The Dagger Between Her Teeth by Jennifer LoveGrove

Dagger Between Her TeethThis was Jennifer LoveGrove’s first poetry collection and was published by ECW Press in 2002. I read it because I accidentally discovered it on my poetry shelf and it was a complete surprise to me that I owned a copy. I knew the author’s name because I had recently read and reviewed her first novel, Watch How You Walk and been very impressed by it. (see my review by clicking on the archives on the left side of this page for February 2014).

Here’s some of what the author had to say about her collection at : “It features burning barns, drunken Christmases, scars, hospitals, serial killers, and, eventually, the possibilities of self preservation and hope. Powerfully topical, it confronts notions of violence, both physical and emotional, by focusing on a woman’s strength of will and capacity for ferocity. In The Dagger Between Her Teeth, I resurrect and reinvent the dramatic young lives of two eighteenth-century pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.”

Do you know about these women? It seems they were the only women pirates in the Western Hemisphere. Anne Bonney (sometimes Bonny) was born in Ireland, March 8, 1689. Her mother was a servant to William Cormac, her father and a lawyer by profession. The family immigrated to a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1600s. Stories have it that at age 13 years, Anne stabbed a servant girl with a table knife. She married James Bonny who was possibly more interested in her father’s estate than in Anne: Anne’s father disowned her destroying Bonny’s hopes no doubt. The Bonnys moved to the Bahamas  prior to 1718 and Anne left James Bonny for Captain Jack Rackham.

Mary Reade was born in Plymouth, England; her father was a sailor who never returned to port. Her mother disguised her as a boy and went to her mother-in-law in London for financial support for the child. The grandmother pledged a crown a week and Mary continued to pass as a boy. She serve as a footboy to a French woman; on a man-of-war; and in both a foot regiment and a horse regiment in Flanders. She eventually married a soldier and ran an inn in Holland until her husband dies. She reverted to a man’s role and hired on a merchant ship which was captured by pirates and, in turn, was captured by Captain Jack Rackham’s crew and quickly became fast friends with Anne Bonney.

Legend has it that Anne and Mary were “fierce hell cats” with reputations for violent tempers and ferocious fighting, more ruthless and bloodthirsty than any other crew members. They were captured in 1720 by a British navy sloop – the man-of-war Albion – and taken to Jamaica for trial. (see Wikipedia for “The Legend of Anne & Mary”).

It seems both Anne and Mary “pleaded their bellies” and were granted mercy because they were pregnant. It is believed that Mary died in prison of a fever or during childbirth but there is no record of Anne’s release or of her execution. There has been much speculation suggesting that her father ransomed her or that she returned to her husband or that she changed her name and continued life as a pirate was bandied about but no evidence was ever found to support any of these theories.

Part One of LoveGrove’s book includes the following poem about Anne’s early teen years entitled With a Carving Knife:

Meanwhile, your birth rattles the town,
averted eyes – you’re stashed
with the servants’ gossip.
Tongues flickering: the lawyer’s
bastard girl got some temper.

You steal kitchen knives and duel
stable boys.  Nick their pocked cheeks
and laugh, thirteen years old, a glaring head
taller, illegitimate daughter.

Daddy creeps down midnight
hallways to the maid’s room, until
one night he peels back her quilt
and finds instead his clever wife.

The kitchen girl, mouse eyes beading –
Nobody wants you here, anyway,
pink face bloated with smirks –
You’re a disgrace.

A hot palm splits her
lips; you warned her
didn’t you? But still she squeaks,
You’re daddy doesn’t want you
loud and ugly as a boy.

Half the morning spent shining
that carving knife you slide
from your skirts, her belly
spreads into bright sunbursts
and your red hair laced tight
with spiders, sugar and spice,
Irish eyelashes edged in ice.

And describing a scene in a bar before Anne marries James Bonny:

The barmaid tries toss her
to the storm,
instead loses two
front teeth in the scuffle,
split from her jaw,
rattling Anne’s skirts.

The night Anne marries James Bonny
she gives him a necklace, both talisman
and warning, two teeth
strung up, dangling.

Part Two begins with a quote from The Book of Lilith as well as one from Adrienne Rich and Part Three begins with a quote from Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips”. Here’s a poem I liked from Part Three called Bad Association:

When I was ten my great-grandma wasn’t talking
to my grandma because she wasn’t talking to my
aunt who we weren’t allowed
to talk to because she got

disfellowshipped for divorcing
my uncle, a truck driver
who used to come into the house to
get money for the hookers
waiting in the truck in the driveway.

At the meetings, the elders would tell us
that people who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses
are bad association –
because they do things that are pagan
like celebrate Christmas and birthdays.

In the Bible, the only birthday party
is when John the Baptist
gets his head cut off.

Part Four begins with a quote from Janette Turner Hospital’s The Last Magician: “It was as though they could both smell tumult coming, it was as though Cat stank of something that was either cataclysm or omnipotence and they knew it.” I really enjoyed the first poem in this section called Sabrina. It begins:

Wore hot plastic colours
high heels
& a peacock feather grin.
Brought cleavage to librarian
& taught me more than the Dewey decimal system.

Needless to say, the writer’s mother didn’t want her to visit Sabrina “after she moved away”.

I haven’t much practice at reviewing poetry but I know this much: I like many of these poems and I keep getting drawn back to them and discovering new things each time. As Word, put it in September 2002: “LoveGrove goes for the jugular. There is no question…Yes, the dagger between her teeth is sharp indeed.”