An Art, a Craft, a Mystery
Laura Secord

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An Art, a Craft, a Mystery

172 pgs

978-160489-3038, Trade Paper, $18.95 Sale $13.95



Two women journey to Colonial America and are accused of witchcraft in poet Secord’s debut novel in verse.


“Don’t think these skills were simple, / they were an art, a craft, a mystery, / yet when the men took notice, / they doubted

diligence and named it witchery,” reads the closing verse of this book’s title poem. The skills to which the poet refers are

those adopted by 17th-century women to nurture their communities—skills that outsiders distorted and called malevolent

acts. This novel initially hurls the reader into the heart of London, England, at a time of plague. Lydea Gilbert and her

niece, Kate, tend to the sick with little success, and after losing loved ones, they decide to journey across the ocean. In

1636, they board a ship called the Trueloveand set sail for Massachusetts, accepting a period of indentured servitude to

pay for their passage. They’re made to work for a merchant, Hutchinson; his wife, Anne, is later put on trial for heresy.

Lydea and Kate then travel on to Connecticut where they go their separate ways, with Lydea going to stay with her cousin,

Thomas, and Kate marrying John Harrison, a grower of hops, barley, and tobacco. In 1654, Lydea is accused of being a

witch by families she “nursed through pox,” and in 1668, Kate, too, is dragged from her bed and charged with witchcraft. In

a final note, the poet reveals that the characters of Lydea and Kate are based on real women, the author’s ancestors, who

lived in and were persecuted by Puritan society.


Secord powerfully captures the precariousness of the lives of women healers in the space of a deceptively simple

quatrain: “My pockets carry sentimental pieces. / These womb-shaped bags hang below my skirts / hiding needed things,

tools for nourishing, / locks of my children’s hair and linen strings.” These brief lines speak volumes about Lydea’s

maternal benevolence and the need for her to conceal her practices from those around her. The work presents poems

from the separate perspectives of Lydea and Kate, and these first-person accounts shape two psychologically distinct

characters. The younger Kate’s vulnerability is palpable on occasion: “I thought that I could live / without her presence, but

being with child / again, I wish I could feel her hands.” Secord is also expert at communicating atmosphere, as when, on

their arrival in America, Lydea observes: “The air smells / ever green, and trees outnumber men,” a stark contrast to the

“many funeral pyres” of the London they left behind. Some readers may be initially skeptical of a novel written entirely in

verse, but Secord maintains a strong storyline throughout, and her poetry adds a deeper sense of mysticism. From its

opening line, “We kept the small alive from day to day, / kept households warm, kept bread made,” this book is a

passionate celebration of historically undervalued daily endeavors of women, and a vital reminder of what victims of

persecution endured.


A smartly conceived and emotionally stirring poetic tale.

“When Laura Secord discovered Lydea, her ancestor found guilty of witchcraft, she set out to understand the women of colonial America . . . Secord has woven an extraordinary fact-based and highly empathic story of the women living in a world literally and figuratively on the edge. These are poems of the daily labors of women and their silent, and at times not so silent, struggles to survive. Power, and the difference between its overt and covert expression, is at the core of many of these poems, as well as a confrontation with a spirituality that transcended, and maybe even transformed, Puritanism. Secord writes with clarity and tenderness, precision, as well as passion, and as if she knows the only way forward is to confront the past. These poems ask us to look at how we stand on the shoulders of the women who walked before us and whether we are creating a path for those who will come after us.”
—Laura McCullough, Women & Other Hostages, winner Miller Williams Prize, 2016









An Art, a Craft, a Mystery

 We kept the small alive from day to day,

kept households warm, kept bread made,

while men sat in the meetinghouse

in ceaseless debate                                         

on sin, redemption, destiny.


Their grace came through women’s works—

watching fires and keeping coals ablaze,

and their salvation by women’s hands,

gathering each day’s yeasted scraps

                   for tomorrow’s meal, a sacred pact.


Don’t think these skills were simple,

they were an art, a craft, a mystery,

yet when the men took notice,

they doubted diligence and named it witchery.





