Apr/May 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

At The Leprosarium

Review by Elizabeth P. Glixman

At The Leprosarium.
Eve Rifkah.
Revelever Publications.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased Penikese Island on July 18, 1905, for $25,000 under the state's rights of eminent domain. Pressured by the need to have an isolated hospital for the treatment of lepers, Penikese, the smallest and also most distant of the Elizabeths, seemed an ideal location.*

How did it feel to be afflicted with leprosy and sent to a barren island a half mile by a quarter mile—75 square acres—off the coast of Cape Cod Massachusetts in the early twentieth century? This question captured the imagination of poet Eve Rifkah, who describes the experience of thirteen men and women patients at the Penikese Island Hospital, also known as the Penikese Lerper Colony or the Leprosarium, in her chapbook At The Leprosarium, the winner of the first annual  2003 Revelever Publications Chapbook Contest. 

Eve Rifkah received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Her work has appeared in 5 A.M., The MacGuffin, The Worcester Review, Jabberwock Review, and the California Quarterly. Her chapbook Zodiac of the Misbegotten was a finalist in the Portlandia and The Main Street Rag chapbook contests. She is co-editor of the international print poetry journal Diner with her husband, poet Michael Milligan. They are also cofounders of Poetry Oasis, a not for profit poetry organization

In At the Leprosarium, Rifkah—through fact, empathetic imagining, and her skill as a poet—paints the patients' daily lives and emotions in persona poems, letters, journal entries, and third person reflections. These are crafted poems. There is nothing superfluous in her language. The people in these poems are so solid, we can touch them. She describes what social isolation can do to the spirit and how people of various backgrounds, cultures, and ages (from youth to old age) react to circumstances outside their control. Despite the physical ravages of leprosy (mitten hands and flattened noses are but two complications), the core of each patient struggles to survive.

Penikese Island Leper Colony was a compassionate place, according to Rifkah. Patients had freedom of movement and could fish, walk in fresh air, garden, and have pet birds. In a time when identities and bodies were becoming unrecognizable, the routines of daily life were a balm for some.

Julia, a 60 year-old woman in the poem "Sea Glass," is enamored with her treasures from the beach:

Sea Glass

pale green glimmer caught in seaweed
She picks up        fingers each surface        hazed by ocean rake
Back and forth scrapes sand and shell
Holds to light shadowed edge of letter
L.A. S.
another find for Julia's treasures
She keeps in a tin next to her bed

cobalt bits her favorites        she calls them sapphire
glass from milk of magnesia bottles
and greens so many greens
pastels of canning jars        emerald mentholatum jars
one tiny sun of yellow        a mystery

sometimes shards of crockery  
                                 a bit of castle, black capped bird
                                girl in ruffled cap, a willow sprig

at Christmas Mrs. Parker giver her a white platter
and a thin layer of wool batting
to arrange her gems—she moves greens
next to blues        frosted whites        chips reveal
centers like jellies
                                forever empty
                forever full

here the pieces come to rest
she imagines other lives
imagines being whole

The excitement of the introduction of the ice box to the colony is described in this excerpt from "First Ice, 1912."

We toss the cold slivers
Like children, we catch and throw
Chant        Ice        Glorious Ice

hold to the hot skin
summer day scorch of sun
slippery slice of clear
we laugh hot spiced with cold

In the poem "Flavia," Rifkah shows how some, despite the effort of the staff to bring touches of illusory comfort and "normalcy," went mad: 

We locked Falvia in her room today
it grieves me so
how she rocks and mumbles
stares at her hands
tries to rub them away

Flavia responds later in the poem...

Mother Mary, Holy Mother, they see me
eyes crawl over my skin
creep under my sleeves
             up my legs

this morning my feet
I stood up my legs going
down to nothing
             nothing there 

Mother Mary, I disappear
eyes everywhere
in the beads of my rosary
spilling through my hands
I break the cord        across the floor
at the windows        eyes        there
right there in the glass
             I can't hide

bible jumps to my hand        I break
slices of glass each a wink
get away get away
they hold me down
             Holy Mary don't look

Morris Goldblatt, age 47, grieves his abandonment in these lines from "Morris":

February 23,1908

My Dearest Esther,

Why is it you don't write? This disease not curse enough, you curse me with silence? Not enough I live without your dear face? And our children good natured Rachel, she must be great help to you and Clara, her hair still red of spun gold? Must be young men calling?

Esther, I can't bear this. Every day the mail boat comes form New Bedford. Mrs. Parker hands out the letters, none for me. I can't help the tears. This illness not my doing. In sickness and health we married? Only a letter all I ask, to see in words what I can't imagine. My boys, what have become of my boys?

In the poems "Sentiment Rules the World" and "IWA Ridiculed in the Boston Papers" (in the voice of Chinese immigrant Goon Lee Dip), we glimpse the social context of the illness. People living close to the island in Buzzards Bay did not want lepers living near them. The ocean was not enough of a divider.

The pre-medieval notion—that of lepers being social outcasts—also appears in the last two poems: "He shall dwell alone without camp his habitation be" (from "Leviticus").

Rifkah has resurrected lost voices in her work, reminding us of the frailty of our physical nature, the harshness of disease, and  the social context of illness. At the Leprosarium is a moving chapbook that has both historical and artistic significance. Eve Rifkah's living, breathing poems are rich and evocative. Fortunately for fans of this work, Rifkah has written a full-length collection about the hospital and its patients called  Clackers and Bells: The Penikese Leper Hospital, 1905 -1921. I am eager to read it.


* From author's end notes, Clackers and Bells


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