Museum of Natural History #37, Helen {Keller}

 

She launched a thousand stares, a thousand words
on the sea of her hands, her fingers, a
thousand in the dark of her throat brought forward

 

haltingly. There were no suitors. Come see:
sawn in half! In one box, her shapely head,
the scrim of veil over her glass eyes, in

 

the other, feet pinned by galleys of wood
built for oars. If the country could school her
into being, surely the soul is

 

a miraculous machine, the mind an ample
ground for study. Wonder of the world: we
watched language slowly coat over the silence

 

of her, the way we watched tarnish edge across
the metal of the clock. Where is Annie?
Working the trapdoor, stuffing the dove into

 

the hat, secreting the handcuff key in
a pocket before the box fills with water.
To what extent a body or proprioception

 

was unclear since we relied half on what
others fed into her, half what she made
palatable for their tastes. Perhaps she

 

could guess the contents of your handbag, perhaps
she could describe the imagined view from
the tower? At every talk, helpers crowded

 

around her in tails and bustles, holding
out their sparkling golden admiration,
which she knew not to call hard, inedible,

 

or cold in the draft of the lecture hall.
Tally the reports: She was a fraud, a
puppet, a plagiarist. She was false coin.

 

She was “a living lie.” Judged once by the
father of the telephone to be “chillingly
empty,” wire with no mouthpiece, bell with no

 

clapper, she was made scapegoat for an age’s
purpled prose, liar for describing: scumbling
clouds, wheat spangled by sun—more liar for being

 

so concretely in only the gurgle of
her body. We are told the line between
the human mimic and the parrot is

 

that the bird has another language wholly
its own, made sui generis from the hard
beak. Saint or illusionist depending on

 

who paid for oil to light the stage. She wrote:
“What I read becomes the very substance
and texture of my mind.” She produced herself

 

in language. She sits at the proscenium
arch of her desk and dictates. She plagiarizes
entire tongues, language out of whole cloth,

 

the way Helen of Troy plagiarized her
beauty from the paintings, from her image
in men’s eyes. She was photographed, always,

 

in profile to mask one protruding eye.
If only she could have been made to describe
her vision of a God, her affinity

 

with the invisible. Helen wrote: “The bulk
of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary
construction…[history] is but a mode

 

of imagining, of making us see
civilizations that no longer appear
on the earth.” Imagine: she turns and holds

 

to the audience an empty birdcage, then
fills it through speaking, making of syntax
wing, making of language feather. If only

 

we could have kept her everlastingly
on the vaudeville circuit, held her in a
specimen jar and watched. Yet for all our

 

public study of her, for all the ways she
was pinned back, mind recorded and made
visible, which of us can dull the sense

 

of vexation at those impermeable prosthetic
eyes, that deepened silence? Who can say with
certainty what last word fluttered off the stage

 

of her palm, out from the curtain of her mouth?

 

Sasha West

Sasha West’s first book, Failure and I Bury the Body (Harper Perennial), won the National Poetry Series and the Texas Institute of Letters First Book of Poetry Award. She teaches writing in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and daughter.