Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Patient - Bettina Judd (Black Lawrence Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Patient.  Bettina Judd.  Black Lawrence Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  2014.
Winner of the 2013 Hudson Prize

I'm not black and I'm not a woman so with these incendiary poems by Bettina Judd I am definitely on the outside looking in.  Patient has me riveted.

These poems are specific in their lineage, they are tightly tied to the ghosts of four women; Betsey Harris, Joice Heth, Lucy Zimmerman and Anarcha Wescott.  These women visit Judd in her hospital bed, we hear their voices loud and clear.

These women's names are unknown to most of us regardless of their deeply earned sorrow.  What makes this book, these poems, interesting and necessary to us is the visceral and haunting honesty of Bettina Judd.

Lucy on the Train

I didn't want to go back. Not just to be cured but to
never have to take the train again. Mister Z cackled
said I won't run since he don't need a bloodhound to
track my scent.

The car had crates and a floor for chairs. If I were to sit
I would saturate myself more.         A jolt flung me into
the lap of a man who smelled it and tossed me into the
movement of the train. I hit the floor and the dark spot
began to expand. He snarled something about how
filthy women be.

I smoothed my dress. So not to trap his disgust inside.


Heth, Zimmerman, Harris and Wescott were enslaved women subjected to unthinkable gynecological experiments.  Bettina Judd's Patient gives them voice.

These poems come to us as high-pitched and justified screaming, low-voiced and liturgical laments whispered as incantations against the dark.  These poems are the bright red accusations, the broken blisters and snarling residue of unclaimed history.

Betsey Invents the Speculum
Fall 1845

Introducing the bent handle of the spoon I saw everything, as no
man had ever seen before.
    --from The Story of My Life by J. Marion Sims

I have bent in other ways
to open the body     make space

More pliable than pewter,
my skin may be less giving

Great discoveries are made
on cushioned lessons and hard falls

Sims invents the speculum
I invent the wincing

the if you must of it
the looking away

the here of discovery


Bettina Judd's voice is controlled, exact, precise and angry/sad.  She modulates her considerable and righteous anger so that her tempered reason never boils over.  These poems are not going to make you happy.

This is one of those books of poetry you are going to be happy you read but it won't make you smile.

Earlier this morning I was reading an essay by the excellent Steven Heighton entitled "In the Suburbs of the Heart" from his book The Admen Move on Lhasa.  Heighton was lamenting that a certain cowardice and gentility had overtaken contemporary poetry, those are my words not his.  What he did say was that "by feigning niceness for too long men and women can douse their vital flame."  Bettina Judd has done the opposite -- she embraces her vital flame and spits gasoline.

She has connected with the lives and horrors of these four forgotten Saints and given their stories light.  And that is always a fine step, towards truth, light.

At [The Teaching Hospital]
For The Second Time
April 27, 2006

To each doctor a speculum.

No time for a room with walls.
No procedure. No apologies. No
apologies all mine.

I have not yet learned
how to look
when I am entered.

Not yet learned
where to turn.
The barrel of myself?

Or, to the patient beside me
who, in his sleep,
i'm going nigger hunting,
i'm gon' get you, nigger.


Patient is not just the sad past.  Judd's ire is not simply historical, how would that be possible.  These poems hum and pulse like the air around a transformer during a heat wave.

These haunting poems are brave and bloody and bound to guilty truths that Judd artfully turn to balm. Patient is a book you can love, admire, extol.

Bettina Judd
photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Bettina Judd was born in Baltimore and raised in Southern California. She teaches courses in Black women’s art, Black culture, and Black feminist thought. She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, the Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry by Mythium Literary Magazine. Her poems have appeared in Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at www.bettinajudd.com and www.patientpoems.com.

"J. Marion Sims, the legendary, now controversial, 19th century gynecologist looms large in Bettina Judd's recent collection Patient. Sophisticated, complex, haunting, Patient. beckons readers to remember, to feel, to think deeply, to discover, to probe. Slavery's stench, the bodies of Black women, death, scientific racism, memory—these themes link the poems in extraordinary ways. Judd is a masterful new poet. Patient. is unforgettable!!"
     —Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Founding Director and Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies,                                              Spelman College

"In Patient Bettina Judd beautifully (and horrifically) draws on historical evidence of nineteenth-century medical experimentation on black women, scholarly explorations of the body and the archive, and personal medical history. The result is haunting in its insistence on laying bare these stories as they not only articulate experiences of the past but also resonate deeply with black women’s experiences with the U.S. medical complex in the present. Patient is a brilliant meditation on race, gender, and science and a thrilling anthem to black women’s self-knowledge."
     —Elsa Barkley Brown, University of Maryland

"Joice Heth. Lucy Zimmerman. Betsey Harris. Anarcha Wescott. Bettina Judd ensures you will remember the names of four women assaulted by science, violated by curiosity--survivors of physical invasion and torturous experiments. She presents their dignity, heretofore denied, as imagined in their own voices in conversation and parallel with a modern speaker, similarly (coldly) ensnared by a medical machine powered by detachment at best, cruelty at worst. Judd re-centers the narrative, however, to where it belongs--on the person(s) confronted, examined, in pain—not on the problem to be studied or solved. In visceral language that indicts, worships, haunts, and empowers, Patient illuminates 'a dynasty, a bloodline, a body' imbued with the full human spectrum of emotion and brilliance."
     —Khadijah Queen, author of Conduit and Black Peculiar

"Bettina Judd’s stunning poetry invites us to imagine the experiences of enslaved women subjected to gynecological experiments—the blood, pain, loss, shame, and survival. Linking past and present, Patient brilliantly condemns the inhumanity of professionals who infringe black women’s bodies and celebrates the humanity of those who resist them. It will disturb and move your spirit."
     —Dorothy Roberts, Author, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of                                                           Liberty

"Bettina Judd’s phenomenal debut poetry collection, Patient., is about recovery in many senses: recovery of the subjectivity of several historical figures, through the recovery, reconstitution, and telling of their stories—among them Anarcha Westcott, Betsey Harris, Lucy Zimmerman, Joice Heth, Saartjie Baartman, and Henrietta Lacks, who were infamously 'patients' or subjects of inspection and 'plunder' by, among others, J. Marion Sims, the controversial gynecologist, and P.T. Barnum, showman and circus founder. Sims (and the speculum) and Barnum are the featured antagonists in many of these flawlessly empathetic poems, but an unnamed speaker who adds a contemporary voice to the lyric chorus implicates those in charge of her care during a present-day hospital stay at Johns Hopkins—suggesting the linkage of modern medical treatment to the traumas vulnerable Black women, enslaved and not, suffered at the hands of unethical scientists and physicians in earlier eras. In the collection’s opening poem, the speaker reckons, '…verdicts come in a bloodline” and she determines “to recover' from 'an ordeal with medicine' by “learn[ing] why ghosts come to me.' She ends her testimony by asking, 'Why am I patient?' (Read that line in however many nuanced ways you want.) In this profoundly layered witnessing, the subject might be “in the dark ghetto of my body,' or 'an idea of metaphors that live where bodies cannot.' Yet even as Judd vividly evokes the precise brutalities visited upon the Black female body and psyche—letting us see and hear women who 'quieted/ broke into many pieces'—these poems also speak of “shedding something, ' 'another kind of sloughing.' Ultimately, Patient. enacts a healing and move toward wholeness, recovery of, as one speaker puts it, 'spirit [that] flees the body and/ its treacherous/ tearing.'”
     —Sharan Strange, author of Ash, and creative writing faculty at Spelman College
Bettina Judd
Reads from "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine
video: Katy Richey



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