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REVIEW: “Patient” By Bettina Judd

patientIt took three attempts before I could get past the first entry in Patient, an uncomfortable jaunt into America’s crippling disregard of black bodies. It is raw. 

In this collection of 53 poems, Bettina Judd excoriates two famous men — Dr. J. Marion Sims, long considered the father of modern gynecology, and circus showman P.T. Barnum — for their exploitation of slave women in furthering their careers. The poet, a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary, investigates this trauma and somehow coaxes dignity from a horrific past.  

Dr. Sims arrived at an Alabama plantation in the mid-1840s to assist a slave in a stalled, three-day labor. He used his discoveries in that delivery to refine his medical knowledge. Over five years, Sims performed dozens of operations and procedures on slave women, all without anesthesia or consent. Yet the first statue erected in the U.S. to commemorate a physician depicted Sims, according to the American College of Gynecology’s journal Clinical Review.

But little is known of the slave women he used as subjects. Here, Judd offers three of them a platform, giving voice to their pain and erasure from history. A taste of their journey, from the poem “Betsey Invents The Speculum”: 

I have bent in other ways
to open the body   make space

More pliable than pewter,
my skin may be less giving

Great discoveries are made
on cushioned lessons and hard falls

Sims invents the speculum
I invent the wincing

the if you must of it
the looking away

the here of discovery
 

A fourth voice of Patient belongs to Joice Heth, a blind slave woman put on exhibition by Barnum in 1835 during his first foray as a showman. Billed as an 160-year-old former “mammy” to President George Washington, Heth was a huge draw, allowing Barnum to pocket more than $1,000 a week. When she died, Barnum held a public autopsy to prove her age, charging spectators 50 cents to watch. Judd masterfully gives Joice the megaphone in “Joice Heth Presents: Herself,” as she booms through her own death: 

AND FOR MY LAST TRICK
I WILL RELEASE THE GHOST
Hover over my corpse
and escape. 

A nameless modern voice floats in this collection, representing the plight of African-American women like Esmin Green, who died on the floor of a New York City emergency room in 2008. She laid motionless on the floor for 30 minutes before anyone came to take her pulse. Judd notes the importance of how distinctly the past informs the present. 

Marinated in pain and sacrifice, Judd’s work is evocative, even as it is hard to stomach at times. Readers who gird themselves will be quite moved by the art they find.

 

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