Book Review: Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina (2019)

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

“fine. new hell, whatever.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence inflicted on black bodies, including rape and medical experimentation.)

this bruise ain’t no girl
she gone
she never gon be again
she too much a ghost even
for burial

when he left
seem like he stayed
like i kept
some of it
like i ain’t
have no other way

and now Betsey say
i expecting

how you translate
a bludgeonin to
a birth?

you tell me how
i’m suposed to
do that –

a baby.
from the mud pile…
a baby…

one more
thing i don’t know
how to carry.

i say:
what you make a dem stars?
he say:

they just like us. sizzlin dead.

— 4.5 stars —

Like his homeland, the man widely regarded as “the father of modern gynecology” built his wealth and success on the bodies of slaves. Specifically, enslaved black women who suffered debilitating complications from childbirth.

J. Marion Sims is credited with a number of advancements in the field of gynecology: He developed a precursor to the modern speculum, using a spoon and complicated series of mirrors. He built the first women’s hospital in his backyard in Montgomery, Alabama, despite his reported disgust with women’s anatomy. (He wrote in his autobiography, “if there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.”) Most famously, he developed a way of repairing vesicovaginal fistula.

Vesicovaginal fistula is caused during childbirth “when the woman’s bladder, cervix, and vagina become trapped between the fetal skull and the woman’s pelvis, cutting off blood flow and leading to tissue death. The necrotic tissue later sloughs off, leaving a hole. Following this injury, as urine forms, it leaks out of the vaginal opening, leading to a form of incontinence.” Similarly, rectovaginal fistula can cause fecal incontinence; Sims explored treatment for this condition as well.*

And he did it all on the backs of the most vulnerable: enslaved black women.

Over a period of four years, Sims experimented on twelve female slaves who suffered complications from childbirth. He subjected each woman to multiple surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia (though some were given opium post-op). Sometimes he had an audience; on other occasions, the women themselves had to assist in Sims’s procedures. Many were brought to him by their “owners,” seeking to recoup their “investments.” Sims purchased one woman outright so that he could experiment on her. Only three of these women’s names resisted burial under the weight of history: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, all of whom suffered from fistula. Sims violated Anarcha thirteen times before he declared her a success.

In Anarcha Speaks, poet/activist/educator – and mother – Dominique Christina attempts to reconstruct Anarcha’s life, imagining the events that might have landed her on Sims’s doorstep/operating table/torture chamber. Sims doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the book, giving us a chance to get to know Anarcha as a person, and not “just” the ill-fated woman in that horrifying Robert Thom painting. After this, Christina occasionally alternates their perspectives: slave/patient and doctor/”massa.” I’m not sure I loved this convention: I think perhaps the story would have been more powerful coming from Anarcha and Anarcha alone; and besides, history is overflowing with the perspectives of privileged white men – do we really need to hear more? On the other hand, Sims’s POV gives necessary context on how doctors/society regarded black women – and their pain.

Anarcha Speaks is powerful, raw, and visceral. I don’t always love poetry because I don’t usually “get” it, but Christina’s prose cuts to bone. I can’t exactly call Anarcha Speaks an enjoyable read, but it’s a necessary one, and skillfully done. This tiny little powerhouse of a tome would equally be at home on a history syllabus or in a class on medical ethics as in a creative writing course.

* He also experimented on children and babies, in an attempt to treat trismus nascentium; these interventions were met with a hundred percent fatality rate, which he blamed on the mothers (all black). Naturally.

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