Brotherhood and the Strait Jacket

Leslie McGrath
| poetry


In Mr. Rodriguez’ high school World History class, a lecture about the crushing stress on ordinary citizens—through poor harvests, through taxes on the very salt and wheat needed for bread, through limiting their right to work a trade—takes his students to the hungry city of Paris and its muddy neighboring villages, where the middle class rises up, crying Liberté, égalité, fraternité! Mid-morning, Rodriguez splits his class into two groups: serfs and nobility. A single saltless lunch after serving the nobles their burgers and cupcakes was all the serfs needed to get behind a concept like brotherhood. That idea came late to the French Revolution. Maybe it came in 1790 from an upholsterer named Guilleret after visiting Bicêtre Hospital, where the elderly and insane, the sick and the outlaw were housed together outside Paris. A shrieking heap of human refuse which attendants did their best to feed and clean, to protect from the predators among them. This was done, yes, with chains. Irons and chains. Who was Guilleret visiting? Was it the clang of chains throughout the ward that sparked his idea? Their constricting length? The putrid sores on wrists and ankles? Brotherhood. These were not animals. Swaddling calms a squalling infant, why not a shrieking adult? Rodriguez learned in his first year how soothing was the balm of his hand on a student’s shoulder. Guilleret sewed from canvas a shirt, a camisole de force, whose sleeves wrapped round the waist and were tied behind the back in a dignified self embrace, as if to say I am here. See me: your brother.

Leslie McGrath’s interviews with poets appear regularly in The Writer’s Chronicle. Winner of the 2004 Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry, she is the author of Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage (2009), a poetry collection, and Out From the Pleiadesa novella in verse (Jaded Ibis Press, forthcoming). Her poems have appeared in The Awl, Agni, The CommonSlate, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and literature at Central Connecticut State University, and is editor of The Tenth Gate, a new poetry imprint of The Word Works press.

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