Hospital for Defectives – Thomas Blackburn

Hospital for Defectives

By your unnumbered charities
A miracle disclose,
Lord of the Images, whose love,
The eyelid and the rose
Takes for a language, and today
Tell to me what is said
By these men in a turnip field
And their unleavened bread.

For all things seem to figure out
The stirrings of your heart,
And two men pick the turnips up
And two men pull the cart;
And yet between the four of them
No word is ever said
Because the yeast was not put in
Which makes the human bread.
But three men stare on vacancy
And one man strokes his knees;
What is the meaning to be found
In such dark vowels as these?

Lord of the Images, whose love
The eyelid and the rose
Takes for a metaphor, today,
Beneath the warder’s blows
The unleavened man did not cry out
Or turn his face away;
Through such men in a turnip field
What is it that you say?

Thomas Blackburn

Occasionally the first reading of a poem strikes you with some force. The above certainly falls into that category. A poem that engages the mind well after the last stanza is read.

This poem was written more than half a century ago when there was not so much acceptance and sensibility for those with physical or mental handicaps. I have it from a friend who was tutored by Blackburn that it was written while Blackburn travelled into his poetry position at Leeds University for he passed close to an asylum where those interned could be seen in the grounds from the road.

The poem has contrasting images – the rose which is a symbol of beauty and love, the eyelid which has beauty in its intricate and delicate nature (also likened to rose petals by the German language -Austrian poet Rilke) and then the great contrast in the images of handicapped people moving in silence and being subjected to abuse without complaint. How do we come to terms with a creator that can produce such contrast in life and to what purpose are the creation of ‘defectives’.

There is also an interesting contrast in language. Images have no language as such, the viewer constructs his or her own internal reading. And in the poem those interned are without language too – so there is a nice internal balance within the poem.

For me, the two lines that standout are … Because the yeast was not put in / Which makes the human bread.

It was not until we discussed the poem in a group that I realised a certain discomfort with these lines – as though the ‘defectives’ were not human … i.e. not ‘human bread’ … this of course becomes very worrying suggesting a ‘them/us’ difference … so perhaps in the sensitivity of today these lines would not be acceptable by readers. The fact that punishment/mal-treatment is accepted without reaction also gives an inhuman feel. Hopefully today we are more inclusive of handicapped people than when this poem was written.

I think one of the problems coming to terms with the lives of those with severe handicaps is our projection of our own life-value on to that of another. We feel such people must be severely restricted in the appreciation of life and all that life has to offer and therefore wonder what meaning life has for these people. Consider the debate on euthanasia in such terms.

However, I think that those that are involved with such people have a deeper appreciation of the situation and the extent of life-appreciation and have a better understanding in the way life has meaning and indeed realise that the handicapped have much to give to others.

The line In such dark vowels as these? is a clever take on the construction of words for vowels alone are defective in the creation of words.

In summary, this is a confronting poem that must be time-stamped when read.

Thomas Blackburn is not a well-known poet and here are some details courtesy of Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Hospital for Defectives – Thomas Blackburn

  1. Even the term handicap these days sets a view that it is the person who is limited. I like to adopt impairment as the description of the body/brain restriction or deviation from “norm”, disability is the limitation that impairment imposes on functioning. Handicapping is what society does to limit people with disabilities – stairs, institutions, stigma etc.
    Granted they are all just words, but they do carry, sometimes up intended meaning.

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