 Soul Mountain, Connecticut

 Behind the trees, I heard

the barking cries.

Two geese appeared,

                   long-necked shadows crossing the slough—

Aunt Lydea, my cousin Katherine—

                        to me their stories flew.



Southwark of London, 1636

A Harpy

                   Lydea Gilbert


In our tenement we take in work—spinning.

With my husband again off to sea, I’m alone

with three wee-ones and niece, Kate,

married to someone I never see.


No kitchen. We buy our meals from the stalls in the streets.

Some evenings, I see that lone woman with burnt-red scars,

and those eyes, always drifting,  part-crossed.  Called a harpy,

she’s hawking fruitcake squeezed in the shape


of a rose, and then shoved on a stick.  Hear her shout—

Hallo! Ha-pence, ha-penny! Her eyes, how they mourn,

as she looks into me.  I am choking.  I tremble

and flee, slopping our stew on my skirts and my sleeves.

Hasty Rose Ring

            Lydea Gilbert


One rosy morn in spring I find my man

home from the seas.    We celebrate and sing.

Our babies climb his lap;        he kisses me.

With a shilling from spinning, I buy us party treats—

            a special feast for Richard’s seadog yarns.

As children screech and giggle, he falls to coughing.


I’m hopeful wrapped in his arms.       A stifled cough,

shaking, his body shivers.   I hold a sick man

at midnight, flushed with fever.          I’ve heard sad yarns,

this one comes true.    My mates were ailing.                         And still you sing?

            So glad to see our babies, I want to be their treat.

            I brew him tea and rub his back beside me.


Dawn finds me worried.         He spews his breakfast on me.

I wake up Kate.           Watch them, I go to cure his cough.

            I seek a chemist’s syrup I hope will treat

his weakening, made from ginger to heal the man

I’ve longed for through two springs.      I sing

a prayer for healing.    By dusk, I see our family yarn


frays toward swelling grief.    Infested yarns

unravel all our joys.                Kate, get these babies from me.

            Come, your Da needs sleep.       They huddle up while Kate sings

            a ballad of love and loss as Richard coughs.

He’s hellish hot and ringed with red.              This man

is dying.          A curse I can’t begin to treat.


Time compresses.       Is this the death of which they sing?

            I turn to see my wee’uns failing.        Can’t treat

them fast enough to save them.          All three coughing.

My Kate tries hard, we nurse them together. Our yarn

            runs to its hasty end, where red rings glare at me.

Kate runs for help.                  The Surgeon says, It’s plague, mam.


Shaken.                       Can’t sing.                   I’ve lost my man,

my babies.                   No treatment worked by Kate or me.

                   We’ve lived the darkest tale, yet we’re not coughing




After the Plague 



My husband, dead.   My babies gone.   All love: 

a failing.

                   Why not me?  


To glorify their tender souls, I strive

to nurse those suffering and work to tend the living. 

                   Why not me?  


My Hal, my Viola, my Rosemary,

I nourish stranger’s children in your names. 

Sustain lives or witness their passing,


                   Why not me?     

Through scourge infested alleys, Kate

and I cradle child after child, still this bane


of buboes, chills and fear subdues their frames.

                   Why not mine?


 Keeping memories alive, I cross

the lanes of hell.          Penance.                      Why not me?     





            Kate Gilbert


Aunt and I walk through our broken  

neighborhood carrying herbs.  We try

healing disease with no cure. This work

makes me forget, then re-live my cousins’ dying.


Does she wish to pursue our lost

family?  Nurture in murderous

hovels— her solution to everything

crumbling.  We’ll nurse others, die or live.





So alone: Kate and I.

This tenement room

could not contain the pain

shooting like flames

down my neck and arms.

Even my face feels

smeared with sorrow.


I could not stand

my feet touching the streets,

after many funeral pyres.

Katherine touched my face.

Her hands burned me.


I knew I needed sea,

and cold salt-spray against what we have seen.

I told Kate I was going to find us food,

but went down to the docks, and sold ourselves for

passage on ship Truelove


…to the Colonies—worlds unknown, where family lives.

Gather our poor things, we take to sea come the morning.