Kenneth Sherman's collection Words for Elephant Man delves into the fascinating life of Joseph Merrick, the titular 'Elephant Man' who came to prominence as a sideshow curiosity in England in the late nineteenth century. Sherman's spare, captivating verse gives a voice to Merrick's fraught and complex existence, and couples it with a genuine compassion quite distant from the chill of a gawking public.
?While the story of the Elephant Man may be familiar to many, Sherman's poems take readers to the heart of understanding the intelligent, tender-hearted man who lived within his “bales of skin.” Containing etchings by George Raab, Words for Elephant Man moves beyond the reach of poetry readers, making it an essential book for anyone interested in Merrick's life and times.?
'In Sherman's book we see the potential for the poetic line to formally mimic the uncontrollable growth of Merrick's tissue, while still -- in terms of both scansion and cumulative effect -- embodying the human being inside a seemingly alien form.'
'After nearly thirty years, Sherman's work stands up well. Merrick's goulish condition is treated with deadpan understatement; the poet takes us into the cruel world of Victorian freak shows, while conveying the dignified intelligence of the Elephant man with sensitivity and restraint. Sherman's free verse is spare, conversational, expresses Merrick's passion and despair with bluntness and poignancy. Along the way, he does the poet's work by linking up the Elephant Man’s story with larger themes.'
'Better than either the movie or the play, Words for Elephant Man delves under the pitted skin of John Merrick before emerging with a masterfully articulate portrait.'
'It is the weaving of anecdotal fragments and epiphanies that gives the voice authority here. We can believe the poet behind the mask ... Merrick's intelligence, humour, and grace come through in moments of astute analysis and celebratory faith.'
'Grammar, language, articulation and reference to machines and engines combine with the language of freaks, misfits and outcasts ... Words for Elephant Man is both graceful and a gift ... a stunning synthesis of art and craft.'
?Kenneth Sherman's collection of poems Words For Elephant Man was first published in 1983 and has just been rereleased by Porcupine's Quill. It reads with the richness typical of a painting or a novel — so moving at times that I found myself weeping. It is hard to keep in mind that one is not hearing the actual voice of the so-called “?Elephant Man?” Joseph Merrick, so strongly felt is the authenticity of the outsider who longs to be welcomed in, which Sherman renders with restrained, elegant strokes. I felt I had taken an emotional and visual journey — something I’ve come to expect from reading a novel, but not always from a collection of poems.?
'Sherman's subject has produced from him poetry as bare and original as Beckett's best. Merrick is, by deft and and incisive association, a crucified Christ, a creator full of irony and power, victim and victimizer, 'the age's Doppelganger/its underside/its Hyde.'