The Museum of Unnatural History—a drama in verse
by Carol Dorf and Autumn Stephens
The nature of this unnatural museum:
to curate, as in a religious manner,
a collection into comprehensible narrative.
Act 1: Tuesday’s Lecture Series
Tuesday’s lecture series features sightless
painters, tiny giants, a 19th century
piano prodigy who had no hands or ears.
In the hall of near extinction photos of Rothchild’s
Giraffe, Nelson’s Small-Eared Shrew, the Otago Skink
and too many others stare back at the viewer.
Who’s culpable? Birthers point narrow
fingers at the disappeared. The Androgynous
Skink of New Zealand got what it deserved.
That attitude makes sense when we talk about
Bonobos what with their promiscuity,
so much like our unconstrained desires--
Without the boundary lines of church or
state, but what of the Howler Monkey,
which aside from being loud, models probity?
Like its companion volume, The Book of Nature
contains multitudes. Seek, and ye shall find
proof that the earth is flat as Creationist science.
Act 2: Declarations
When authority monitors the call
we speak in unnatural tones, stumbling
over our innocent tongues, stifling sweat.
Have you anything to declare? Don’t we all—
the pets we left behind, unfortunate affairs,
and unconsummated dreams, declarative outbursts.
A fortunate affair, the way we contract joy
from others, discrete bouts of happiness
or, between lovers, Venereal disease.
Don’t get started on the diseases
or we’ll be like the prematurely
aged AIDS generation when we expected
every gay friend to drop before
we could read the future
in his tea leaves.
“Life isn’t fair,”
but we’re not resigned to fate,
keep searching for loopholes, chapter
two, happily ever after on Easter Island.
The children ignore our bad acting, run ahead
to pursue the secret of the Bermuda Triangle
and what really happened to Virginia Dare.
Act 3: Provisional
The Hall of Extinct Bacteria’s provisional
quality has been described in many guidebooks,
as the family’s members reappear unexpectedly.
Polarizing, our nature.
The naked girl at the stag party: a virgin
then. What do we mean by “sacrifice?”
In the privacy of home view the downloaded
videos; Where does the law hideout? We’d wrap
our daughters in tinfoil if it would do any good.
Or rocket them to Pluto, where they’d highlight
their hair by the glow of unnamed stars, caress
moonscreen into the valleys between careless limbs.
They’ll develop scopes precise enough
to measure the vicissitudes of gravity, emotion,
the presence of a planet by its effects on a star.
An exotic extended latency, each limb
and synapse bathed in light; comfort so perfect
the body doesn’t even cross the mind.
Everything explodes; Tesla’s machine
partially harvests lightning; pre-teens
open chemistry sets without adult supervision.
Alone among mammals, we adore
what we deplore, disasters done with such
a deft hand it almost makes us believe in God.
Then like children coloring a landscape,
we demand nouns: idea of tree—falling
cypress; or a pet—the bunny’s absurd ears.
Synecdoche: figure of speech for a shrunken
world, the small part—skin, skirt, hand—that stands
for something realized, life sized, whole.
Act 4: Curate the Drama
Optimist or Pessimist—send out the children
to argue with the wrens, or better yet on a hike
uphill; there has to be a waterfall someplace.
Fog is water too, though no one seeks
it out, the way we falter toward sun
or sex or what we think of as nature.
Chamber music in the hen house
and a mockingbird chides the fiddle
but the crowd checked irony at the gate.
The cloakroom grows full of discarded
umbrellas and dismay. What the hat check
boy would do for something bright and floral—
The junior docent would prefer the patrons
at least notice her jokes, rather than focusing
on her tattoos, and nose-ring. Whose museum is it?
The very act of preservation renatures
the excluded imagination, though
we’ve yet to enter the Monte Hall:
This problem concerns the cash nexus,
and whether it increases your chances
of winning to choose another door (it does.)
And isn’t free admission a lie; the small print
notes that to witness is to confess
your interest, your participation
in the human drama. Plus, a surcharge
if you want the curated to witness your distress
with invisible ink,
exquisite old-world hands.
Act 5: Refining Normal
Light frightens them all. They spend
the brilliant morning in half-lit corridors
and before dimmed dioramas: light bleaches time.
At 16 everyone wants to be “normal”
however that is defined; but approach/
avoidance of exposure continues—
Confessions in the free box, violation
on chenille; we give away everything
but the story inside our skins
Why anonymous when confession
only a blog away in the media room?
Text or audio speakers, you choose.
Confession, the modern uniform—
no one wants to show up naked
or wearing the wrong designer.
Brown man, red robes: who’s curating
this thing—mimes, sickos, performance artists?
Cut off the hands that offend you.
The handoff is the most complex phase—
who can catch the tumbling figures securely,
while preparing to pass them on to the next act.
For the Om generation, down dog is an act
of utter absorption. The dogma of
simplicity means flexible spines, lazy eyes.
Do they hold fast to dogma, or does Dogma
clutch them, ready prey for a nest of mewling
furies, their maws always open for more.
For the skeptic, the position
is never comfortable; prayer
seems tempting on a rainy day.
To pray implies belief—though what to make
of the ritual of prayer before the exam—imagine
hope; don’t expect god to bubble the scantron.
That bubble troubling the placid face
of your drink, the flay marks on your toast—
are you still collecting impossible portents?
And troubled days can be concealed by Venetian
glasses. Once you loved that hand-blown rippled effect,
now you can’t stop thinking “fragile expense.”
No need to gawk; you’ll be back.
For every Coliseum, a catacomb;
for every grand cathedral, a graveyard.
For every grave ill, an antidote.
For every grave ill, an anecdote.