The Chickens of My Heart

Traveling in search of Nancy Luce, the poet who lived and died alone among her beloved chickens

Living alone on a windswept meadow on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Nancy Luce has become accustomed to the silence that surrounds her like brightness. But on January 18, 1859, there is a heavy quiet in the air. It is a silence Nancy Luce has never felt before. A Tuesday night snowstorm suffocates all outside sound. Not one tree sways; the snow has weighed them down. The wind hauls flakes downward, muffling her house. Inside the hearth, embers dissolve. At 2 A.M. Luce lies down. Her dress extends over the wood floorboards. She looks at the dying flames and watches the final moments of her sick companion, her eyes consumed by every second as she tends to her friend.

Luce’s chicken, Beauty Linna, is lying in a box by the fire, clearly on the edge of death. The hen is wrapped in wool blankets, and her face looks like a songbird, small and exquisite. Beauty Linna’s neck is partially visible; the dimpled pink, featherless skin could no longer warm the old hen in the harsh winter. As Beauty Linna exhales her last breath, the stillness to Luce seems greater than it has ever been.

When Luce sees her lifeless companion, does she feel like she is looking into her own future? At 45 old, Luce herself has nearly been claimed by her own mysterious illness. As the fireplace’s moss kindling yields to smoke, does she think of her relationships that have also disintegrated? Only she and Beauty Linna are left. Her mother and father passed years before. The hen was the one being that supported Luce during her greatest period of grief.

The hen was the one being that supported Luce during her greatest period of grief.

Beauty Linna needed Luce to survive, but the opposite was also true: the chicken gave Luce purpose in an otherwise dismal reality. They spent every moment together, the small creature registering Luce’s existence in a society that considered her unwell. When the prospect of having a family vanished, Luce raised two chickens: Beauty Linna and Ada Queetie. Ada Queetie died a year before. And now Luce has lost Beauty Linna.

On the night of Beauty Linna’s death, loneliness may have been the sole visitor in Luce’s home. Perhaps her thoughts flash to her cow, Susannah Allen, and her flock that sleeps in the back room. Some are blind, others are ailing or rescued from neglectful neighbors, but they need her to take care of them. Luce knows she has no choice. She confesses in her poem “Sickness”:

A common thing in my sickness,
Milk my cow, take care of my hens,
In such misery, I felt as if I must fall at every step, But I must do it, I must do it.

July 1859 — Six months after Beauty Linna’s death, Luce drafts a sixteen-page poem dedicated to her two favorite hens titled, “Poor Little Hearts,” which attempts to merge the identities of human and animal. The poem is passionate, confessional, pushing the conventions of writing and living. Luce states how Ada Queetie “was my own heart within me,” and insists, “her heart and mine was united.”

The hours, days, and months after losing a companion are like resetting a broken bone. Microscopically, there will be a hairline fracture, a divided nick of time before and afterward. Luce lamented her chicken companions’ passing as if they were part of her family, and her tribute to them would make her a celebrity beyond Martha’s Vineyard. By the late 1860s, Luce sold enough self-publications of Poor Little Hearts to commission the first of two marble headstones for her chicken companions.

Love can manifest itself in countless ways. It can be privately expressed or publicly flaunted; love can drive a person into the most outlandish regions, and yet it can also teach important lessons. For Luce, her chicken graveyard stood as the ultimate example of love for her hens.

Luce’s story surfaced in the press, including The Chicago Daily Tribune, The Boston Weekly Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, The San Francisco Bulletin, and The New York Times. By 1873, hundreds of vacationers visited Luce’s homestead each year. They would meet the poet, view her chicken graveyard, and purchase her chapbooks, photographs, and eggs. These tourists were glimpsing into an individual’s world who rejected 19th-century social norms. Upon her death in 1890, Luce was so well known that her obituary was printed from coast to coast. Yet today she is a folktale.

Love can manifest itself in countless ways. For Luce, her chicken graveyard stood as the ultimate example of love for her hens.

Most assumed Luce was deranged, yet her intellect shined through meticulously handcrafted books, colorful visual art, country-wide correspondences, and detailed accountings. Additionally, Luce’s more experimental poems include lists and fragmented grammar that predate 20th-century Modernists.

When I first heard of Nancy Luce, her name hit me like a quick, snapping strike of a match.

