An Able Physiologist 1: Robin Pecknold Descends the Steps of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1786

 

… the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governmentsBenjamin Rush

 

Always down. On the marbled steps I refuse to sing like the bird

that is held in the cage it flew into, or made, and look back at the hospital:

how long it was, a thousand years before, I came and beat my breast

against bars erected to keep me safe, bars that predicted my arrival

based on oncoming song. The doctor here mentioned the moon,

used leeches and cups, forbade me to sing. Was my difficulty a woman?

Or sexual inanition? I can’t remember, though I feel the same.

All I hoped would change within me stayed. The breaks occur

along faults that crack when no pressure is applied, merely light.

 

I am not mad. It was a woman. She held me as a delusion does,

seeking out weaknesses—in the morning the sufferer wakes up

enlightened and without distraction. I wandered the town for a week

afraid to think or see and sung folk hymns to God.

 

The doctor suggests impiety is my problem. Madness

manifests as the representation of a man’s primary trouble.

I told him I never believed and never would. He asked why

I knew the words to the hymns. I said I wanted to believe,

but the holy spirit is a bird cloistered in the church attic,

refused flight, kept in the dark. We all hear the bird trying to escape.

And so I know the words, melody, and beat to the praiseful songs.

And still the doctor would not let me sing, allowed no visitors either:

too fragile a case, quiet and dark my prescribed treatments.

To stay alive I dreamed of birds keeping a moon-lit exile on Lake Erie,

no man or god troubling them because the birds are mute

and can never be heard. They exist in me. I turn now, the brittle steps

enclosed in a canopy of green, the sun so rarely seen in my stay

beating down upon all it can hit and flatten and make better,

all love turning towards the great light to disintegrate. A bird that sings

or a bird that has no song: after all is said and after all

is done, God only knows which of them I’ll become.