Tina Barry discovers a forgotten woman …
In 2014, poet Tina Barry and her husband moved from Brooklyn to High Falls, New York. She began to research the area and learned that in 1946 and 1947, the artist Marc Chagall had lived there with his partner, Virginia Haggard, and Haggard’s young daughter, Jean McNeil. Barry knew who Chagall was, but who was Haggard?
The answer to that question ultimately led to Barry’s Beautiful Raft, a collection of 58 prose poems constructed as a work of fiction, including a cast of eight characters. When they moved to High Falls, Chagall was 59 and Haggard was 28. They both left spouses, and Haggard brought her daughter with her. Soon she was pregnant with Chagall’s baby, who was named David McNeil (Haggard was still married to her husband John McNeil when the baby was born).
The poems are told from the perspectives of Haggard and her daughter. Chagall seems to have more of a bit role, if that, and that’s deliberate on Barry’s part. Her intent is to focus on Haggard, who, not unusually for the time, was sidelined into the background as the partner of a famous artist or writer. In some accounts she was even identified as Chagall’s maid. In these fictional prose poems, Barry moves her into the spotlight, and she becomes her own person, with her own ideas and dreams (she was an artist in her own right).
The raft of the title is Haggard herself; she is the means of Chagall sailing on the river. She speaks, she breathes, she argues, she expresses her opinions, she chafes at how she’s generally disregarded by all and sundry, including an art dealer. Barry brings the person of Haggard to life; she occupies the center of this family life in High Falls. She is not identified as subsidiary to the artist and his work. Yet she knows that her life is being defined by Chagall, including her pregnancy:
I tottled when I was pregnant with Jean, a walking circus tent. Ankles gone. My feet two sandbags. Jean flailed and rolled, greedy for space, a restless acrobat inside me. I who knew so little of a mother’s tenderness, imagined porridges and puddings would appease her. She was John’s baby. This baby, this new life being made, is Marc’s. How gently it fills my womb, content in its saline sea.
Barry has published one previous work, Mall Flower: Poems and Short Fiction. Her poems have been published in numerous anthologies and publications such as Drunken Boat, Boston Literary Magazine, MadHat Lit, Lost in Thought, Inch Magazine, and The Orange Room Review, among others. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and several Best of the Net awards, she currently teaches at the Poetry Barn and Gemini Ink. She received her MFA degree from the creative writing program at Long Island University, Brooklyn.
Beautiful Raft accomplishes what it sets out to do — take a woman who was marginalized by the culture as the partner of a famous man and discover the person who was there. Barry does it through fiction, but it is fiction grounded in extensive research and a passionate desire to tell Virginia Haggard’s story.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
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