by Rebecca Dunham, first excerpted in So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art‘s 2013 Spring Volume 22 No. 1 print issue.
List of all I can recall: his hair,
red and curly; I was ten; how I slept
in the top bunk, in July heat;
his first name: Richard;
damp-swollen smell of pine
and unwashed clothes in the girls’
cabin; waking to his hand;
the camp director forbid the piercing
of each others’ ears – we’d catch
lockjaw – ; leg-stroke; fingers
against a sleeping bag’s clenched steel
seam; my friend Prue; the lawyer’s
call; our family room; my parent
sasking me to tell them what I knew.
They asked us to tell them
====the truth – there was proof – girls’
photos recovered from his trash;
====our names and dates noted
meticulous in his little black book.
====We were safe. But all of our jaws
were locked. We knew nothing
====about all of that. Did not recall
those days in the infirmary,
====Prue and I holding thermometer to
lightbulb, nor the inexplicable way
====our eyes crossed and limbs shook.
The nurse never told. We were
====homesick. We were good patients.
3. MARY GLOVER IN LONDON, 1602
I am sick, the doctors say, and offer
to count the ways. They call it
affliction of the uterus, the globus
hystericus. I call it ‘clod of cold
porridge lodged in the throat.’ I call it
the devil and no tight lacing or
birdseed diet can exorcise that grip.
I name my tormentor, and though
I cannot speak, still the voice box tics
and creaks: Hange, Hange –
I turn round as a whoope, heade back
to hippes. They testify to the womb’s
wandering. How it constricts. Dear sirs,
don’t you think I’d know it if it did?
Don’t kid yourself. You don’t know
what crouches, seething, under
lock and key. An infestation:
a dozen for every one you see, hiding,tunneling – I was ten.
Prue’s mother insisted she could hear
them chewing. They opened
the wall to a colony of carpenter ants
frothing in bulbous-black ropes.
Myrmecophobia: fear of ants. Due, I am
told, to another memory I do not
recall: an explosion of tiny ants rivering
my hands when I snapped
the doll’s head free from her neck.
5. – FOR PRUE
You’re a doll, her father says. She is
helpful, she smiles, she is not
bound for the doll hospital. Moors
ball-jointed limbs into place. Ask
not what nests inside her head,
dried apple balanced
on an effigy’s stuffed rag-flesh.
She cannot say. She casts spells
upon herself, a child’s poppet
pierced by pins. Here.
And here. The therapist lays the naked
doll in her hands. Where?
he asks. She schools her face.
======Was it here? Or here? Or here?
6. AUGUSTINE, AT THE SALPÊTRIÈRE, 1875
There, there, Charcot presses, oh dear
love, dear Augustine. I belong to his
unique body of cure: 1) of ether:
“That’s how you make babies,” he says
I say, as I gently sway legs and pelvis;
2) of tuning fork: I speak of men
as beasts like big rats and when they
speak, flames emerge from their mouths.
The photographer catches it –
How my physiognomy expresses regret…
Abundant vaginal secretion. Speculum,
a doctor pushing his long needle into
my exposed neck, and how I smile
for the camera, a knowing smile (he says).
====… the girls know things – flash’s
blink – eclipse on an eyelid’s
====-convex screen – they buried
the bodies out back, stiff
=====limbed – his images stacked
and shuffled like a flipbook
=====in the prosecutor’s hands – it was
Prue’s shoebox that coffined
=====the four broken dolls – found
in his building’s public bin –
=====beneath the shifting bush – the girls
refuse to recall the exact spot –
====all soil-mooned nails and pulsing
shiver of each beetle-plagued leaf.
8. FRANZ MESMER, VIENNA, 1877
She shivers like a leaf in easy wind
at the passing of my hands
above her skin – I never quite touch –
Still, she’s drawn to me, filings
to my magnet. I imagine her fingers
beneath mine like ivory
keys, listen as she respires a lavender
crush. I urge her to put
aside this hysteria and play her
like a glass armonica, pull tone upon
tone from her, for hours.
Then I withdraw, brush my iron rod
along the fainting sofa’s back,
and she opens her blind eyes, and sees.
I sleep open-eyed. No
tbecause I am afraid, at least no more
than a child fears the gable in winter,
its guttered jaw of ice-
impacted teeth. No, I do not fear
the hasped door, the hairdryer’s roar,
nor worry that they deaden
the approach of footfalls in the hall.
After all, I am not the only one
who doesn’t like a surprise, who won’t
watch that movie with its gir
land her button eyes.
The horror is not the sewing on.
The horror is who will unfasten you.
To unfasten, to unbed trauma
from memory’s sediment, the doctors
tried setons, tried leeches
and purges, ovarian compression,
then pills – all manner of pills –
opiates, iron, strychnine, quinine,
mercury, pills to produce
vomits, laxatives, and then
there were the other remedies –
bleedings by lancet,
by razor to leg, thorazine,
fluoxetine, the starvation diets
and hypnotic trance, until the hysteric
curled (good girl) at their feet.
At my feet, pine’s curled shavings –
And its sound, too, whine of the planer
in shop class. I was thirteen.
Gleaming knots. Ribboned wood.
Like a mind smoothed down to size.
That was the year I cut my hair
and let all the locks fall,
blonde feathers haloing our sink.
Work with the grain, my teacher said,
not against. But how to shear
the feel of their hands from my flesh?
Go with the flow, my mother said.
A perfect blank. If you can’t
say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
12. “CHARCOT PRESENTS THE HYSTERIC,” ANDRÉ BROUILLET, 1887
Her audience says nothing. Just watches:
like petal from stamen, she arcs
back, draped over his assistant’s arm –
Blanche Whitman performs the attitude
passionelle, the state of extase that marks
the third stage of Charcot’s grand
hystérie. Pelvis thrust forward, her breasts
tease the blouse’s neck, and the crowd
leans forward for a better look.
In the name of science. Torso torqued,
she swoons, stilled and then spun,
distillate to their liquored gaze.
Her body: oiled and framed, then
hooked and hung on Freud’s office wall.
In the end, the pictures were enough
to hang him. My red-haired man
weighed, locked away – found wanting.
Now I am supposed to tell you how
I don’t hate men. Bitterness is so
unbecoming. Confession: behind
each man I meet stretches a never-ending
rope, figures on an assembly line.
Confession: I want to pack them up, bind
necks and arms with wire twist-ties.
I call this justice. For the doctor, I unpeel
myself – derma flayed – and point. See?
See under growth’s choke, its roots? He calls it
delusion, says it has only to do with me.
14. AUGUSTINE, AT THE SALPÊTRIÈRE, SEPTEMBER 1880
Call it delusion, but it is one I have
practiced, repeatingly, charm to resurrect
Eve’s knowledge, to lay claim to
Adam’s rib as my own. List of all I can
recall: razor to my neck, my mother’s
lover devouring me. I was ten. I was
thirteen. Charcot’s notes: she looks almost
like a full-grown woman. Indeed, the men
of my neighborhood agreed. Seized,
each spell is reenactment, is rehearsal.
I play both roles in turn: push myself
down, arc-en-cercle, rip my own gown free.
A release. How else to flee Salpêtrière
but as a man, to set my skin unkeyed –