The Story of Nancy Luce and her “Poor Little Hearts” Chickens
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…
—”Poor Little Hearts,” first 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 Luce’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 Luce spent with her hens, as she sang to them, scooped her hands into barrels of southern corn, and gave them the comfort she so longingly desired for herself. — An excerpt from Poor Little Hearts
My forthcoming creative nonfiction book about Nancy Luce, titled Poor Little Hearts, uncovers the life and writings of Martha’s Vineyard’s famous chicken lady. Despite her local legend, her image is misrepresented in this day and age, and an astonishing narrative of determination and faith has been buried in the 125 years since her death. The book tells my own personal history as I investigate Luce’s legend and her special family composed of chickens. It is based on site-specific and archival research to show how a lonely, ailing woman became a recognized celebrity of her time. The tale of Luce’s chicken’s gravestones — as well as her sound poem “Hen’s Names”— was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Thousands of tourists visited her homestead, and a group of donors from across the world helped Luce build one of the greatest and unique avian structures inside her home. Luce believed in practicing equal empathy for all, regardless of gender, or one being human or animal. Reflected in her correspondence and poems, virtues applauded and typically respected today, ignited controversy in her era.
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 in her home 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. Luce’s most well-known poem, “Poor Little Hearts,” was written after the deaths of her favorite hens, Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna. She stayed unmarried and self-reliant, as she self-published her poetry and sold her booklets and photographs to the first tourists of Martha’s Vineyard.
As I am writing the biography, I realize that every piece of evidence that I discover about Luce confirms my idea that she was an intelligent and resilient woman, and most certainly not a farcical hermit. Luce intentionally created a sellable identity with the people that visited her homestead who purchased her hen poems and photographs; however, fame or independence would never alleviate her sufferings from an mysterious illness or her exclusion from society. Her efforts were in hopes of forging a better world where the ailing and misrepresented could be respected and have a voice realized through the unbiased caring of all living creatures.
Chickens were Luce’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 Luce’s chicken companion, T. T. Pinky. Luce’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 Luce leave behind chicken tokens of appreciation resembling her “Poor Little Hearts,” at her graveside located at the West Tisbury Village Cemetery.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum displayed her hen headstones, manuscripts, and correspondence from their special collections in an exhibit. There is also a basic biography published in 1984, Consider Poor I: The Life and Works of Nancy Luce by Walter Teller, that frameworks important events in Luce’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” and shed new light on the inspiring and life-affirming relationships between pet and poet.
Poor Little Hearts Writer’s Statement
As a writer, I collage fragments of history, poetry, and memoir. The events, literature, and people I find most compelling are those lost within historical documents waiting to be discovered. My current subject is the poet Nancy Luce. Luce, although a notable figure on the island of Martha’s Vineyard during her lifetime (1814-1890), is now an obscure folk character. Her contribution to literature is undervalued and I am working on a creative nonfiction book that reveals an extraordinary creative life that has been concealed for over a century.