Poor Little Hearts: The Definitive Biography of Nancy Luce

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…

-From “Poor Little Hearts” drafted by Nancy Luce in 1859

As I ride the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, I watch the island form from a matte purple haze. Underneath this atmosphere, an overcoat of silvery water constantly shifts and trembles. Their gestures are cobwebbed like the scales of a fish, or impressed fingerprints, or the hay meadows of Nancy’s land. Watching the wave’s intricate movement, I think of how many routines contribute to a life as a whole. I think of how many days Nancy spent with her hens, singing to them, scooping her mighty hands into barrels of southern corn, giving them the comfort she so longingly desired herself.
-An excerpt from Poor Little Hearts


My forthcoming biography of Nancy Luce, titled Poor Little Hearts, uncovers the life and writings of Martha’s Vineyard’s chicken lady. Despite her local legend, her image today is misrepresented, and a remarkable narrative of determination and faith has been buried in the 125 years since her death. My creative nonfiction book is based on site specific and archival research to show how a lonely, ailing woman became a recognized celebrity of her time. Her story was reprinted in newspapers across the country, thousands of tourists visited her, and a group of donors from across the world helped Nancy build one of the greatest and unique avian structures inside her home.

Even in the most dire circumstances,
Nancy remained true to her literary
and artistic voice.

Nancy Luce lived in West Tisbury, then known as the village of New Town, from 1814-1890. At age 26, she became seriously ill, turned away from society, and remained house-ridden for the rest of her life. Although frail and destitute, she looked past the criticisms of her aberrant lifestyle and instead wrote compassionately about her pet chickens. Nancy’s most famous poem, “Poor Little Hearts,” was written after the deaths of her favorite hens, Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna. She remained unmarried, self-reliant, and inventive, as she self-published her poetry and sold her booklets and photographs to tourists.

As I am writing the biography, I realize that every piece of evidence that I discover about Nancy confirms my idea that she was a resilient individual and not simply a farcical hermit. She created a sellable identity with hundreds of tourists that visited her homestead, purchasing her hen poems and photographs. However, fame or independence would never alleviate her sufferings from an undiagnosed illness or her exclusion from society.

Nancy Luce grave site
Nancy Luce’s grave site, May 2014

Chickens were Nancy’s emotional pillar during her life of poverty, sickness, and seclusion. Her tribute to her hens was commissioning two gravestones for them after their passing. The letters on one headstone read Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna, along with their time of death, age, and a stanza of poetry. The second, stouter gravestone is dedicated to Nancy’s final chicken companion, T. T. Pinky. Nancy’s final wish was to buried beside her companions at her homestead, however the executor of her estate decided against the plan. Everyday admirers of Nancy Luce leave behind chicken tokens of appreciation at her graveside located at the West Tisbury Village Cemetery.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum recently displayed her hen headstones, manuscripts, and correspondence from their special collections in an exhibit. There is also a very useful biography published in 1984, Consider Poor I: The Life and Works of Nancy Luce by Walter Teller, that frameworks important events in Nancy’s life. Upon new discoveries made during my research of the chicken poet, I believe that my book will respond to previously unanswerable questions about “The Madonna of Hens.”


Part saddled by sky. How skies, how fences, cage a cage.
Gather trees and break down to them.
Whispering, forget to shade this henhouse…

-“Danger Makes Our Gardens”

“Overturn memory,” proclaims a line from Carand Burnet’s Henhouse. As with hens tilling soil in a garden, Burnet’s poems reveal and obscure a personal history. Each poem penetrates this history in a staccato pacing, drawing up facets which seem at once domestic and mythic. From these fragments Burnet hems together an altered language playfully and deftly, a language which tells us “nature fakes lawfulness,” and “Night would consume all day if it could.” — Phil Montenegro

27 pages; hand-stitched binding; printed in a numbered edition of 120 in Chicago in September 2013.
Covers letterpressed on a Sigwalt Ideal No. 5; salmon endpapers.
5 1/2 x 6 inches

Available at Projective Industries Press.

Creative Nonfiction

My essay “Axis” details the extraordinary feats of homing pigeons active in military service combined with my musings about the idea of home. Below is an excerpt, published by Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts and nominated for the 2013 Best American Essays.

Within a thick fur of trees, a single sharp black dart punctures the gray sky. A hollow shot sounds throughout fields and mountains, echoes as if from an oil drum’s bottom. A minute dot busy scuffing clouds abruptly snaps and falls like ice breaking branches. This frosted morning the pigeons no longer made a sound. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died. It took a hundred years to kill millions of birds.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, the lean clouds like a sheet of water envelopes the cityscape. The wind picks up rain and tosses it into perpendicular directions, writing its water language. Overhead, pigeons stoop on the parking garage’s dense cement. They cluster like bits of currants, leaning low and expanding their feathers. They stay, somehow knowing that the sun still hovers over the clouds.

One pigeon flew over 7,200 miles to his home in Saigon after being transplanted in France. During both World Wars, a carrier pigeon would need a week to acquaint itself to a new area. Even after the birds were relocated inside windowless carriers, they inexplicably returned to home base. Pigeons are constantly within their centers and inner declination. Each pigeon is a magnet toward the center of the earth and the center of their birth. Read the rest of the story…

Articles & Reviews

Origami Interpretations: Artwork by Gloria Garfinkel, Above the Fold: New expressions in Origami

Springfield Museums • Springfield, MA • Through April 26 and April 12, 2015 respectively

Published in Art New England Magazine

Gloria Garfinkel’s provocative colors and patterns burst forth like firecrackers in her exhibit Origami Interpretations. Electrically hued designs, expressed as paintings, sculptures and collaged prints showcase the artist’s interest in the fashion and decorative motifs of Japan. Garfinkel’s kaleidoscopic palette and brazen ornamentation firmly unite her chosen themes and media. The intense, vibrant arrangements coerce the viewer’s eye to focus on many levels of patterns framed within larger geometric forms.

It’s likely Garfinkel cultivated her fascination with textiles when working in the fashion industry during the ’50s and ’60s. Following trips to Japan, Garfinkel said she became attracted to the “synergy of elegance and drama” evident in the kimono. In her collaged print series titled Ginkgo Kimono, she takes material with fan prints, bright stripes, basket-weaved lines and wood-grain patterns and adheres them to delicate Japanese paper. Like a tailor, Garfinkel neatly arranges her compositions inside a 30 x 30-inch square, often printing the same etching plates in different colors to achieve varying effects. The practice of recycling silk into new garments or accessories is common in Japan. Therefore, works such as Ginkgo Kimono #6, with its garment-textured patchwork of brilliant teal, peach, navy and red, is inspired by this custom. Read the rest of the review…