Elephant Man

(for J. Merrick, 1862-90)

Wearing his Sunday best
the thing sits upright
on his bed beside
the open black dressing bag.
His smooth girl’s hand
gently strokes the razor
shoehorn & cigarette case–
the mirror long since removed.

Picking up a brush
he combs the wispy hairs
of his cauliflower head–
fancies himself a lover
in cool evening shadows.
From overgrown lips
come no spluttering noises–
only poetry & affectionate song.
(The lady in question
accepts his proposal.
They marry in a cardboard church
which Joseph has constructed.)

The reverie passes–
the thing sighs.
Lonelier than ever
he limps about his cell
gazing at the bric a brac
his noble friends have sent him.
Sitting by a casement
he looks to the sky
his child-like soul thirsting
for vistas, woods & lawns unseen:
birds, fish & flowers.

Then tired of pining
& out of time & hope
he lies down on the bed
‘like other people’
& closes his woeful eyes.
In his latest dream
he beholds asylums for the blind
& distant lighthouses
twinkling in the dark.


One of several of my poems read on then-London, Ontario’s Sheila Martindale ’80s radio program Cabbages and Kings. My own passions in the ’80s were coalescing then with empathy and Keatsian “Negative capability” at the time this poem was composed.

John Merrick or Joseph Merrick (his birthname) suffered from the horribly disfiguring neurofibromatosis, a condition which left him with a strange mix of physical features. He did very much want to be a Victorian gentleman and was incredibly shy around women. He dreamed of romance and did, in fact, make cardboard churches. He was also visited by prominent Victorians who brought him gifts such as bric-a-brac. His final act was to lie stretched out on the bed “like other people” (his words), something which caused major internal injury, killing him.

It is important for us to remember that the handicapped, like those more fortunate, also have dreams and passions which motivate and keep them going in incredibly challenging circumstances. If I was to boil down what might be the most basic or fundamental human factor or element, it would be imagination, dreams, and passions.

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