Beacon Press, 2018
112 pages, $16.00
Review by Jill Neimark
As long ago as the 14th century BC, humans erased certain memories and lives in order to achieve a kind of communal and historical amnesia. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who reigned from 1353-1336 BCE, literally chiseled away the face of the god Amun from tablets, trying to destroy every trace of him. The phrase coined to describe this kind of erasure, damnatio memoriae, was considered a fate worse than death. Erasure is violence, and though correcting the record calls on everyone from archaeologists to medical historians, some of the most powerful correctives come from our poets. The alchemy and music of a poem seems to perform a literal kind of magic, exhuming and embodying what has been silenced through segregation, exclusion, violence, murder, or torture.
Poet and conceptual artist Dominique Christina’s fourth book, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems, was selected by poet Tyehimba Jess for the National Poetry Series award in 2017. The book gives voice to an enslaved African American woman named Anarcha, one of at least eight enslaved women who were experimented on in the mid 1800’s by Alabama surgeon J. Marion Sims. Sims eventually became known as the father of modern gynecology. The little we know of Anarcha and her sisters in suffering is through the lens of Sims, who wrote a posthumously published autobiography.
To place Christina’s book in history reveals why Anarcha and her erasure is so important. Her work honors how Anarcha and her fellow sufferers were as much the mothers of gynecology as Sims was the so-called father.
In 1845, Sims was called to minister to a teenager named Anarcha who had been in labor for 72 hours. She could not deliver the baby, and if nothing was done both would die. Sims wrote that he pulled the infant out with a forceps; it did not survive. Anarcha’s vaginal canal had suffered the equivalent of a crush injury during that long labor, leaving her with two openings, one exposing her bladder, and one her rectum. Urine and stool now flowed out of the vagina. The condition, known as a vesico-vaginal (or, if opening into the rectum, a recto-vaginal) fistula was relatively common in the 19th century. This was before the discovery of and widespread use of anesthesia, allowing caesarean section if labor was protracted or difficult. Enslaved Black women were more vulnerable to the condition, most likely due to poor diet, poor prenatal care, and pregnancies at a young age. The condition turned sufferers into social pariahs, and is still common in parts of Africa today.
Sims housed Anarcha and at least seven other enslaved women suffering from fistula in a building behind his home, and spent four years trying to cure the condition—but without the use of anesthesia, even though by the end of that first year ether anesthesia was available. Anarcha herself underwent thirty different surgeries. By 1849, after inventing the speculum and innovating the use of silver sutures, which did not become infected the way silk sutures often did, he claimed success. In 1853 he moved to New York, founded the first hospital for women, and in 1876 was elected president of the American Medical Association. Meanwhile, Anarcha’s life and suffering have mostly been erased from history, except for occasional mentions in Sims’ autobiography. It was there that he claimed that through all thirty surgeries, Anarcha “never murmured”—stoic to an unimaginable extreme—a true erasure of pain if ever there was one.
In recent years, a movement to correct history has blossomed, and Anarcha, along with two other women Sims mentioned by name (Betsey and Lucy), have begun to be honored. A statue of Sims in front of the New York Academy of Medicine was removed in 2018; in 2021 Artist Michelle Browder unveiled a monument in Montgomery, Alabama, honoring Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. Called The Mothers of Gynecology, it is 15 feet tall. In addition, Browder actually purchased the land that once housed Sims’ “hospital” and plans to open a two-story museum and health-care center called the Mothers of Gynecology Health and Wellness Clinic.
This past June, a 400 page retelling of the story of Anarcha and Sims, called Say Anarcha, by J.C. Hallman, was published. Billing itself as a work of “speculative nonfiction”, Hallman fleshed out Anarcha’s story by turning to excerpts from 55 volumes of interviews with formerly enslaved people compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project from 1936 to 1938. In a book review for Undark Magazine I took issue with that approach, which forced Anarcha to stand in as a composite figure for so many others, leading me to feel that she had yet again been erased.
But Dominique Christina’s book does the opposite. It almost feels like direct dictation from Anarcha herself, it is so powerful and real. Most of the poems in the book are in Anarcha’s voice, the words all lowercase, often without punctuation, and conveyed in Black English dialect. It feels as if Anarcha truly is rising from these pages, and the poems themselves read like grieving hymns from the deepest and most unspoken personal experiences of pain and loss. Take these poignant lines from the remarkable “From A Star I See Everything”:
we layin out
we lookin up
we shook wit night wind
we knees up, drift wood
what you make a dem stars?
they just like us. sizzlin dead.
Sizzling and yet dead. Stars shining, guiding us, shedding light—but long dead.
In one poem, “Don’t Wanna Hear It But,” Anarcha realizes she is pregnant, and remembers being raped by her owner:
pinned down and
moanin into myself
couldn’t even unhitch
a scream cuz
his face too close
to my face
How do you unhitch a scream? It’s as if the scream is already waiting there, fully formed. But it can’t be released—his face is too close to hers. Whereas Sims’ description of Anarcha’s stoical silence rings false (what woman could undergo thirty vaginal surgeries over a period of four years, each one without anesthesia, and never even murmur?), Christina’s lines tell us exactly what it’s like to carry a scream, and be unable to let it loose.
In a gorgeous imagining of the long labor leading to the death of her baby, the poem “Anarcha Dreams, OR How You Know You Ain’t Gone” shows her hallucinating a dialogue with herself, where she wonders if she herself is dying, and realizes her baby is drowning inside her like a boy trapped at the bottom of a well:
You ever see a boy get hisself trapped in a well?
(she ask me from inside my head)
yes ma’am lil boy fell in last winter.
water wanna keep you
her inner self warns.
you ain’t sick. you a well. yo boy trapped inside. cain’t swim a lick.
Realizing her baby is dead, she stoically, stubbornly perhaps, and heartbreakingly replies to herself:
i didn’t mean to love him no how.
But in that sorrowful turning away is the sense that of course she loved him. He was her unborn child. She’s only seventeen, she was raped, and yet feels responsible for his death—her body has trapped him like the well that trapped a boy the previous winter.
In a later and innovative section of the book, events are imagined in paired poems by both Anarcha and by Dr. Sims. In a poem entitled “When The Quiver Stops, Ain’t No Jesus,” the speaker as Anarcha on Sims’ operating table writes:
Kill me, kill me and be done wit it kill me killmekillmekillme
But in the paired poem, the speaker as Sims writes:
Every time you see a black girl bleeding
What a pairing—it speaks for itself, and unforgettably.
Perhaps the most memorable and universal lines of the book—at least for this reader—are the closing lines of the poem “Anarcha Will Speak And It Will Be So.” They singe like fire, and feel universal. They speak to human suffering itself:
i, a salted wound.
i the upset of everything,
Society, and medicine, are in the process of correcting the history and erasures we have long been complicit in by the father (Sims) and of the mothers of gynecology (Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy). Dominique Christina’s collection is a necessary piece of that retelling, giving us the closest rendering we are likely to ever have of what might have been Anarcha’s powerful voice.
Jill Neimark is an author of adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book is The Hugging Tree (Magination Press).