Tale From the Northwoods

Charles Van Riper (1905-1994), pioneer
in the field of speech-language pathology

by Barbara Goldberg

Once by drowning, once by hanging, once
by inhaling carbon monoxide, three
attempts before I was thirty, all

failures. All because of a tangled
tongue. And a father who beat me
for the filthy habit, calling it akin

to masturbation. The summer I pretended
to be deaf and dumb. The quack cures,
cruel experiments, needles in the mouth,

psychotropic drugs. Singing. The ordeal
of going to the corner store for Dill's
pipe cleaner. Of walking out without.

Aspirations zero, until I hitched a ride
with a farmer who said don't labor so hard,
just stutter better, let the syllables

leak out. I might have been St. Paul
on the road to Damascus. Soon a man
appeared in spotless attire making odious

sounds. Took him to a calving. Up
to his shoulder in the bloody muck.
Made him extract the afterbirth, dump it

in a bucket. The man turned sloppier,
the stutter, cleaner. Every case
a metaphor to deconstruct, unleashing

the unsayable, the choked back flood.

"Tale From The Northwoods," from Marvelous Pursuits (Snake National Press, 1995), won the 1994 Ann Stanford Poetry Prize. The poem appears in The First Yes - Poems about Communicating edited by Barbara Goldberg, a poetry anthology commemorating the 50th anniversary of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation. The anthology is available for purchase by contacting 301-897-0341.