June 2012 — A friend approached me after overhearing a conversation about my poems that were inspired by chickens. She had recently returned from Martha’s Vineyard and told me of Luce’s legend. My friend asserted, “You must find out more about her.” Sometimes a coincidence can redirect one’s life and an unfathomable force compelled me toward Luce. Her last name reminded me of lace: a simple material, yet magnified, the whole is created out of delicate intricacies.

Nancy Luce with her chickens. (Photo courtesy of Carand Burnet)

Over time, I have obtained portraits of Luce with her chickens. One image shows her 40 years old with a checkered handkerchief politely knotted at the base of her chin. The afternoon light blanches the features of her long face and lash-less eyes. Luce’s expression is distant and skirting, as if she is mapping the land her family has owned for generations. Beauty Linna is cradled in her broad, work-worn hand. The chicken’s legs are remarkably petite and pale as they dangle like wind chimes.

I imagine the details of Luce’s face and hands erased by this photographic overexposure. I try to peer into the other side of its varnish. Her face is tinged with uncertainty, the way her lips slightly turn with eyes ocean-wide, consuming sadness.

Contemporary readers who hear Nancy Luce’s story may ask the same question posed by some of the original visitors to Luce’s home: Why choose chickens over people? Contemporary Emily Dickinson commented that “the Soul selects her own Society.” But chickens? Most consider poultry a nameless commodity, let alone a sentient being. Luce’s early adulthood was overshadowed by untimely events including her illness and her parents’ deaths. Perhaps this led her to opt for animal companionship when traversing life’s uncertain roads.

My fondness for birds is what made me so intrigued by Luce and her friendship with chickens. I understood how a pet could comfort a person in strenuous circumstances. My chicken Babette guided me through a bewildering adolescence. Later in adulthood, my pet dove Snow comforted me when I confronted a rare health disorder. Luce sought refuge with her “poor little hearts” after her traumas.

At its heart, the care that you feel for another eludes reason, its meaning shifting and translucent like a feather tossed in the breeze. Sometimes love chooses you. It sets you apart, assigned to a changed perspective. Love can also be demanding; Luce occasionally starved so she could buy food for her chickens. When one is taken with love, one will do anything to continue caring.

Luce’s contemporary Emily Dickinson commented that ‘the Soul selects her own Society.’ But chickens?

Along the road to the Massachusetts seaboard, the stunted trees thicken with underbrush as the road narrows and curls. I decided to travel to Martha’s Vineyard and assemble the fragments of Luce’s biography that is veiled behind local folktale. Little did I know then that the more I continued to research Luce, a deeper connection would develop. We would become corresponding lives, separated by almost two centuries, enigmatically woven together.

I reach the Steamship Authority dock ready to board the ferry that navigates to Martha’s Vineyard. I receive my ticket and join one of the seven rows of parked cars. The gulls slide around in the slab of slate sky. In the distance, I hear the deep, rumbling thunder-hum of the ferry as it approaches.

The ferry opens its wide belly. Rattling chains metallically thud against the salt-brined pier and car engines start in unison. Several cargo trucks wait too, filled with goods that sustain this island community. The eight-mile stretch through the Vineyard Sound secludes the island from the state. Following the crew’s hand gestures, I park inside the ferry’s bottom. My feet waver with the shuddering floor, and I ascend the stairs to see the outside, panoramic view.

As I ride the ferry, crossing Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven, MA, I feel the cool May wind. I listen to the ferry’s engine as it churns and rhythmically pulses onward. Soon the infiltrating sun zips through the scudding clouds. The brightness prompts me to reflect over Luce’s faded portrait with Beauty Linna, and I wonder what remnants of her life remain. I survey the miles of teal, purling waves once punctuated with the nodding of ships. The Vineyard Sound is a reminder of physical and intangible barriers that isolated Luce. During her 75-year-long life, Luce never walked onto the mainland. Yet her story carried much further.

Born in 1814, an only child of aging parents, Luce’s early adulthood was burdened with caregiving. Her father, Philip, owned meadowland and produced hay used as sheep fodder. Around the time she completed public schooling, Luce became her family’s income earner due to her father’s declining health. She made money by transporting goods on horseback from her village of New Town (now called West Tisbury) and the whaling port of Edgartown. Luce wrote that she tolerated this demanding work partly because she enjoyed the freedom that horseback riding provided.

