Near and Far: The Teratogen Sonnet Series

“The death camps were not built in the Gobi Desert. And when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, philosophic thought proved not only largely impotent but often collaborative with despotism and massacre,”

–George Steiner, from ‘A New Literacy’, The Kenyon Review, 24:1, Winter 2007, 10-24

To date culture has been a broad disappointment. However our new up-close planet beckons with both peril and promise brought about by advances in human proximity. Evil works best in the shadows. Should a mass awakening break out, culture and its potential for edification may yet serve as a prototype for meaningful civilization. Such an awakening would belie centuries of stony sleep. But it could happen.

The oldest cave art dates back over 30,000 years. So the arc of human culture easily eclipses the totality of human civilization. Practically all things human happened on culture’s watch. Culture has been impotent against the inhuman aspects of human community, maybe even as Steiner suggests actively collaborative. But grassroots proximity is relatively new. Plane travel and commerce have nibbled at the edges of collapsing distance. But the Internet could be a cultural epoch-maker in the sense of advancing the former’s long-sought promise by out-dazzling —with light, speed and ubiquity— the many tedious and banal campaigns that have traditionally typified evildoing.

This then is the progressive manifesto, with a technologist’s bent, put forward by an admittedly darkened heart. In truth I am, like Steiner, rather sanguine on our prospects altogether. The race to annihilate one another, at ever more vast distances, is still in full-swing aided, much like the nearness movement, by some deadly new toys. Evil is a coward. Intimacy requires courage. We are in a pitched battle between the drone and the webcam. Which will win?

One particularly lurid setback came recently for me from a group of photos that I have frankly been unable to erase from my memory banks ever since, those of Afghan and Iraqi babies who, it is alleged, suffered horrendous birth defects as a result of weaponized depleted uranium. I call the sonnets (mini-exorcisms?) that resulted, The Teratogen Series.

According to a teratogen is “a drug or other substance capable of interfering with the development of a fetus, causing birth defects.” Some of the babies I review here may have been dead on arrival. I cannot say. There are also intimations on the Internet that some of these gruesome deformities are not the result of uranium at all, but perhaps abortions and other unrelated defects. Frankly this sort of rearguard polemic affords me small comfort. The fact that these deformities are, in all likelihood, the result of some human-induced predations, either on the environment or on ourselves, is cause enough to shrink back in reflexive shame, before an us-versus-them mentality is allowed to poison the well yet again.

I confess also to being sickened by my complicity, my ‘tax dollars at work’, etc. on what amounts to a well-funded island for Dr. Moreau. Why haven’t I put down the pen and taken up a sword against the Black Iron Prison? I question as well my inclination to drum these tiny monstrosities through yet further exploitations. Come admire my gratuitous trespasses, all neatly metered and rhymed!

I can only address the process as it came over me. In the manner of slowing down to observe a gruesome freeway accident, I found each sonnet gradually falling under the discrete orbit of one picture and one baby. (Note: Due to the graphic nature of the pictures, The New Formalist provides a separate link where they can be viewed.) The overtly ekphrastic nature of this sequence was thus evolutionary and not conscious. 

These sonnets deliver me beyond the extremities of my own comprehension. I can’t help feeling we have finally drilled beneath some tabooed substrate. The pictures repel me. I resort at times to black humor in an effort to disarm the already-disarmed. Humor blunts despair. You have to chuckle a bit at these un-embraceable little ewes or go crazy considering the sheer improbability of their existence. My sense of disgust, I am sorry to report, at times exceeds my sense of compassion. I suggest my inhuman reaction may be a human response that seeks to acknowledge our post-human nexus—or is that too many humans in one independent clause?

There is an implicit Rubicon here. I am aware of viewing these pictures and reacting to them from the crossed side. Am I too retreating into the distance? No longer content to do endless doughnuts in the parking lot, the World Uroborus is making a last supper of its tail. The circle has been broken, by and by, Lord. We await now the moon falling out of the sky and the tides’ apocalyptic cessation. One wonders, how much more end we will be asked to endure? There is no getting back behind the horror of these malformed conceptions. We inhabit a brave new world. Why? I believe because we were not brave enough to avert it.


Teratogen 1: Sex on the Brain

“Thy nakedness shall be uncovered,
yea, thy shame shall be seen…”—Isaiah 47:3 
This mission is a sin. What kind of spaz-
tic draws vigor from pornographic veins
or penis-headed parodies of ass?
But you're no baby, Baby. Holy weans
alive, I could not diaper your fine mess.
You soil all metaphor. I'll author blame:
My labs, my country tis of thee. My shame
is writ uncovered on your face. No less
you'd scare Sears' portrait guy. 
And yet I'm drawn
to parse the prick that promenades your head.
They warned us, Horus, Set, the Golden Dawn: 
a Third Eye—neither naked, neither dead               
of shameless form would, near the end, arrive
cursing those whose fear brought it alive.

