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On "Crystals"

Michael Simeone

By recounting the birth of modern gynecology, Thylias Moss' "Crystals" not only demonstrates the frailty of imagined class and racial distinctions, but also merges problems of class, race, and medical ethics within a more-overarching and terrifying project, the subjection of the visceral female body to the far from concrete, abstracted and empowered institution of phallic discourse.

Of course, this is not to revisit well-worn discussions of phallologocentric discourse; rather, I would like to show that the already disturbing account of Sims' operation is made more horrific by an underlying inequity in genital representation that the poem teases out of the incident. It is through this differential in modes of representation between the sexes that the upper class, white, and medical institutions are able to be subsumed within the overall agenda of phallic seeing, knowledge production, and empowerment.

As Chris Straayer has noted in her study of contemporary American cinema, the male genitals are an abstraction never concretely realized. Shot after shot, film after film will reveal the genitals of women, yet men are never subjected to the same kind of visual realization and subsequent disempowerment. The phallus remains abstract, separate from the penis, and both a symbol and tool of male power. An upright stance, a huge rifle-these are the closest one gets to realizing the male genitals. By their unknowability, obfuscation, and apotheosis into the abstract, they have become the basis for discourses of bravery, righteousness, power, and more.

A similar dynamic plays out in Moss' poem, allowing Dr. Sims to metaphorically employ his genitals without risking a reversal of the scopic flow of the incident; all prying eyes remain fixed on Anarcha. Moss ensures that, as readers, we follow the gaze of the experimenting physician, "probably pregnant again, her vulva inflamed, / her thighs caked with urinary salts; from the beginning / he saw his future in those crystals" (8-10). Both the clinical surmise that she is "probably pregnant again" and the sudden vision of "his future" assure that the reader takes on the gaze of Sims when viewing the physical symptoms of the disorder.

Further details guarantee that the female genitals become the primary sight, not site, of Sims' medical work. After its invention, the speculum is boiled down to a single core function, "too large and sharp / to be respectful, yet it let him look" (21-22). Distanced from its overall role in the process of curing disease, the speculum becomes simply a probe, not an instrument of medicine. The "stretching of the vaginal walls, tunnel / into room; such remembrance of Jericho [.] when his mind was to have been on her comfort and healing" (24 -26), emphasizes Sims' preoccupation with defeating barriers that deny his visual access regardless of the cost. His subsequent celebration foregrounds the scopic core of his achievment, "his bragging in the journals / that he had seen the fistula as no other man had ever seen it before. / Now they all can" (36-38). The final line, "Now they all can," not only institutionalizes the seeing of the poem within medicine and masculinity, but also ensures that by the end of the desription of the operation, it is clear that the patient in question has been altogether forgetten. She is just "fistula," an exhibit, a landmark in the knowledge of female anatomy.

That Sims is able penetrate, violate, and exploit Anarcha because of her race and class standing is rendered perfectly disturbing by Moss' work. That all of this is executed through the chauvenist clinic and the penis-shaped speculum, however, makes it even worse. Sims performs his sexual barbarism through prosthesis without risking the exposure of his own genitals. His acts are mediated by both the pewter spoon and the institution of the clinic. He enjoys a kind of terrifying impunity that embodies and enforces the abstraction of the penis into the phallus as an inscrutable instrument of medical law and social power. Moss concludes her poem on this power differential brought on by Sims' unmittigated looking, "It should be noted / that Anarcha's fistula closed well, / sealed in infection, scarred / thickly / as if his hand remained" (47-51). Consummating his hunger for looking has granted Sims a kind of possession over Anarcha, forever grasping her in her most vulnerable and taboo places.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.

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