A Concept of Service

Mr. B[alanchine]. There are a lot of horses in the U.S.
and when you choose them to run, some are faster and better.
Dancer. He gave us red horse blankets, each embroidered
with a sobriquet. I didn’t lose my job, but I did lose my name.
Mr. B. The bodies are ready for anything, we use them
Dancer. Speedy-foot Gelso. Kentucky Cookie. Mandago Pie.
All the good solid things he used as comparisons.
Mr. B. Exceptional bodies. Legs and hands that are ready
to move in any direction at any speed at any time. When they
come to me they don't know anything and I teach them.
Dancer. Your legs change, your body changes, you become
a filly. I wasn’t used to working like that, and my feet would
Mr. B. They develop speed and grace. They are obedient.
You say count to 175 and they will count to 175. Then you
can say thank you, now go home.
Dancer. Some people are good with untamed animals.
They don’t startle the creatures.
Mr. B. I don't think lots, I just manipulate. I am the audience,
the judge.
Dancer. He would be the only judge, relieving me of having
to criticize myself.
Mr. B. I like to look at them and show how they look and
Dancer. Nobody ever really answered my questions.
Mr. B.
Dancer. You have to give up some fantasies about yourself.
Mr. B.
Dancer. This is a sophisticated concept of service.
Mr. B. I like to live now, today. What will be 10 years from
now, 100 years, who cares?
Dancer. It’s inevitable that someone will replace you.
Mr. B. My days are the same routine. Pouring water into
the sieve.

The Obstetrician’s Lesson

          Woman; Her Diseases and Remedies, 1851

Study the nature of woman, young gentlemen.

A woman is a needling and thimbling machine.
She is a menstruous creature. What does she want
with algebra? Walter Scott will never do her any
harm. The female is naturally prone to be
religious. Her pelvis is broad and shallow.
The exterior surface of the labia is skin covered
with hair. The clitoris is an organ that juts its point
forth. Who wants to know, or ought to know
that the ladies have abdomens and wombs but us
doctors? I beg you to be aware that the womb
was never designed to be skewered. Fear is.
The lancet is. Puerperal fever is. (You might be
disposed to ask why it is.) Barrenness is. To suffer
an abortion is. The right breast is. The left one.
The whole mass of the nipple itself. You will find
a fruitful source of trouble to the female. She has
a head almost too small for intellect, but just big
enough for love. Her voice. Her susceptible soul.
Her inability. As for her beauty. And the sweet
sounds of her singing! What do we owe her?
What could you do to give the uterus a kindlier
disposition? A woman’s womb aches. I do not
like to see a woman delivered of her child too
easily. Inducement is. The hot iron is. Blood-
letting is. My hand. The speculum. Perversion
is. I assure you that it is.

Gentlemen, do you ask me what is the use of all
these remarks? A man’s perceptions are his
perceptions, and they are what he is.

The womb is

a cul-de-sac.

Warp and Weft

Augusta Ann Phillips stitched a two story-brick house with two chimneys and five windows.

According to the Division of Home and Community Life, nothing is known about the life of
Augusta Ann Phillips.

It is not clear why, in the space after her block upper-case alphabet, Nancy Batchelder
stitched NSABCDMHW.

Nothing is known about the life of Nancy Batchelder.

Though nothing is known about the life of Maria Minton, we know she knew at least four
kinds of stitches: cross, long-armed cross, herringbone, and queen.

Nancy Mary Lindley, about whose life nothing is known, was just eight years old when she
Let virtue be my greatest care
And study my delight
So shall my day be always fair
And peaceable my night.

Nancy Mary Lindley, we know, learned her alphabet and learned to sit still.

Nothing is known about the life of Lydia Marden, who stitched the gravestone of Sarah
Pervier, who died at eight months.

One of Lydia Marden’s stitches was detached chain.

From the inscriptions on Mary Shields’ sampler, we know she was taught the virtues of piety,
prudence, and gratitude. From the source of the inscription on Mary Bishops’ sampler—The
Romance of the Forest
—we may surmise she had a taste for the gothic.

Nothing is known about the lives of Mary Shields and Mary Bishop.

Much is known about the life of Tennyson, who wrote
Oh! teach the orphan-boy to read,
Or teach the orphan-girl to sew

It is likely that M. A. Hofman stitched her sampler under the tutelage of Miss Fanny Webber
at School No. 7 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

M. A. Hofman has not yet been identified.

The Brontë sisters stitched samplers under the tutelage of their Aunt Branwell. (Emily’s
were neatest.)

Aunt Branwell kept the girls sewing “with purpose or without,” believing the activity to be
both salutary and proper.

Sewing provides cover, the Brontës knew, for a sewing girl to think. “The most downcast
glance,” wrote Charlotte, “has its loophole.”

Although nothing certain is known about the life of Elizabeth Mason, we know that while
sewing deer on green hillocks she was not always thinking of scene or stitch.

Of what did Hannah Hall think while she stitched the two small dogs that might stand for
fidelity and watchfulness?

Perhaps her life, about which nothing is known.


© 2020 Jennifer Habel. Used with permission of the University of Iowa Press. These poems appear in The Book of Jane, new from the University of Iowa Press in Spring 2020.

JENNIFER HABEL is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition, and In the Little House, winner of the 2008 Copperdome Chapbook Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Blackbird, Gulf Coast, LIT, The Massachusetts Review, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She is the coordinator of creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.