At age 26, her 12 years of “freedom” as an equestrienne ended when she became sick around the time she “met with the first heart-rendering (sic) death.” While the subject in the 1840 death remains unknown, the loss of this individual or animal caused Luce to retreat into a private wilderness. She left her courier job, stayed confined at home, and while ill herself, cared for her parents. Never again would she recover or reconnect with the outer world. Neighbors, townsfolk, and tourists ridiculed her; some unsuccessfully tried to have her committed. Luce not only withstood a debilitating ailment, poverty, and isolation from most of her community, but she then undertook the formidable pursuit of being a writer and artist who earned money through her creative works. From moments of fame to times of hardship, Luce turned to her animals for consolation. Only her hens could truly comfort her.

On a humid July night in 2004, my mother drives my sister and me to our family’s summer home in Edisto Island, South Carolina. The car creeps down Toogoodoo Road, which feels like the most desolate road on the eastern seaboard. Low-hanging Spanish moss dangles over the windshield. Even with the windows open, air clings to our faces like a cotton rag in need of wringing. My sister and I rock our legs back and forth to dislodge from the sticky seats; we are careful, though, because we each have a pet chicken resting on our laps. Red and Babette are too old to be left alone at our house in upper state South Carolina. My mother, a former veterinary assistant, decides it will be best if the hens join us for the weekend.

Is it by choice that the two hens died together, because they could not exist apart?

Red sleeps on my lap. The blue dashboard screen illuminates her face; her auburn feathers blend into the darkness. She has experienced a week of illness, despite treatment. Babette sits in the rear seat. Babette is twice the size of Luce’s Beauty Linna, with blondish feathers. I admire her exquisite face — her orange eyes like paperweights, her ear-muff tufted plumage, her tiny pea comb that peaks from her flat head. Babette keeps a keen calmness when she returns my gaze. I feel her raw regard for me.

When we arrive in Edisto, something is amiss with our hens. Neither would wake from their deep sleep; they both silently, painlessly passed away during our drive. Is it by choice that the two hens died together, because they could not exist apart? Beauty Linna also passed away less than a year after she lost Ada Queetie. That night the heaviness in the air is palpable. It is thick with a warning. Giant roaches scatter over the porch. Their wings click against the glass sliding doors, frenzied in the dark. I lie awake and think of Babette until the morning relives, blushing into another kind of existence.

Riding on Martha’s Vineyard’s transit bus, I retrace a similar route that Luce traveled on her eight-mile horseback journeys. The blurring partition of trees dissipate into stoic houses once owned by whaling captains when I reach Edgartown. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum abuts a corner and is home to The Gale Huntington Library, which owns a handwritten version of “Poor Little Hearts.” Despite the benevolent afternoon, my nervousness peaks. What will I find when I read Luce’s papers? Will I be disappointed or in awe of her voice?

I imagine the unbridled moments Luce shared with her fist-sized bantam hens. Her hens lived beside her; they followed her boots as she scuffled over the vast floorboards. Her hens sat on her yellow bureau, jumped onto her shoulders, clucked, and conversed with her. Each time I read “Poor Little Hearts,” I contemplate my childhood companion, Babette. We would recline in the sunburnt grass and listen to the cicadas roar. I would stroke her feathers in the blowdryer breeze. Sometimes I would carry her into the air-conditioned house. It felt like dipping into a pond. We’d watch a bit of television till she would act restless: the outdoors calling for her return.

Her hens lived beside her; they followed her boots as she scuffled over the vast floorboards.

Inside the library, a hunter green file box labeled RU-410 sits on a plastic table. I cautiously overturn the flap, and the box reveals a thicket of manila folders that contains Luce’s handmade books, self-publications, correspondences, articles, and photographs. I select the folder that holds Luce’s manuscripts. As I undo an archival cover, I’m faced with the finalized draft of “Poor Little Hearts.” It is as if I had just unlocked a book to find a dried, diaphanous flower. The manuscript is so thin, speckled and slightly see-through, it resembles a tanned animal hide. The stained chestnut brown ink glows against the sterile white covering. Luce’s words are nudged awake after sleeping for decades.

