and fragments of conversation. She describes her Yiddish-speaking grandmother growing up amid a backdrop of memorable events: “She was thirteen in the same year that novel Bad Girl was published, in which the part of Manhattan where the protagonist goes to get an abortion is pictured as a place where ‘gossiping uncorseted Jewesses’ hang out on the stoops; in which the villain is a fat Jewess who’s had eleven abortions, who wears a giant diamond ring … ”
The speaker, her grandmother, and her mother — named Abigail, Ruth, and Judith, respectively — recall biblical women. While they all support each other through trauma, the two older generations have a particular ability to empathize given their longer histories in America. Ultimately, the collection ends with a display of support and laughter among the women, who will always have each other, despite everything.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.