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Poetry Moment: Deidre O'Connor and 'At the Site of the Laurelton Village for Feeble-minded Girls of Childbearing Age'

WPSU Poetry Moment Deirdre O'Connor

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “At the Site of the Laurelton Village for Feeble-Minded Girls of Childbearing Age” by Deirdre O’Connor.

Deirdre O’Connor is the author of two books of poems, most recently The Cupped Field. She directs the Writing Center at Bucknell University and is the Associate Director of the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets. A native of Pittsburgh, O’Connor has lived in Central Pennsylvania for most of her life.

Central Pennsylvania is the setting of today’s poem. Specifically, Laurelton Village, an institution in western Union County that opened in 1917 and closed at the end of the last century, for decades segregating from society the women housed there. The building and its grounds now sit unoccupied. O’Connor’s poem resurrects the place in its operation and the ghosts of history’s inequities. With probing questions, she calls us to witness how we’ve treated those we deem indigent, or less than, or threatening to societal norms. With piercing imagery, she asks us to see the past through the eyes of these women and, belatedly, affords them dignity.

Here's—

At the Site of the Laurelton Village 
for Feeble-minded Girls of Childbearing Age

No ghosts. Only witness
             casting dark on lawns. Cool nets.

                           Rustles above, alongside.
             Where the fields were, maybe,

green beans, cukes,
            Where the grass now sways hip-high,

                         hips in cotton dresses swayed.
           Where the orchards: pear, plum, apple.

Baskets of them in arms.
          Where stone was lifted and made

                      an institution.
          Porches painted white.

Can’t you see the ones called morons
         mending dresses,

                         idiots shelling peas,
        the deviant

berry-pickers, water-fetchers,
       milkers of cows,

                         and those incorrigibles
       who couldn’t be trusted

with a shovel,
       weeding the long rain-loosened rows

                     on hands and knees? Scrubbing floors,
       hanging sheets to flap

and then by supper
       spread again on beds.

                    Can’t you see yourself
       standing inside the corn

grown higher than faces?
            How you might watch the whores

                     and nulliparae dance
            like boys and girls,

music drifting
            from open windows, curtains wafting

                      as if in a film and you alone
             in knowing what you were

missing? No one seeming to notice,
            no one bashing through stalks to lead you

                          back by the ordinary arm.

That was “At the Site of the Laurelton Village for Feeble-Minded Girls of Childbearing Age” by Deirdre O’Connor.

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