A local poet gives voice to the forgotten outcasts of Massachusetts
By Harvey Fenigsohn
Worcester poet Eve Rifkah’s remarkable collection of poems, Outcasts: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital (Little Pear Press, 2010), was inspired by the patients of the Penikese Island Leper Hospital, which was founded in 1905 and closed in 1921. During that period, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts cast out of society 36 men and women suffering from Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. The patients lived and died on a small, lonely island in Buzzards Bay, forever bereft of friends and loved ones.
Through the power of her imagination, Rifkah resurrects these long-forgotten souls, granting them a voice ~ the voice of a poet. Almost all of her 99 poems speak to us from the viewpoint of the patients, who lived as pariahs, reviled and feared. A microcosm of humanity, the patients represent all those who suffer the pain of rejection and exile. In dedicating her book “to outcasts everywhere,” Rifkah suggests that the plight of the Penikese outcasts sounded a universal resonance.
Intrigued by Ken Harnett’s public television documentary, The Lepers of Buzzards Bay (1994), Rifkah vowed to learn more about the leprosarium and its patients. She found valuable sources in the official and unofficial records, newspaper articles, letters, journals and assorted memorabilia hidden away at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library. Rifkah discovered the inhabitants of Penikese were both patients and prisoners, their hospital a penitentiary where they served a life sentence for the crime of leprosy.
At that time, a false belief harkening back to biblical times held that leprosy was a highly contagious disease, a danger to anyone who came in contact with the leper. Onlookers were terrified by the “mitten hands” and flattened noses. Today, we know that only 5 percent of the world’s population harbors a genetic defect making them vulnerable to the disease, which now is controlled by medication. Patients, needlessly condemned, suffered a shameful, unjust punishment.
Describing her work as a “docu-drama in verse,” Rifkah structures her work in four acts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Following the poems, she provides a helpful author’s note and brief biographies of each patient. In the prologue, the poet alludes to her role in telling the Penikese story, and in Act 1, she describes the island’s geological formation by an Ice Age glacier, “in a time colder than cold.” She also honors the legends of an ancient culture, with a Wampanoag Indian chanting his tribe’s legend of how the island was formed. (23) We hear, too, the shrill objections of 20th-century mainlanders to the establishment of a leprosarium so close to them:
The good citizens of Marion, Mattapoisett raged and stamped
petitions flew with nor’easter force. (23)
Artfully using figurative language and precise details, the poet evokes a keen sense of place and mood. For example, she employs personification when she describes birds that appear “dressed in sadness/gulls, pipers, plovers, terns, cormorants, gray white, black…” (61) The poet also makes effective use of alliteration in lines such as these:
Clackers and bell in medieval time announced the leper
Sonorous sounds screamed the coming of lepers. (24)
Act 2 sets the stage, envisioning land and seascapes as the patients saw them. We sense how clearly the poet imagined the haunted setting of the hospital ~ a treeless crop of rock-strewn terrain and mist-shrouded beaches. However, visiting Penikese only in her imagination proved insufficient for Rifkah. Compelled to travel there, she walked the island, viewing the 14 gravestones of those who died on the island.
At the Countway, Rifkah learned the patients spoke Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese and Turkish ~ reflecting a plethora of national, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. Rifkah commented, “This speck of glacial moraine became a tiny United Nations of outcasts.” (94) The poet noted, too, that despite their great diversity, the patients lived together harmoniously.
Nevertheless, while all of the 30 characters were united in sharing the same illness, each suffered his or her own private agony. Two patients devolved into insanity, unwilling to acknowledge their illness. A young girl, first described as “pretty and well formed,” was later depicted as having been “suffocated by growths in her throat.” (100) In perhaps the book’s saddest poem, we hear the anguish of Morris Goldblatt, a 41-year-old Russian Jewish emigrant, inconsolable at being torn from a wife and five children who visited once, but became hysterical and never communicated again:
Why is it you don’t write? This disease is not curse enough; you curse
me with silence. (39)
In Acts 3 and 4, details from the Countway sources lend verisimilitude to poems of patients describing their daily lives ~ expressing their pain but also savoring their limited pleasures. For the patients could take comfort in freely roaming the island, enjoying the fresh air. Some grew gardens, some kept birds, and others fished and worked at paying jobs. They enjoyed listening to a talented patient’s guitar music and delighted in singing. As one says:
We clean each other with song
wash gray skies blue. (27)
Above all, the patients found solace in the compassionate treatment of Dr. Frank Parker and his wife, who dedicated themselves to the welfare of the islanders, determined to ease their pain. For 15 years, the couple remained at Penikese, maintaining their loving care until the hospital closed. In “Marion Parker Tells Her Story,” we hear the voice of the doctor’s wife:
I told Frank we could do good work, live a simple life, and bring some
pleasure to those cruelly afflicted
our friends feared for our safety. (47)
With only 13 patients remaining, the state finally disbanded the Penikese Leprosarium in 1921, sending the Parkers to the mainland, where they, too, became outcasts. Having infuriated Gov. Channing Cox because he so strongly resisted the closing of the hospital, Dr. Parker was denied his pension.
The last poem in the epilogue reveals that the doctor, vilified in the press for his “bad treatment” (91) of the patients, must flee to Montana to resume his career. We learn, too, the fate of the remaining patients ~ expelled to an even more remote and less humane leprosarium in Carville, La.
We can only marvel at Rifkah’s achievement of masterfully bringing ostracized, marooned ghosts to life. One finds little to criticize, given the impressive quality of Rifkah’s poetry. A minor cavil: had she named each of the four chapters in addition to numbering them, we could better know the particular subject of each, understanding each act’s place in the drama. A minor cavil indeed, considering how the depth of Rifkah’s research, the power of her language and the empathy of her heart all combine to create a lasting work of art.