Review: Patient. by Bettina Judd

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Patient., by Bettina Judd, and published by Black Lawrence Press,  is a poetic historical account of the experiences of black women as subjects at the hands of male gynecologists. The poems tell the stories of Henrietta Lacks, Anarcha Wescott, Saartjie Baartman, and others who were “patients” of J. Marion Sims (creator of the speculum) and others as well as subjects of P.T. Barnum. Ms Judd’s own experiences at a teaching hospital adds a contemporary voice to the heretofore unheard voices of black women who historically suffered under the banner of medical treatment. Having worked for many years in the medical community I had a keen interest in this book and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t know what I expected it to be but what I found was as much a primer as a work of beautifully haunting poetry. I had heard of Henrietta Lacks but was completely ignorant of the other women featured in this fine collection. This was not an easy read. It was disturbing and, often, I had to reread an entry to grasp the nuances of Ms Judd’s writing. What was easy to see, though, was the passion and the intensity of her subject. The book is divided into four parts: “Pathology”, “Use”, “Treason of the body is….”, and “Parity”.

“Treason of the body is…”. begins with a quote that perfectly sums up this section and struck me as the key of this heartbreaking subject:

“What might link a surgeon-slave-master to a showman-ringmaster? Both exercise mastery over bodies…” — Terry Kapsalis “Mastering the Female Pelvis”

Ms Judd shows us with her brilliantly deft touch exactly how this point of view set the stage for treating these women’s bodies as chattel, as nothing more than an experiment on an examining table.

In the section “Parity” is probably my favorite poem of the collection, “How to Measure Pain II: Maggot Brain”. The poem unfolds effectively over seven pages, an inspired technique that adds brevity and drama to a wonderful yet sorrowful poem. The ending lines take my breath away:

how do you, daughter

measure pain?

By the length and width

of your black woman self

echo of a scream

muffled

under cupped hands

in wild eyes

graceful nods

smiles

you have found yourself

in each broken body

each elation

your mother’s scar

hers and

hers

and you.

As women, we’ve all felt vulnerable at the hands of our male doctors. But this collection surpasses our uncomfortable experiences and opens our eyes to the many instances of trauma that has gone before, to the women who bore the prodding of experimentation without cognizant consent. Ms Judd has done a great service in bringing this knowledge to light in a way that not only highlights but honors her subjects.

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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.

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