Animal Magnetism was the winner of The 2009 Pearl Poetry Prize, selected by Debra Marquart, who describes the book as having “great buoyancy” and a “stubborn clinging to life, to love, to human connections.” I agree wholeheartedly with Marquart’s judgment about what makes Animal Magnetism especially worthwhile reading:
While these poems are beautifully-made and sometimes funny or painful, they are also brimming with information. Do you know who the world’s biggest show belongs to? Have you seen the bones of the American Giant, measured at seven feet, six inches at the time of his death at age twenty-three? Do you know where you can view a preserved section of President Garfield’s spine where the bullet almost entered?
The book is dedicated to a friend, Martha Tabor, for whom Roberts was caring as Tabor was dying of cancer and during the period the poet began to visit medical museums, which serves as the inspiration for the first of the book’s three sections. Roberts was herself subsequently diagnosed with and treated for cancer, which served to intensify her interest in the subject, which resulted in poems rich in the strange and fascinating details of such collections, artifacts, and facts. Inspired by the Physick House in Philadelphia, Roberts opens her book with “Blood Letting”:
…Now his house is a museum,
all his tools and vials and paraphernalia
lined up in glass cases, and labeled.
I want to know what the labels don’t reveal:
who were the patients who laid their arms
over this basin, while Physick leaned close
to cut their inner elbows, that same
fragile furrow, and let their stories flow.
I think I see a little left, a rusty stain,
a life there, hidden.
She continues with poems inspired by the work of Franz Anton Mesmer (the discoverer of animal magnetism); the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC; The Shoe Museum, Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia; The Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University in Boston; La Specola Museum, at the University of Florence in Italy (“The Grand Duke of Tuscany, / Peter Leopold, opened La Specola / to the public in 1775, / the lower classes in the mornings, / ‘provided they were cleanly clothed,’ // and the upper, ‘intelligent // and well educated,’ in the afternoon.”); a radiation exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago; and the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia (“The American Giant and the Achondroplastic Dwarf”).
Poems in Section II are also inspired, in large part, by historical texts and practices, including the “custom of creating mementoes from a departed loved one’s hair” (the poem based on this custom, “In Memoriam: A Catalogue,” was inspired by Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri):
After your beloved died, you clipped her hair
one last time and brought it to the artisan.
There were pattern books to look through.
One specialist threaded hair through a needle
and embroidered pictures on white silk.
Someone is always departing.
What is more natural than grief?
It is a slack flotilla in a shifting sky,
clouds that drift and flinch.
I’ll take a weeping willow on pale silk—
Poems such as “In Memoriam” demonstrate the poet’s particular skill at turning what might simply be interesting or curious information into the expression of something larger, more interesting, and, ultimately, more artful—the poetic impulse that moves her from contemplating the threading of hair as a way to grieve and preserve memory to a consideration of grief as a natural, fundamental, and pervasive aspect of human experience.
The book’s third and final section includes poems also based on historical texts and realities, including The Falnama, an Islamic illuminated manuscript, and the life of Henry Wellcome, who “made his fortune by introducing medicines in tablet form…in England.” Wellcome had once planned to create a museum of the history of medicine and his collections can be viewed in the British Museum in London.
Roberts describes Wellcome’s obsessions in the final strophe of “On Looking at the Collections of Henry Wellcome.” She might as easily be describing her own, as well:
A mania for objects, for creating a world—
a metaphor for the world—a smaller cosmos,
but controlled, and controllable.
Is it triggered by loss? Fear of abandonment?
Depression? As if the wonders of the little world
had magic properties, as if these fragments
on display could keep the body whole,
could stop time, stop death: keep the blood
moving through the veins, the food digesting,
keep the muscles and the bones from splitting
and the delicate webbing of skin—
a fragile cabinet whose textures imply
so much activity beneath the surface—
were somehow under our own control.