This collection of poems, written by Dominique Christina and selected / arranged into a story by Tyehimba Jess, tells the story of a slave woman who was used for medical experimentation. Most of the poems are in the voice of this woman, Anarcha, and are conveyed in a slave dialect. However, a few are from the perspective of Dr. Marion Sims, the doctor who used Anarcha (and other slave women) for research and experimental procedures. Even without the cues in the poem titles, it’s easy to tell when these switches in voice occur because the doctor’s poems are in “proper” English, as opposed to Anarcha’s dialect. I should point out, while I can’t tell you how accurate the slave dialect is, I can say it presents no challenge to the reader’s understanding of the story or of the imagery or metaphor of the poetry.
The events described in these poems are based on a true story. Anarcha developed a fistula (a hole in bodily tissues that’s not supposed to be there) as a complication of carrying a child, and as a result suffered persistent bleeding. Anarcha’s owner handed her over to Dr. Sims to repair the fistula and stop the bleeding, which would require the development of a new procedure. Sims is often called the father of modern gynaecology, and was lauded with statues and honors. However, in recent years, his image has been tarnished by the fact that many of his advancements were only possible through the non-consensual examination of, and experimentation upon, slave women.
I should point out that, while reading this book has made me interested in learning more about the details of the story, I can’t really comment on the degree to which the poems accurately convey history. From the little I was able to garner from quick internet research, there are wide-ranging views on Dr. Sims and his research. Some think Sims belongs in Josef Mengele’s corner of hell. (Note for non-history buffs: Mengele is the Nazi doctor who experimented on Jews and other prisoners during the Second World War.) Others believe Sims was genuinely working to heal the slave women and wasn’t solely motivated to find a treatment for paying patients, and that — in the context of his times — he should be considered a fine, if fallible, doctor. I don’t know how much is know about what was in Sim’s mind or how it matched his behavior, but at a minimum he seems to have been much less delicate with his slave subjects than he would have been with his patients in terms of subjecting them to pain and humiliation.
I will say that the poems in Anarcha’s voice feel authentic, i.e. they feel like they convey truth about what would go through a person’s mind when put in her position. Her humanity is felt. In a few cases in the Dr. Sims poems, that authenticity feels like it breaks down, and one thinks, “no one sees themselves that way” – an instance of self-deification springs to mind. That said, perhaps it’s an accurate depiction. More than one doctor has been known to be colossally narcissistic on occasion.
That said, this is a poetical work and not a historical account, and so the beautiful language, clever metaphors, and emotional resonance of the work are what serve to make it a book that should be read. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Even if you aren’t typically a poetry reader, you’ll find this free verse collection readable because of its story and the insightful view into the mind of Anarcha it presents.