An Able Physiologist 3: Robin Pecknold Descends the Steps of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1786

Original Text: 

Shane Neilson. On Shaving Off His Face. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill. 2016.

                      …[t]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic
                      is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue,
                      and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the
                      object and life of all republican governments.
                      -Benjamin Rush
1Always down. On the marbled steps I refuse to sing like the bird
2held in the cage it flew into, or made. I look back at the hospital:
3how long it was, a thousand years before, I came and beat my breast
4against bars erected to keep me safe, bars that predicted my arrival
5based on oncoming song. The doctor here mentioned the moon,
6used leeches and cups, forbade me to sing. Was my difficulty a woman?
7Sexual inanition? I can’t remember, though I feel the same.
8All I hoped would change within me stayed. The breaks occur
9along faults that crack when no pressure is applied.
10I am not mad. It was a woman. She held me as a delusion does,
11seeking out weaknesses – in the morning the sufferer wakes up
12enlightened and without distraction. I wandered the town for a week
13afraid to think or see and sung folk hymns to God.
14The doctor suggests impiety is my problem. I told him I never believed
15and never would. He asked why I knew the words to the hymns.
16I said I wanted to believe that the holy spirit is a bird cloistered
17in church attics, refused flight, kept in the dark. We all hear the bird
18trying to escape. And so I know the words, melody, and beat
19to the praiseful songs. Still the doctor would not let me sing,
20allowed no visitors either: too fragile a case, quiet and dark
21my prescribed treatments.
22To stay alive I dreamed of birds
23keeping a moon-lit exile on Lake Erie,
24no man or god troubling these mute,
25unheard birds who exist in me. I turn now,
26the brittle steps enclosed in a canopy
27of green, the sun so rarely seen in my stay
28beating down upon all it hits and flattens
29and makes better, all love turning towards
30the great light to disintegrate. A bird that sings
31or a bird that has no song: after all is said
32and after all is done, God only knows which of them
33I'll become.
RPO poem Editors: 
Jim Johnstone
RPO Edition: 
Special Copyright: 

Poem used with permission of the author.