Forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky, Fall 2018. Poetry and Prose Series Editor: Lisa Williams
“This is a powerful book that illuminates one more complex, disturbing chapter of the African-American experience, a nineteenth-century white male physician’s gynecological experiments on female slaves. Mend is a brutal story, lyrically told in the voices of three of those women, and its author has memorably created both a painful reminder and a beautiful tribute.”–Kim Addonizio
Introduction to MEND
Between 1845 and 1849, Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, Alabama, performed experimental gynecological surgery on slave women who suffered from fistula (vaginal tears) due to difficult childbirth. Because fistula occurs as a result of prolonged labor, it can be safely assumed that most of the children died. We are only given three of the women’s names from Sim’s autobiography: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Sims built a crude hospital behind his home where he housed eleven women—mothers— who were in hope of being cured. After a series of unsuccessful surgeries, Sims declared he had successfully repaired the injuries of one woman, Anarcha, who underwent a recorded 30 surgeries. It was never proven whether or not he actually cured any of the women. After publishing his findings in several medical journals, he achieved the recognition he had always desired and became known as one of the first American doctors to conduct ground breaking work in the field of gynecology. Gynecologists today still use devices he developed, the most famous being Sim’s speculum. This collection of poetry is concerned with the women who were the subjects of his experiments.
These poems are imagined memories and stories told from the women’s hospital beds, fragments from their previous lives. The content also reflects the fact that they were all addicted to opium.
“The peculiarities in diseases of negroes are so distinctive that they can be safely and successfully treated, as a general rule, only by southern physicians, with a southern education.”—from Advice Among Masters, Edited by James O. Breeden
in the back yard of things past telling
closing the space
he taps apart her inner
like a sow’s
then two new
and she knows
she’s not here