Letters to My Polygamist Ancestors

By Dayna Patterson

 

Letters to My Polygamist Ancestors

Dear Charles,

What was it like to have three wives?
It must have been confusing,
especially since you chose women with
rhyming names—Johannah, Susannah, and Hannah.

Did you call them all Anna?
Did you ever mix up their birthdays? children?
Was it like trying to read three books at once,
shelving and reshelving,

the plots entangling
like sewing threads, strained and knotted,
till you were forced to cut them?
Did you cut them often?

I think it is nice
you married the first two
the same day,
to quell any first wife rivalry.

But when that November night wrapped you in her cold arms,
which new wife lay
in the the next room, alone?
Day 1—the hierarchy of heartache sets in.

Your brides were young: Johannah, 19;
Suannah, 16.
Seven years later, you added Hannah, 17.
You were 31.

Wasn’t life hard enough
clearing trees, rocks, sage,
burning lime, and hauling timber?
Wasn’t it hard enough to find food for one family?

Charles, I hold two pictures of you:
one in your fine black mission suit, top hat,
cane, and Brigham Young beard;

another in your black and white prison stripes.
Four months in the pen outside Salt Lake City,
and here you are posing with apostles
smug as kings.

*

Dear Susannah,

When the grasshoppers descended on the crops like a curse,
you traded your mother’s fine black silk dress from London
for a cow,
and harvested sego lily roots and sap from weeping willows.

Hannah, you write, was a “true and faithful” wife,
but you don’t say much about Johannah, the Swede,
who barely spoke English, except that she bore him nine
and you fourteen.

I think of how you were the first to bear
and lose. Two weeks alive,
one week in the grave,
and Johannah birthed a son.

He lived.
Your second died, too.
Johannah’s lived.
The horrible arithmetic of insanity.

When she got her own house three miles from town,
in a low, boggy place,
she raised ducks and sons,
and walked to market every day—

a neat arrangement,
with plenty of space
for your chickens and children,
and the spirits of your dead daughters.

You had the smallest house, but Grandpa
lived with you most. As much as a man might try to be
equitable—in resources as well as
conjugal visits—how can he ration affection?

Susannah,
in my nightmare, my husband’s hand guides my hand
to stroke the pregnant belly
of my own Johannah.

My blood mother,
you stood at your husband’s trial and refused to speak,
a stubborn witness,
content with your third.

*

Do three women equal one man?
One plus one plus one . . .
Caught between love and loathing,
Loose threads still tangled, still cut.

 

This poem was originally published in Loose Threads (2010).