My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Most reviews and blurbs of this, Maples’s arresting full-length poetry debut, understandably focus on the history it aims to set straight: an obscure 19th C. Alabama physician rose to prominence — and is still, nearly 200 years later, hailed as a medical luminary — because he conducted sadistic experimental gynecological surgery on enslaved women without their consent. It is a testament to Maples’s considerable gifts that she is able to give voice not only to the women themselves but to the doctor who mistreated them (and who would be all-too-easy to indict via caricature).
What’s still more impressive (and less emphasized in reviews and blurbs) is Maples’s ability to weave herself — and her project — into the storyline. In so doing, she calls to mind novels like Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, where the role of the author as researcher, inventor, redactor, is brought to the fore. For the speaker of these poems — the Poet, who, we must imagine, is someone very like Maples herself — the implications of such a role are profound, enormous, unsettling. The tools of narrative can wound and disfigure just as easily as the rudimentary tools of a monstrously misguided (and largely self-taught) 19th C. surgeon. Here, in Maples’s capable (dexterous… strong… empathetic… loving…) hands they mend (of course).
In suturing these stories together — Anarcha’s and Betsey’s and Lucy’s; their tormentor’s; the Poet’s, her mother’s and grandmother’s, her young daughters’ — she invites all of us to further consider how we’re bound to this history, this much-needed (if all-too-belated) new vision: “Maybe,” writes Maples in the preface, “reader, with further consideration, you will see how you are connected with this story. Maybe you will honor what you come to know by sharing it.” Mend, like all the best and most honorable books, is worthy of your (further) consideration. You will surely find it too good not to share.