Eve Rifkah’s book Outcasts is a book of poetry which doubles as a history lesson. The subtitle describes what the book is about: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital 1905-1921. This hospital, really a kind of imprisonment on a deserted island, was an effort of the State of Massachusetts to deal with the problem of leprosy. It involved a total of 36 patients in its sixteen years of existence, fourteen of whom died and were buried there. Rifkah recreates twenty of the patients, who were of many different cultures and ethnicities.
Rifkah uses historical documents, including the journal of Dr. Parker, who ran the institution, as well as newspaper clippings and other records collected by Mrs. Parker. To these she adds a large dose of sympathetic imagination. The desolate island, the smallest of the Elizabeth Islands south of Cape Cod, is vividly portrayed, echoing the desolation of the residents.
Each of the characters has a history and a role on the island. Willie does the laundry, Archie runs the wireless telegraph, and so on. Some are characterized further by their religion: Isabelle and Flavia pray to Mary, Solomon laments in verses from the Psalms, Iwa speaks to the Buddha, whose statue is his one possession.
The title page, below the subtitle, describes this collection as “A docu-drama in verse” and the sections are called Acts. This is misleading, there is very little drama. The poems are mostly soliloquies or descriptions of an individual. The sort of tensions that would surely exist in such a situation are scarcely referred to. Those few interactions which are portrayed are largely between a patient and Dr. or Mrs. Parker, who are presented as loving, highly competent and inventive people. I would describe this book as elegy, not drama. One moment of group activity is portrayed in the following poem:
Here We Are Safe
huddled around Lucy reading the news
between songs on the Victrola
Till We Meet Again
our eyes look away
at the floor the windows nowhere
goodbye means the birth of a tear drop
and the singer talks about love
I remember hearing how the Shakers
called all outside their home the World
wind-up songs and newsprint all we have from that
the farther shores
out there war the reporters now call
the Great War the war to end
we look at each other imagine
exploding buildings men ripped apart
in the World the place we left
as though waking or entering dreams
Rifkah does not tell us who the “I” in this poem is. The lack of punctuation and irregular line lengths are typical of most of the poems in the collection.
The language of most of the poems is tight, often fragmented, and does not rely on images outside the barren landscape and experience of the people. This helps to build the feeling of lament which runs through the collection. An example of such lament is “Frank Counts the Waves”. Frank had been a fisherman. Rifkah uses this history to inform the poem.
Frank Counts the Waves
high tides follow a blind moon
storm from the west blows
spray to walls salt
seasoned crust on my lips
shattered shuttered shake
white roughed waves
roll and heave break and break
one two three four
I sit back to cabin wall
hear Iwa praying to his Buddha
his language hard as the wind
I look to the cross my wife sent with me
hanging over my narrow bed
Why hast thou forsaken me
who am I to turn to.
all the world comes in goes out
no return passage
I said when leaving Cabo Verde,
the flowering islands,
in New Bedford fished cold water
fed my laughing children
named my first born Isaac, to laugh
I have passed into uncharted seas
breath in out as waves counting
years roll the sun summer high winter low
one two three four
ready or not.
As here, the other patients are usually peripheral to each person’s personal laments. It is a sad world, yet only rarely an ugly one. Rifkah’s compassion permeates the book.
A listing of the actual patients whom she has lovingly brought to life is included in the back of the book; the summaries look oddly like contributors’ biographies in the back of a journal. Rifkah has also written an Author’s Note giving the historical background. Those who still lived when the institution was closed in 1921 were transferred to a federal leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. There, she writes “they experienced conditions even more horrific than those on the barren island.”
Overall, a harsh history has been softened by carefully chosen, crisp language. It is an excellent way to tell the story. It is a story worth knowing.
Outcasts was published by Little Pear Press in 2010. It is available on Amazon.com.