Teratogen 2: Cabbage Patch Moll

"Hence world picture, when understood
essentially, does not mean a picture of the
world but the world conceived and grasped
as picture." –Martin Heidegger
You vandalize distress at no small cost
through nylon skein and cabbage patch
disguise. This manhunt though is long since lost.
All have been found. First paparazzi snatched
unguarded moments. Then we watched gray puffs
televise precision. Your face
is pixelated aftermath that stuffs
everything in the close-up. Common place
covers all bases. Where’s the intimate
to hide? The convict is a partial judge
on all subjects of visual merit. Split
my screen and your forehead suggests a smudge-
print. We share the mounting headcount’s ripe bruise.
For I no longer feel eyewitness news. 

Teratogen 3: Thumbelina, Dance

We vet foot bills. Are pissed-on borders worth
a mongrel birth? doG gone us Pentagon.
Hotdog Girl rolls so we might rule the earth?
Our barking men of outrage are all gone.
Lassie’s come home to her unleashing hour.
Stream? I cannot stream out into the streets.
Fluoride neutered all my upright power.
I’ll litter no more dog-days in these sheets.
Poor pup, you play dead well. No, we’ll not lift
you up. One burp and you could well explode
across complicit shoulders. To the swift
life opens up. As for an honest road
with cars to chase, let’s first define your legs.
Right now you are a thumb. How motion begs.

Teratogen 4: Waterboy 

Suffer this baby floating on the earth
amphibious. Grace alone can mend
fluidic pustules. Please make haste. No berth
so wide of God, nor time-belabored End-
time should deflate ascent. Prospects look grim
for due speed. He must tire of boils and sore  
Procrastinating seraphim,
whitewash no more. There's too much to restore.
All dirigibles must rise. Christ draws nigh.
Please hear, oh Lord, the water-boy’s bleak cry
whose isotopic lungs cannot advance
beyond collapse. How does he stand a chance
of reaching Heaven waterlogged on Earth?
Our New Disorder liquefied his birth. 

Teratogen 5: Burpee Girl

Christian soldier, you battle your mortgage
with Abd al-Chuckee puppet-strings away,
sculpted like a Mujaheedin porridge
from amber waves of O, so gamma ray.
Our acronym-cadavers cyphered this.
The Pentagon got wind of ill-wind skies.
Re-baseline victory. All vectors miss
these eyesores too contained to leak out cries.
Children! Don’t play! The cradle robs the grave
before the grave has time to rob your wild
unripened stare. Uranium defiled
His altered mud. God’s breath, we henceforth waive.
Dead verse tomatoes horror. Who’ll baptize
the Burpee Girl with ovulating eyes?

Teratogen 6: Improvised Existential Denouement (IED)

Up close you could be anybody's child-
care scandal. Hamburger Hill limps beside
your fresh pink meat. While no one looked, life 
your backstroke down to blisters. They will hide
your books in study hall. Who will arrest
this mutant form now terrorizing cells?
Without a clear and sewn-up threat the West
cannot hold the line. Deformity spells
doom. No tight-knit group of key advisors
props up your bloated puppet-string regime.
Sit up. Exude malevolence. Your sores
must find themselves else war will lose its steam
pressed irony. Don't make us make Big Macs.
Cater our events. Weather our attacks. 

Teratogen 7: Baby Skeletor (Brought to You by Masters of the Universe )

Before ill-winds impinged on faultless weather,
I had a barrow glazed with rain for you.
I'd wheel you to the bus-stop, but why lever
a father's guilt atop your unhinged glue?
I’m loath to hold you up for God to see,
nor shower you with blue comforts. Why not flee
my too-short arms, your wails so out of key?
You scream small monster none the least at me.
I'll prop you up at school if you insist.
But upright kids are cruel. They will resist
the womb's last weapon, shrunken in their midst.
The universe is cruel. You are the grist
for chemistry swept under Mattel ® rug,
a Hazmat spill, the morning-after drug.
(Note: Due to the graphic nature of the pictures, The New Formalist provides a separate [YouTube link below] where they can be viewed.)


About Norman Ball

NORMAN BALL is a poet, playwright, essayist and musician residing in Virginia. A featured poet on Prairie Home Companion, his poems and essays have appeared in Light Quarterly, The Raintown Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Epicenter, Oxford Magazine, The Cumberland Poetry Review, 14 by 14, Rattle, Liberty, The Hypertexts, Main Street Rag, The New Renaissance, The Scotsman, The London Times among dozens of others. His essay collections, How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (2010) and The Frantic Force (2011), both widely available on the web, are published by Del Sol Press and Petroglyph Books, respectively. His recent play SIDES: A Civil War Musical (Inspired by The Red Badge of Courage) is currently being produced for TV by Last Tango Productions, LLC.