“Poor Little Hearts” possesses a remarkable sensitivity. Approximately four by six inches in size, the poem is carefully bound into a pamphlet. Each word is drawn with pencil and strenuously delineated in permanent ink. Minuscule diamonds and ovals embed inside each capital letter, while phrases are evenly spaced. The manuscript concludes, “I did this Book in misery in both body and mind, in July and August, 1859. Nancy Luce.” These words dissolve as the writing reduces to a ghostly penciled outline. It is as if the sentence was too emotionally difficult for Luce to complete.

Leaving West Tisbury, I travel to Beauty Linna’s and Ada Queetie’s birthplace. My bike carves a route to Chilmark. The coastal air has warmed enough to smell fragrances of cut grass and gasoline. Stunted, scrub oaks shadow my path. The road undulates; my tires bear into a hill, until it crests into a lofty pasture view.

I continue to the western edge of Martha’s Vineyard, where the Gay Head Cliffs of Aquinnah stand as a landmark and a sacred land of the Wampanoag tribe. I park my bike and walk toward the sandy bluff, pushing against the insistent wind. On the overlook, I view the Gay Head Lighthouse. The structure peers dangerously over cliffs that erode almost two feet per year. The cliffs’ repeating tan, terra cotta, and ivory clay bands remind me of the recurrent phrases in “Poor Little Hearts.” Luce demonstrates physical and mental wear through repetition, much like the rampant elements that constantly abrade over a hundred million years of exposed strata. Luce declares:

No one never can replace my poor little dears live and well,

No one never can be company for me again,
No one never can I have such a heart aching feeling for again,

No one never can I set so much by again, as I did by them.

The last line is abstracted and threadbare, overwhelmed by the finality of succession, as the phrase recurs like a crashing Atlantic wave.

Luce’s rhythmic vernacular is likely inspired by dialogue with her hens. Using a concise cadence, Luce interprets how Ada Queetie, “…always used to want to get in my lap/ And squeeze me up close/ And talk pretty talk.” Luce observes how the chickens mold sound into feeling as they “tip up their little face on one side/ And look at me with one eye, and laugh and speak to me.” Her keen observations of her pets made her language distinct.

It is difficult for me to imagine a pitch range as broad as a hen’s. I think of Babette’s vibrant, sundry conservations. Her beak would release air in tapping spurts like a boiling kettle, as her sound grated against pebbles in her craw. She would prate like a creaking door hinge when I would bring her a piece of clover. Pupils would hone in on the leaves, and I’d listen to her voice navigate the space around her. She would follow me and grumble like an old man when I locked the fence. Her chatter brilliantly colored the shivering pines, the nearby power plant’s plumelike cloud, the many vicinities of soundlessness.

While studying the Luce documents, I examine a tiny photograph taken during the 1870’s. Luce’s portrait with her most beloved chicken, T. T. Pinky, is imbued with a darker quality when compared to her portrait with Beauty Linna. The hen illuminates against the nighttime backdrop of Luce’s dress. Luce’s eyes resolutely aim outward. At 56, her swollen face and eyebrows drag with age, damaged from the struggle for self-sufficiency, infirmity, and by her faithfulness to creativity. Nevertheless, her lips seem more pursed and softened.

In my photo of Babette, she faces a window, and the light accents her handsome profile. Her furrowed brows resemble more of a bird of preys than a hen’s. An egg tilts behind her. Absent in the monochromatic image is the egg’s seafoam blue and Babette’s wheaten feathers. The hues remind me of Edisto’s surf. Like every portrait of Luce with her chickens, the color is lost except in memory.

Babette. (Photo courtesy of Carand Burnet)

The sky is reflective as a mirror the moment I enter the Northeastern town of Oak Bluffs. Sun-glare hits a red, triangular barn that stands between the store-lined street edging the Nantucket Sound. An art nouveau font reading “Flying Horses” is emblazoned on a building. The carousel is a landmark linked to Luce’s era. I approach the corner and hear the carousel’s steady murmuring pulse. The serpentine leather belt clomps before the music commences.

The Flying Horses are lacquered, lean, and trim alongside their chariots. They range from a palomino to an espresso hue, and each bench is brilliantly painted. Their saddles are sky blue, yellow, emerald green, and bright red, embellished in scrollwork similar to the curve of Luce’s signature. As the carousel strides with hoisted horses and thrust legs, the scene evokes Luce’s poem “No Comfort” — “I have had horses to run with me,/ So that the ground looked/ All in black and white streaks…” Their oxide eyes glow as the carousel pivots. As the motor clicks a canter and pumps a melody, there is the same charging, passionate rhythm of “Poor Little Hearts.”

