Poem of the Week |19| On Surviving Typhoid Fever

On Surviving Typhoid Fever

In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society awarded a gold medal to Caroline Herschel. No woman would receive one again for 168 years.

My mother can’t forgive me for being alive.
The typhoid made me stooped, legs short,
never to be wed, but my hands are quick,
my voice strong, and I look up as I walk icy streets –

I may trip over frozen excrement
or sighing heaps of rags but I remember my brother’s
hand in mine as he said, look at the planets,
that’s Jupiter, and there’s Mars, there


among those constellations. I imagine walking
with the Seven Sisters, their bright cold hands,
meeting Orion, his gruff laugh, his belt looped
around my waist. All fancy, of course –

my mother says I read too many books
but I can’t resist the articles my brother sends,
solar winds and stars, telescopes, the geography
of Mars. I dream them, though I don’t sleep much:

at five I pull myself from warmth to break flinty ice
on the water buckets, begin bread, wake my mother
with hot milk. She pinches me. I won’t squeak –
she likes it when I do. Instead I begin

my piece-work, each stitch made with raw fingers,
rubbed stiff. I’m paying her back for my illness,
the days I spent in bed, the man I cannot wed,
the woman I cannot be. My mother won’t forgive me

for being alive, but I sing to myself, my clear soprano,
I put celestial distances to familiar tunes, whisper
names of Martian canals, of Jupiter’s moons.
In my head the whole scope of the sky.