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Words for Elephant Man

by Kenneth Sherman

Words for Elephant Man first appeared from Black Moss Press in 1983. This  new edition includes a series of gorgeous etchings by noted artist and woodcarver George Raab. The collection was written during a period of intense cultural infatuation with Joseph Merrick, the severely disfigured 19th-century Englishman who went from workhouse outcast to travelling carnival curio to privately sponsored isolé. Work about Merrick that appeared from approximately 1979 to ’83 included two historical biographies, a Tony Award–winning play, and an Academy Award–nominated film. Sherman cites a few of these, along with an extensive list of archival material, as sources for his own text.

Merrick’s condition has always appeared  as an exaggerated metaphor for the difficulties we inherit as individuals, and his story is a parable of how to negotiate these difficulties in a less-than-accepting society (as well as with a frustrated, sensitive, less-than-­accepting self). What might a sequence of lyric monologues offer to the conversation?

In Sherman’s book we see the potential for the poetic line to formally mimic the uncontrollable growth of Merrick’s tissue, while still – in terms of both scansion and cumulative effect – embodying the human being inside a seemingly alien form. I say “potential” because Sherman could have pushed this mimesis further than he does.

Through the use of quotations from doctors and freak-show bosses involved in Merrick’s life, readers are treated to a dialogue about how one’s life can take a wild leap when somebody with more power exerts his will – whether out of compassion, curiosity, or selfishness – over someone else.

Another interesting question arises, amplified by close to 30 years of poetic discourse since the book’s first release: even in such a carefully researched and sensitively rendered sequence, is the “speaking-for” construction an inherent misappropriation, an abuse of power? The postmodernist in me wants to shout yes, and is troubled by the many poems in which I sensed Sherman’s steady hands uncomfortably placed over Merrick’s gargantuan limbs. But then, aren’t focused, comprehensive gazes into the past necessary? Is there a dearth of these kinds of gestures in our country’s current poetic production? This reissue should be an occasion for such a discussion.