Fiction overlays fact and past folds into present in Tina Barry’s prose poetry collection Beautiful Raft, an imagined narrative based on the real-life story of the relationship between artists Marc Chagall and Virginia Haggard in the mid-1940s. Upon moving to High Falls, New York, Barry and her husband discover that the lovers had lived five minutes away from their new home several decades earlier. This discovery inspired the author (also a visual artist) to contact Haggard’s daughter Jean McNeil, now a painter in her 70s and living in England, to discover more about their lives.
Barry imagines the story of Haggard and Chagall as a series of paintings, capturing on the page what she observes through visual art. In doing so, the author weaves together a series of vignettes of Haggard’s observations and heartaches. Through Barry, Haggard narrates the life she aims so urgently to erase. Each prose poem stands on its own, a credit to Barry’s deft writing skills, and yet, when taken together, creates for the reader a representation of a life lived in shadow. Beautiful Raft is painting through poetry.
History tells us that Haggard was married to John McNeil when she met Chagall, a man 30 years her senior. She became Chagall’s maid and then quickly his lover, got pregnant, and left her husband for him with her five-year-old daughter in tow. Haggard gave birth to her son David soon after. Chagall had recently lost his wife Bella, a figure who looms over Haggard throughout the course of her relationship with Chagall, convincing her that a true love story with him is impossible. “Your presence glimmers in the spaces” she writes of Bella, she of the “onyx eyes and grim pressed lips. Her throat offers a thousand small wishes...A nun in white habit mak[ing] angels in the snow.” No mortal can live up to this image. “She is perfection for me, even as she diminishes my own,” Haggard asserts, defining herself by what she believes she is not. Her lack becomes her reality.
The timing of this book is notable in that Barry brings Haggard’s story to life in a culture in the throes of the #MeToo movement, reminding the reader that society continues to suppress accounts like Haggard’s. The lesser-known artist of the couple—her education, intellect, talent, and narrative—have gone largely untold before Beautiful Raft. How easily women slip behind the successes of their men, and how readily women accept this fate. We are often relegated to scut work and childrearing while our partners are lauded for their hard work and accomplishments, all while they are given the room and the time they need to create that for which society ultimately rewards them. Haggard was drawn to unavailable men: her husband John was mentally ill; Chagall was mostly absent due to his career. The role of afterthought was one she both eschewed and relished. “Am I big enough? Are you comfortable?…Should I change color?” she wonders at the start of her relationship with Chagall. How else will he decide to “climb on” and make her his beautiful raft? “My smallness, my lesser than, is my gift. For you I make myself small” she writes to Chagall. Ironically, Haggard is quite tall, a feature she despises. Her physical stature makes it difficult to disappear, even as she painstakingly endeavors to do so.
Haggard and Jean take turns narrating the book, both struggling to make room for themselves in their own lives, both failing in their own ways. Jean lives in the in-between: away from her father, not fully embraced by her mother’s new love interest. She writes letters to her father, whom she rarely sees. “Marc is mostly nice to me” Jean tells John in one of her missives. Haggard quickly chimes in to defend Marc to John, noting that Marc “looks distracted” when Jean tries to get his attention, with no harm intended.
So what is left for Haggard? She morphs into “a tightrope walker. A circus in sequins. A tarot card flipped to the Nine of Cups.” She performs for others in an attempt to keep herself in the conversation and to appease everyone else. The Nine of Cups is a card of satisfaction, of dreams fulfilled, of pleasure and contentment. But flipped upside down, it suggests that unrealistic dreams will not come true. Haggard believes her goal of being an artist in her own right is unrealistic. She is instead “roses stabbed, suffocated beneath thick glass.” What should have the room to bloom is purposefully stunted.
Her continued effort to diminish herself gives way to self-pity: “I have lost the desire to make art. I tell myself that Marc’s needs and caring for the children exhaust me, and, of course, that’s true. And yet, when I was consumed by the work I could stay awake until daybreak,” she notes. “The danger in being heard” is too much for her. She convinces herself of this. “Can my neighbors smell the man, the children, who feast on me, ticks on a fat hound?” she wonders. Haggard conspires with society to keep herself unnoticed.
Barry has managed to create work that feels fresh about a topic we now endlessly discuss. The author breathes new life into an old story through the lens of a new era. Along with writing Beautiful Raft, Barry gathered fourteen other artists to create “The Virginia Project,” a written word and visual arts exhibit highlighting the life and work of Virginia Haggard. Barry is determined not to let Haggard disappear. “The Virginia Project” premiered at the Wired Gallery in High Falls in October and November of last year. More information on the project can be found at https://www.facebook.com/thevirginiaproject/.
Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Amy’s work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.