"Half-hanged Mary" was Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in 1684 at Hadley, Massachusetts and hanged from a tree - where, according to one of the several surviving accounts, she was left all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive, since she lived for another fourteen years.)

We are among Mary Websterís descendants as is Canadian novelist and poet, Margaret Atwood, who wrote a poem, ďHalf-Hanged Mary,Ē (1995) about our notorious ancestor, and one of her most popular novels, The Handmaidís Tale (1985), is dedicated to her.

The poem has also been made into several stage productions and interpretations. Atwoodís poem is in sections, each chronicling an hour of Maryís hanging from the tree, beginning at 7 at night and concluding at 8 the next morning.







This poem is based upon a true story.


 

HALF-HANGED MARY

by Margaret Atwood


 

7pm
 

Rumour was loose in the air

hunting for some neck to land on.

I was milking the cow,

the barn door open to the sunset.
 

I didn't feel the aimed word hit

and go in like a soft bullet.

I didn't feel the smashed flesh

closing over it like water

over a thrown stone.
 

I was hanged for living alone

for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,

tattered skirts, few buttons,

a weedy farm in my own name,

and a surefire cure for warts;
 

Oh yes, and breasts,

and a sweet pear hidden in my body.

Whenever there's talk of demons

these come in handy.
 

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8pm
 

The rope was an improvisation.

With time they'd have thought of axes.
 

Up I go like a windfall in reverse,

a blackend apple stuck back onto the tree.
 

Trussed hands, rag in my mouth,

a flag raised to salute the moon,
 

old bone-faced goddess, old original,

who once took blood in return for food.
 

The men of the town stalk homeward,

excited by their show of hate,
 

their own evil turned inside out like a glove,

and me wearing it.
 

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9pm
 

The bonnets come to stare,

the dark skirts also,

the upturned faces in between,

mouths closed so tight they're lipless.

I can see down into their eyeholes

and nostrils. I can see their fear.
 

You were my friend, you too.

I cured your baby, Mrs.,

and flushed yours out of you,

Non-wife, to save your life.
 

Help me down? You don't dare.

I might rub off on you,

like soot or gossip. Birds

of a feather burn together,

though as a rule ravens are singular.
 

In a gathering like this one

the safe place is the background,

pretending you can't dance,

the safe stance pointing a finger.
 

I understand. You can't spare

anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl

against the cold,

a good word. Lord

knows there isn't much

to go around. You need it all.
 

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10pm
 

Well God, now that I'm up here

with maybe some time to kill

away from the daily

fingerwork, legwork, work

at the hen level,

we can continue our quarrel,

the one about free will.
 

Is it my choice that I'm dangling

like a turkey's wattles from his

more then indifferent tree?

If Nature is Your alphabet,

what letter is this rope?
 

Does my twisting body spell out Grace?

I hurt, therefore I am.

Faith, Charity, and Hope

are three dead angels

falling like meteors or

burning owls across

the profound blank sky of Your face.
 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 

12 midnight
 

My throat is taut against the rope

choking off words and air;

I'm reduced to knotted muscle.

Blood bulges in my skull,

my clenched teeth hold it in;

I bite down on despair
 

Death sits on my shoulder like a crow

waiting for my squeezed beet

of a heart to burst

so he can eat my eyes
 

or like a judge

muttering about sluts and punishment

and licking his lips
 

or like a dark angel

insidious in his glossy feathers

whispering to me to be easy

on myself. To breathe out finally.

Trust me, he says, caressing

me. Why suffer?
 

A temptation, to sink down

into these definitions.

To become a martyr in reverse,

or food, or trash.
 

To give up my own words for myself,

my own refusals.

To give up knowing.

To give up pain.

To let go.
 

2 a.m.

Out of my mouths is coming, at some

distance from me, a thin gnawing sound

which you could confuse with prayer except that

praying is not constrained.
 

Or is it, Lord?

Maybe itís more like being strangled

than I once thought. Maybe itís

a gasp for air, prayer.

Did those men at Pentecost

want flames to shoot out of their heads?

Did they ask to be tossed

on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry,

eyeballs bulging?
 

As mine are, as mine are.

There is only one prayer; it is not

the knees in the clean nightgown

on the hooked rug.

I want this, I want that.

Oh far beyond.

Call it Please. Call it Mercy.

Call it Not yet, not yet,

as Heaven threatens to explode

inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.
 

3 a.m.
 

wind seethes in the leaves around

me the trees exude night

birds night birds yell inside

my ears like stabbed hearts my heart

stutters in my fluttering cloth

body I dangle with strength

going out of the wind seethes

in my body tattering

the words I clench

my fists hold No

talisman or silver disc my lungs

flail as if drowning I call

on you as witness I did

no crime I was born I have borne I

bear I will be born this is

a crime I will not

acknowledge leaves and wind

hold on to me

I will not give in
 

6 a.m.
 

Sun comes up, huge and blaring,

no longer a simile for God.

Wrong address. Iíve been out there.
 

Time is relative, let me tell you

I have lived a millennium.
 

I would like to say my hair turned white

overnight, but it didnít.

Instead it was my heart;

bleached out like meat in water.
 

Also, Iím about three inches taller.

This is what happens when you drift in space

listening to the gospel

of the red hot stars.

Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain,

a revelation of deafness.
 

At the end of my rope

I testify to silence.

Donít say Iím not grateful.
 

Most will only have one death.

I will have two.
 

8 a.m.
 

When they came to harvest my corpse

(open your mouth, close your eyes)

cut my body from the rope,

surprise, surprise,

I was still alive.
 

Tough luck, folks,

I know the law:

you canít execute me twice

for the same thing. How nice.
 

I fell to the clover, breathed it in,

and bared my teeth at them

in a filthy grin.

You can imagine how that went over.
 

Now I only need to look

out at them through my sky-blue eyes.

They see their own ill will

staring them in the forehead

and turn tail.
 

Before, I was not a witch.

But now I am one.
 

Later
 

My body of skin waxes and wanes

around my true body,

a tender nimbus.

I skitter over the paths and fields,

mumbling to myself like crazy,

mouth full of juicy adjectives

and purple berries.

The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes

to get out of my way.
 

My first death orbits my head,

an ambiguous nimbus,

medallion of my ordeal.

No one crosses that circle.
 

Having been hanged for something

I never said,

I can now say anything I can say.
 

Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers,

I eat flowers and dung,,

two forms of the same thing, I eat mice

and give thanks, blasphemies

gleam and burst in my wake

like lovely bubbles.

I speak in tongues,

my audience is owls.
 

My audience is God,

because who the hell else could understand me?
 

The words boil out of me,

coil after coil of sinuous possibility.

The cosmos unravels from my mouth,

all fullness, all vacancy.

 

 

A mainething.com presentation. David Chase 2015