Sundress Reads: Review of Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners

In her fourth book of poetry, Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners (Fordham University Press, 2021), Sarah Mangold explores and celebrates the impressive list of accomplishments of women naturalists, bringing to the forefront integral figures who were overshadowed and erased from the histories of scientists by their male counterparts. Her Wilderness Will be Her Manners is not a collection of poems, but an epic-length piece that collages and assembles a feminist archive of naturalism, remembering forgotten moments of innovations and contemplating the science of observing and recording the natural world.

Mangold’s epic opens with lines that immediately relate the reader to the experience of women’s historical erasure: “They put our body / into text,” and then, “Make us exclaim / in the space / of hissing / throat clearing / explicit instructions / how to look natural.” (1). She gifts us with the strong voice of a narrator who adds, “What interested me was / the way ladies survive / as acknowledgements / in other people’s prefaces” and “the way historians will not / see women.” (14) And later articulates “the consistent / obliteration of their activity / in what passes for history” (67) continuing to press the reminder that “women occupied many kinds of places.” (30) By sourcing language from historical texts and delving into the intricacies of women’s involvement in male-dominated pursuits like taxidermy and natural history dioramas, Mangold assembles a world in which “any landscape / is the absorption and transformation of another.” (63) Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners challenges the arbitrary nature of gender roles, asserting the idea that “to have a body” is one of the “conditions of existence / or probabilities of life.” (33)

Though the work is technically one continuous poem, each page offers the reader something new in terms of formatting, spacing and carefully chosen language. Mangold articulates a visual message as much as a literary one, pinning her words across the page in many cases, while in others adopting a more traditional approach to formatting. The intentional omission of articles and punctuation further pushes the reader to make intuitive leaps about the narrator’s identity and message, while simultaneously drawing a connection between women and nature itself, painting the “daughters of time” (76) carefully into the same composition they are studying, offering “proof of woman’s work” (46) in moments like, “she braced against the inequalities of the bark and drew / herself up among branches.” (41) This is all especially evident in the following selection from page 37:

“But this is becoming a feminine chapter

            Romantic by right of love        appropriation and appreciation

She described her errand into wilderness

            in language      how to ride, how to dress for it, how to shoot,

How to woman-who-goes-hunting-with-her-husband

                      by the possessive voice a western abbreviation

                                       in great favor            typical affections

of the hunter hero autobiography

I am still a woman and may be tender             Hundred dangers which

      seemed made to annihilate me”

Here, the narrator’s objective to give space to “women’s / invisible careers” (34) is clear in the attention to arrangement and position in her language. The reader is also confronted with juxtaposed images and statements like “tender Hundred dangers” and “Romantic by right of love            appropriation and appreciation” that both allow and push the reader to make their own conclusions.

In addition to her beautiful arrangement of words, Mangold leaves the reader with a further contribution to the conversation by including images of her own artworks throughout the book. These pieces feature compilations of the “Women’s Work” featured throughout Mangold’s writing in a fashion that mimics that in which naturalists and taxidermists would have displayed their findings and collections by utilizing materials like insect pins while also photographing them in a way that reads similarly to stereographs. Mangold’s commitment to authenticity and visual impact especially shines in the creation of these pieces and their distribution throughout the book.

Throughout Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, Mangold consistently pays tribute to woman who altered the course of naturalism, but whose work was lost. She reminds us that “The giving of names / to individuals involves an act of will,” (41) and of the ways in which women “must carry the capacity / to be read.” (46) This is the kind of book that is synchronously beautiful and deceiving in its straightforward-ness, in which something new can be gleaned with each read.

Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners was awarded the Poets Out Loud Prize by Cynthia Hogue and is available at Fordham University Press

Nicole Bethune Winters (she/her) is a poet, ceramic artist, and yoga teacher. She currently resides in Southern California, where she makes and sells pottery out of her home studio. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, or exploring new landscapes. She derives most of the inspiration for her creative work from her interactions with the environment around her, and is always looking for new ways to connect with and understand the earth. Her debut poetry collection, brackish, was published by Finishing Line Press in August 2022.

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