I listen to the blissful song and consider how horses shaped Luce’s individuality. Even before her illness altered her, animals influenced her life. Her equestrienne talents were admired and made her well-liked. At this time, she accomplished demands that she would never again achieve: caregiving, running a farm, shuttling goods, knitting items to sell, all while managing a store inside her home. The horse signified deliverance from illness and shunning neighbors. When she rode on horseback, Luce was as optimistic as the radiant Flying Horses.

In the published version of Poor Little Hearts, Luce revises the poem to mark the margin between life and death, the threshold that her hens have now crossed:

O my dear beloved little friends, they are gone, Sweetly asleep in their coffins under ground,
No more to wake, no more to speak, no more to love, No more to have feeling for me,
And I am left here in trouble, broken hearted,
Them that knew me once,
Know — me — no — more.

She examines absence while acknowledging the transformation of the living. Like the hyphens hinging the final line, Luce’s prior life is shattered, notching another mark in her identity. The offerings of a former world — when her hens placed a foot in her hand upon command, when they cackled with fret, when they happily dined together — is indelible. But Luce endured, restarting from herself, misplaced by a devotion once again gone.

Two years after T. T. Pinky’s death, a newspaper printed the following information: “The proprietors of The New England Marble Works… have nearly completed a gravestone for Nancy Luce… to be erected in the honor of the hen whose life and death are portrayed in the book of poetry issued some time ago by that eccentric woman.” Luce purchased two headstones for her poor little hearts and erected a gravesite outside her bedroom window. Her graveyard affixed her into the news, causing controversy even outside the island. The tombstones struck at the public’s opinion about the validity of animals. Luce’s actions ask: do animals have souls? Are they sentient, experiencing feelings and memories? Do animals deserve funerary rights and an afterlife?

Luce’s actions ask: do animals have souls? Do animals deserve funerary rights and an afterlife?

I leave the archives and walk toward the two headstones now displayed in the museum. They are a sun-washed, oyster-shell color, around three feet high. Clean-cut typeface reads Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna, along with the time of death, age, and a stanza of poetry. Luce likely wanted both hens on a single headstone because they shared their lives together as one family. The second headstone, commissioned a decade later, is for Luce’s most cherished chicken partner, T. T. Pinky. The monuments were Luce’s final attempt to personify her hens, labeling their death with one of the most recognizably human hallmarks. Despite her efforts, Luce would not join her chickens in the afterlife.

The West Tisbury Village Cemetery sits off an abruptly curved road. As I enter the path, I follow a line of blossoming trees covered in the subtle mess of moss. I avoid walking on yellow flowers carpeting the grass. Weaving through headstones accented with a sour green fungus, I view Luce’s gravesite. Her resting place is covered with chicken decorations left by admiring strangers. The chickens are a glossy plastic, yard ornament cement, shiny ceramic. Some are life-size and others are small as a pebble. They congregate like a flock of hens. The poor little hearts surround Luce’s headstone in unity, gathered in quiet understanding.

Listening to the silence around Luce’s gravesite, I wonder what her voice would have sounded like reading “Poor Little Hearts.” Would it be like the falsetto of a hen laying an egg, or would it be hoarse from breathing the salt-tinged wind, or a determined voice shaped from a life with animals?

After viewing photographs of Luce with her significant others, my gaze catches onto one hen of Luce’s that resembles Babette. Babette and I shared a corresponding affection to the one between Luce and her hen. We stroked feathers drummed warm by sunshine while their eyes squinted in pleasure. We cupped our hands with corn and watched as they neatly devoured each kernel. We peered into their untranslatable, pooling stare yet sensed candidness. We talked to them as they indecipherably replied. We revealed in the bright mystery, that feeling of connection, between us and our pets.

I once read that Babette is a French term that refers to a beautiful stranger. As I study the portrait of Luce with T. T. Pinky, I realize the vanished details, but I also recognize the beautiful strangers — Nancy Luce herself, her poor little hearts, and the beautiful strangers I will meet along my way.

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