When you read a dramatic poem like Kenneth Sherman’s Words for Elephant Man, it’s great to have Google by your side. On Wikipedia you can find out who Joseph Merrick was, view photos of his horrific disfigurement, of the burka-like cap and hood he wore to hide his face, read his only surviving letter, and learn about the main actors of his life — Tom Norman, the freak show manager, Frederick Treves, the surgeon who rescued him and wrote a memoir, and notorious contemporaries like George Wombwell and Jack the Ripper. Poetry, whose challenge is so often the spelling out of context while cutting directly to the language/musical heart of things, is served well by Google.
Kenneth Sherman’s Words for Elephant Man was written a white heat — in a matter of weeks, the author tells us — long before the Internet era. It was first published in book form by Mosaic Press in 1983. At the time, the Elephant Man figured prominently in the zeitgeist. Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity appeared in 1979; Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man won the Tony Award the same year; then there was the acclaimed David Lynch film a year later (from which the accompanying photo is taken). The best seller The True History of the Elephant Man followed on the coat-tails of popular interest. The occasion for this review is a recent reissue of the Sherman’s book, in a beautiful, sepia-tinged artisanal edition by Porcupine’s Quill Press.
After nearly thirty years, Sherman’s work stands up well. Merrick’s goulish condition is treated with deadpan understatement; the poet takes us into the cruel world of Victorian freak shows, while conveying the dignified intelligence of the Elephant man with sensitivity and restraint. Sherman’s free verse is spare, conversational, expresses Merrick’s passion and despair with bluntness and poignancy. Along the way, he does the poet’s work by linking up the Elephant Man’s story with larger themes.
long neck of some straining beast:
shouts of disgust
In another stall
a limbless boy from India
eats glass while standing
on his head
in his land
elephant man is Ganesh,
god of wisdom.
At times, the poet’s voice and diction express a contemporary sensibility that make me feel a little too strongly the poet behind the mask: would Merrick draw such an extravagant parallel as to proclaim himself “the age’s Doppelganger/its underside/its Hyde”? But while the tale of woe verges on excess, neither does it fall into bathos.
A number of tales in classical literature confront us with a character with a repellant deformity, but by revealing the sympathetic, heroic depths within them, make us come to identify with their suffering and even love them. Hugo’s Quasimodo, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Shakespeare’s Caliban all spring quickly to mind. A lyric sequence may be a narrow stage upon which to effect such a broad transformation: perhaps we come to respect and pity rather than love Sherman’s Merrick, but there are times — as when a certain Princess smiles at him and brings him to tears, and make him question, “Am I lovable? Is there a shudder of eros/in all this wattled ugliness?” — that we are truly and deeply touched.
Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight. It is reviewed here in the Rover.