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.
‘Man is a / fascinating animal’, Kenneth Sherman writes, and it is this fascination that drives the narrative in Words for Elephant Man. Written in the voice of Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’ plagued with a disfiguring condition that ravaged much of his body, Sherman reveals his subject to be more than just a living fascination. Sherman’s Merrick, acutely observant, is equally fascinated by those around him as well.
Using found lines from historical record interwoven with his own beautifully-rendered verse, Sherman’s collection triumphs as a haunting, eloquent portrait of a man whose body was both disabler and enabler, a man who was both a commodity and a salesman, mechanical and organic, and whose extraordinary circumstances overshadowed the remarkably ordinary desires he shared with humanity. Sherman’s Merrick is observant, clever and authentic, and possessed of a voice that resonates through the years and into the hearts and minds of readers.
‘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.’
‘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.’
—Poetry Canada Review
‘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.’
—Contemporary Verse II
‘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.’
Previous review quote
‘Sherman always seems to be listening to the voice of Canadian soil and landscape at the same time as he is attentive to the great European metaphysical theme of the soul in conflict with the world and time.’
—Fraser Sutherland, The Globe and Mail
Words for Elephant Man came to me in a rush. The first draft was written in three weeks. I spent another month polishing the poems and fretting over structure, and the book was largely done. The story of John Merrick, a man born into poverty and afflicted with a dreadful disease, afforded my poetic imagination a considerable range. Victorian England served as mirror for our own times. The historical subject matter allowed the interspersion of lyrical poetry and nineteenth-century medical reports, legal documents and testimonies -- a weave that gives the work a documentary sensibility.
Yet at its heart Words for Elephant Man is not social commentary but spiritual testimony. I was going through a personal crisis and the figure of John Merrick served as a mask for my own experience. Writing the book was a release.
How should the story be told? The first version employed a chronological approach. When I showed the book to Dennis Lee he made the intelligent suggestion that I begin the book in medias res, and then use flashback to present Merrick’s early years. Eli Mandel helped shape the ending of the book and suggested concluding with the pathology report on Merrick’s skeleton. My friend, the versatile printmaker George Raab, created prints reminiscent of the nineteenth century, lending the book a haunting authenticity.
Excerpt from book
‘In the Year of Our Lord, 1875’
Father got me a license to hawk:
gloves, stockings, general haber-
dashery. Mother worked hours
sewing clothes to fit
I was a sight.
A small crowd
always followed me
some for the novelty
while some went on
at my expense.
Man is a
I have had
the opportunity to study him
from many different angles,
I passed a mirror in a hat shop
window and stared at myself
and the people jeering about me.
I stared and stared and then I
not just for me,
Kenneth Sherman was born in Toronto in 1950. He has a BA from York University, where he studied with Eli Mandel and Irving Layton, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. While a student at York, Sherman co-founded and edited the literary journal Waves. From 1974--1975 he travelled extensively through Asia. He is a full-time faculty member at Sheridan College where he teaches Communications; he also teaches a course in creative writing at the University of Toronto.
In 1982, Sherman was writer-in-residence at Trent University. In 1986 he was invited by the Chinese government to lecture on contemporary Canadian literature at universities and government institutions in Beijing. In 1988, he received a Canada Council grant to travel through Poland and Russia. This experience inspired several of the essays in his book Void and Voice (1998). Sherman, author of the acclaimed Words for Elephant Man, and The Well: New and Selected Poems, lives in Toronto with his wife, Marie, an artist.