Review of O Lady, Speak Again by Dayna Patterson

Cover of "O Lady, Speak Again" by Dayna Patterson

O Lady, Speak Again by Dayna Patterson

Signature Books, 2023


Review by Donna Vorreyer

Dayna Patterson’s O Lady, Speak Again retells the stories of several of Shakespeare’s female characters while interweaving them with the speaker’s journey of discovery about her identity as a woman and a mother. The manuscripts parallels the roles of women in Shakespeare with the experiences of a woman who was raised in the Mormon church.  It rewrites the stories of Shakespeare’s characters and gives them better, kinder endings. These illuminate the speaker’s growing doubt in the faith in which she was raised and her desire to be a mother, as she seeks a similar rewriting of story for herself. In the opening “Dramatis Personae,” the reader is cued into this weaving:

Stepping over the threshold of silence, divide Self into selves, braid my stories into theirs. Stories rooted in Mormon soil, in the desert of Deseret. Stories of being raised in a Motherless house, launching toward horizon’s grey smudge. Stories of the underdog’s spellsong, its fluid music, speaking.

The speaker imagines new endings for Shakespeare’s women of literature as she creates new beginnings for herself. Here Miranda leaves her father behind, leaves the island with Ferdinand, Ariel, and Caliban. Here Juliet does not die, but brushes her own daughter’s hair on a balcony. Here Lady MacBeth receives sympathy for her solitary descent into guilt after losing a child. Here Isabella gets to speak back to the Duke’s assumption of her hand at the end of Measure For Measure. Ophelia fakes her death and swims away to a greener place where she studies the plants and flowers. And the speaker herself? She begins as a girl who believes that, if her faith is strong enough, she can erase the failings of her siblings and make her father happy (“Self-Portrait of Isabella as a Mormon Middle Child”). She mourns the absence of her mother (“Self-Portrait of Perdita as Lost I”). And as the collection progresses, she yearns for a child (“Self-Portrait as Titania with Cupid’s Flower and Changeling”) and becomes a mother who celebrates the connections of women with her own daughters (“Watching The Merry Wives of Windsor with my Girls”). The women of Shakespeare get happier endings, and so does the speaker, reconciled with a mother who left her behind and finding joy in her own role as mother.

Throughout the collection, Shakespeare’s women are assigned colors that connect with their actions or their circumstance. Ophelia is blue. Miranda is green. Titania, yellow. Perdita, purple. Patterson skillfully wields the multiple names of different variations within each color family not only in the color poems, but also leading into the more narrative poems about the speaker.  One particularly effective flow is “Self-Portrait of Lady Macbeth in Red,” with  “…SECOND APPARITION: a bloody child Garnet is any love/ pitched deeper Cerise how tender it is Blush mother-must/murderous Lip I’m a sered sentence Ginger a hot root Scarlet/ sleepstalker…” Also the poem “Incarnadine,” invoking red in the title but switching back to the circumstance of the speaker:

Confessing only sins least cutting
to confess. Yes, I’m familiar with the stink
 of earwax. Yes, I check my personal email at work. I’ll take
 the last clean cereal bowl in the cupboard,
gladly, leave clumps of hair to/ gunk the drain

Finally the poem “Red-Handed,” with a celebration of a daughter that the speaker fought to bear: 

this girl I grew from my beet red womb
after pills procedures phials of blood the hysterosalpingogram when dye
bloomed from each fallopian tube a poisonous flower spelling dead end
 each month its petals shed bright drops in the shower scrawling failure.

This continuous cycling to color creates a visual throughline that connects the poems about the characters, whether they are self-portraits or odes or reimaginings, to the life of a speaker.

And through it all, the ecstatic O— in the title, in the brilliant shape poem “O is the Sound of Tragedy,” shaped like the titular letter, we get all of the drama of Shakespeare’s plays and the speaker’s mind in this round vowel—“O for the little moan in Desdemona, alpha and omega of Othello, noose at the end of Iago” and

O as in woe, open-mouth circle, hole in our faces,
exit of groans, flow where flies or food may go
My mother’s float My father’s snow
My faith in the whole, holy, wholly broke

This O also shows up in later poems. In “Self-Portrait as Juliet’s Nurse with Betta splendens and Pulsar,” the O comes in the sexual innuendo of a line from the nurse, transformed to refer to death: 

Why should you fall
into so deep an O?
Ladybird, what if
your mantra, your chant began—
stand up, begin again, startover, start
over, like a pulsating star’s insistence.

In “Gertrude on arte materna,” it is part of her last wish that her son recognize the continuity of her love, despite her failings: “A final word: know the fierceness of your love will drive out/ fear, eclipse it complete. No regret. Love—a perfect pearl/, a wine-sunk moon, a goblet’s O.”
The collection ends with  “Hecate, as you did for Demeter, do” a plea to Hecate to bring all the unmothered—those whose mothers are never written, those who are estranged from their mothers—all the women, in fact, into a harmonious community with one another, one that is sacred and unbreakable. Fascinating to read, these rich and stifled histories of women in literature, in families, and in faith are animated in this painstakingly researched collection, a feat of language which matches the diction of Shakespeare while creating images and ideas thoroughly relatable to the modern reader. O Lady, Speak Again brings new insight upon each reading, and you will want to hear these ladies speak again and again.

Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She hosts the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.

@djvorreyer on Twitter, @djv50 on Instagram and Donna Vorreyer on Facebook.