Two Poems from Defense Mechanisms*
At the turn of the century, Dr. Martin Couney created a Coney Island sideshow featuring premature
infants in order to promote the use of incubators in maternity wards. While this may seem outrageous
and insensitive in the 21st century, his innovation was the precursor to modern neonatology, saving
Nurses stand behind velvet ropes like game show hosts,
gesturing to pansy-faced babies squalling in iron
incubators instead of lacy bassinets. Swaddled infants,
the runts of the litter, are tended like hothouse orchids
by doctors bearing leather satchels, the wax melting
from their mustaches in the heat of the milling crowds.
See their saran-wrap skin, translucent as vinyl slipcovers,
organs pulsing to the the hiss and rasp of the respirator.
Marvel at living miniatures small enough to put in your pocket.
The world's little weaklings lie in glass-fronted cabinets
of industrial steel among the human curiosities of the
sideshow: Birth defects and confused chromosomes,
the hirsute, hermaphrodites, the swollen and stunted,
the limbless and conjoined. I see myself in their faces,
limp, shrunken, wizened rag dolls with skim-milk skin.
I can read my life in the pages of the history books,
what I might have been: a ragged beggar rattling a can
of hard-won coins; an asylum of lice and gruel, or simply
dead, laid out and forgotten in a coffin no bigger than
a breadbox, sleeping beneath silt for all time.
* * *
"Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people."
-Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Outside, the sun is dazzling; confusing.
Everything seems too bright, unfamiliar,
shifting and transitory. There is nothing
to hold on to; flashes of colors overwhelm.
Strangers swarm, the din of their voices
surrounding her, blaring; the blank-faced
silhouettes are featureless and frightening.
They meet and merge like shoals of glinting
fish. Adrift in a sea of strangers, she skirts
the clustered crowd, desperate as a starfish<
clinging to a damp-cragged rock in a storm.
Her legs protest moving forward. There is
the sensation of swimming through sand.
Her energy field is depleted, her battery run
dry; her reserves are as empty as a gas tank.
The need to escape, to flee the crowds, their
words, their laughter. The relief of the haven,
of familiar walls, succoring spaces. Nothing is
strained here; her senses are not jumbled with
too many sights, smells, people, too much light.
Keeping to the shadows of her liminal existence,
she understands how Emily Dickinson could stay
in one white room, one white dress for fifty years,
with only an uncurtained window and a quill pen
for company, grateful for a cocoon of quiet solitude.