Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit (Jen Campbell)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

The poetry collection Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit has an especially intriguing cover: a pair of carousel horses from an obviously antique carousel. The image is at once nostalgic and disturbing. The carousel horses look a bit frightened, and their painted eyes seem focused on something beyond the right side of the cover image. About one-third of the way through the book, in “The House of Mirrors is Owned by the Freak Show,” Campbell reveals that the horses may be watching the poet or a younger version of her. At an open-air Victorian museum, the poet discovers a hall of glass which:

takes the sewn-on parts of you and throws them
into an evening show. And if those mirrors
happen to know that parts of you were once
an animal, you had better sprint (fast!) to
the carousel and pray those horses can run
like hell – you: sea-fearing little Lobster Girl. (25)

In this scene, the museum threatens the poet with enfreakment, the cultural process that turns individuals with physical differences into freaks. Our knowledge (as readers) of that scene makes the cover even more ambiguous. Are the horses horrified by the enfreakment process that they must be witnessing? Are they frightened by the mirrors’ ability to expose disability? Or are they frightened by the disability that they see exposed? Tragically, they may well be frightened by the poet who depends on them for rescue. As Campbell points out in the poem “Anatomy of the Sea,” physical disabilities are often used as horror tropes. Members of our society are nearly trained to be horrified by disability, and few can escape this cultural coding. In “Anatomy of the Sea,” Campbell recounts watching The Hills Have Eyes with her friends and being:

the only body horrified
They dare each other to run outside
but I stay put.
My meat heart pounding —
Monster. Monster. Monstrous. (13, emphasis in original)

Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit gives us a beautiful but unsettling cover that is perfect for a collection of beautiful and unsettling poems. Campbell discusses many kinds of trauma through her poems. These include the trauma of disability labeling and environmental/social trauma. Campbell’s disability–Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia Clefting Syndrome—is linked to radioactive rain from the Chernobyl disaster. Campbell’s poems present this trauma through unusual and evocative imagery. The result is a set of memorable nightmare images that will recall many of readers’ own experiences with medical trauma.

For example, Campbell’s first poem presents us with mothers who dig deep into the earth for children, scientists “godlike in their mistakes,” and Mary Shelley standing in a storm and obsessed with images of a man who has been sewn together from parts (13). (As a child, Campbell underwent several surgeries meant to separate her fingers using “donor” skin from other parts of her body.) Together, these personages “summon the rain,” an evocative image of both creation and destruction (14). These people, it is implied, are the ones who made Campbell what and who she is today: the parents who bore her, the scientists who caused her physical differences, and the doctors who turned her into a collection of normal and abnormal parts through medical modeling and interventions.

Campbell is equally frank about the trauma of medical labeling in the context of reproductive medicine. When Campbell sought to have a child, she consulted doctors of genetics. There, one doctor, who has—

somehow managed to distance herself from her
disabled patients to such a degree that I am
not sure I exist, let alone my hypothetical
children. (42)

–advises her to get pregnant and have an abortion if the child turns out to be like her. When Campbell replies she could not stand this option, the doctor launches into a discussion of all the money the state will still save by detecting disability before the egg is implanted through IVF. The doctor’s assistant can only mouth “I’m so sorry” behind his superior’s back.

Sadly, this is only one of many traumatic moments that readers will find relatable. These poems recount horrific events but do so in a way that creates beauty and knowledge of community. Shared trauma is a communal experience, after all, and many readers will need the reminder that they are not alone among uncaring doctors and Hollywood images of monsters. Perhaps the carousel horses are sympathizing with the poet after all. After a lifetime of being considered monsters, both because they are non-human and because they are made of artificial parts, and after the many years of looking at those disability-exposing mirrors, those horses probably feel like honorary members of the freak community.

Title: Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit
Author: Jen Campbell
Publisher: Bloodaxe Books
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.