Open the pages of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom and enter another world. Only it's the world we live in. Your guide is Camille-Yvette Welsch, author of the chapbook, FULL and teaching professor of English and director of the High School Writing Day at Penn State University. In this intriguing, provocative poetry collection, Welsch confronts societal expectations, the ethics of research, the pressures and complications of parenting and adoption, and shifting definitions of truth and beauty.
From the first poem to the last, we witness a heart-wrenching, fictional "experiment": anthropologists adopting and bringing to their colonial home four children, not to love and nurture, but to examine, analyze, and study with a researcher's eye. First, the social scientists rescue "the lumpen fleshbag" of a baby boy "from a basket / on a hill in the Hebrides." A year later, there's the albino baby girl, a decade later, the misshapen twins. Although the adoptions "began in pity," it is not long before we recognize The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom as part twisted case study, part social commentary:
No babies' blankets;
No brightly colored rooms;
Subject A—at three years old, 75 pounds.
Subject B—at three years old, 22 pounds, albino.
Subjects C and D—at three, both children
35 pounds. Arms broken during separation.
"[T]wice cursed—smart and ugly"— the children, when they are older, struggle to understand themselves by conducting their own research at the local library, looking up "deformity, circus, freak show" in the card catalog, reading that although "beauty is truth," they themselves are "a lie." Try as they might, they are unable to comprehend Narcissus' self-love and recoil even from themselves.
As the anthropologist-parents continue their Subject Reports (interspersed throughout the collection), Welsch presents the children through detailed, poetic accounts of their comings and goings. Here, too, we learn about the "test-subjects" and society's response as the children trek to the mall's makeup counter, toy store, and bookshop. Reading about religion, the oldest boy asks, "[I]f we are made in God’s image, what part can we possibly be?"
They travel to Cirque du Soleil, a Star Wars convention, a literary tea hosted by an AP English class, Tibet, and confession at a Catholic church. At each location, we peer into the inner landscape of the individual and, as readers, the sometimes foreign settings of our own minds. At Cirque du Soleil, for example, "[h]ow clowns love them!...Ugly little miracles." The eldest girl becomes a trapeze artist "without the safety lines, / no fear of falling, the floor suddenly / beneath her, breaking her down." We long for real safety nets for such children who are becoming teens, who forge ahead into the rough terrain of self-examination, desire, regret, despair, and, less frequently, hope.
Welsch depicts the pain within, what to others might be everyday experiences, such as posing for senior portraits and attending the movies. At the gynecologist's office, the ugliest girl in Christendom "pulls her bikinis up slowly, fuming. / What good is a secret that can't be told?" As a sheep and a donkey in a Nativity play, "the ugliest twins" look away from God's face, which reflects only "contortion and pain." Finding no solace in God, the twins peer instead toward their sister, who is "shivering / and silent." In her, they eventually find something of the maternal. Thus, Welsch captures what we perhaps most fear—loneliness, rejection, the ridicule of others—as well as what we perhaps most desire—identification with and a connection to others.
The relationship between the elder sister and brother, however, is more strained and more complicated. Often, she is cruel toward him. Despite this—or perhaps even because of it—the brother longs even more for emotional and physical connection, verging on the incestuous.
While attending the Star Wars convention, he fantasizes about Carrie Fisher and his sister, "a woman chained to him, / writhing in a metallic bikini." When, later in the book, he helps his albino sister create a demo tape, Welsch writes, "[h]e loves to count her, / an abacus of sliding bones….he wants to run toward the black / pupil, the only hint of shade." At one point, she discovers his copy of Flowers in the Attic, where fictional brother and sister make love. When she recognizes his attraction to her, she recoils, then later, fantasizing, "demurs. She has, she thinks, only touched herself." How much of this, the book asks, is a longing for even minimal human contact? How much is caused by the segregation of beautiful and ugly? In this unfair experiment, the author asks, how is "normal" defined?
And yet in the midst of such rejection and suffering, there are moments of kindness, bonding, transcendence, and joy. After running in Race for a Cure, the boy "wonders if ugliness is a disease, / a syndrome, a simple error." In the midst of such despair, he is met by his sister and the twins: "She hands him a towel to wipe his face; he puts it / over his face, and so blinded, allows her to walk him home." Is this one emotionally wounded individual leading another? Or a moment of vulnerability, beauty, acceptance? Welsch lets the reader decide.
As the tale progresses, the book becomes a type of novella-in-verse. The ugliest boy in Christendom "considers bliss," meditates, follows Buddha’s teaching— "What we think we become"—and re-visions himself as:
the sum of beauty
and ugly, bone
and long muscles,
action and thought.
is better than something—
no exclusions, only
everything in the river
running by, pulsing
in the same direction.
Eventually, he flies to Tibet and enters the Tibetan Language Program, where he becomes "the window for the words, / they see through me. At last."
Likewise, the albino sister develops and grows. She offers songs to the twins, "rests long fingers, joint by joint, / on their heads, kisses their cheeks and whispers, 'Beauties'." She divulges her pain in the confession booth and considers calling Children and Youth Services to report her "parents." She both longs for and fears separation. Eventually, she sends an audition tape to America's Top Model, and—indeed—becomes one, finding only a partial means of escape. Welsch writes, "She is striking they say. Striking / like an actual punch, the hammer of God, the sudden / pain of a broken nose….Ugly is the new beautiful, except, / of course, that it's not."
Meanwhile, the ugliest twins take what they learn from their sister and make beautiful music:
Celestial choir of two, voices
rising about the pitch into pure sounds as if,
at last, the heart found expression as fluid
and ineffable as feeling….
cannot make sense of God's voice
in these mangled skulls [and yet]…
[a]round them, neighbors close their eyes and dream.
This, the big sister has given them—along with a desire for independence. One twin writes, "Sometimes I wish / I could be the caboose and come loose and run / over the grass and land in the woods and no one / would know I was there." The other writes: "The third eye sees dancers when we sing….The third eye sees the stomach between me and my brother. The third eye sees it churn with stones."
With their protector-sister gone and "the anthropologists…contained in their offices," the twins run away. A subsequent poem gives us society's perspective, written as if an article in the tabloid Weekly World News: "Arctic Alien Releases Minions from Train Car, Now Bent on Destruction!" Thus the sibling bond—forged through trauma—continues. Though, still seen as a horrific alien by society, the older sister remains their protector.
And where are the anthropologist-parents? Although reprimanded by academic peers and admonished with "the guidelines for the ethical use of minors in research," the obtuse guardians are still cloistered in their offices. Thus, these poems raise serious issues: How are we to confront moments of neglect and abuse—both in society and in our own families? How are we to nurture our children's self-worth? How are we most effectively to protect and care for those we love the most? What are we to make of past and current theories of parenting?
In The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom, Camille-Yvette Welsch keeps asking the hard questions. What—as readers, writers, parents, members of society—will we answer? To continue such necessary discussions, read this important book.
For more about Camille-Yvette Welsch, click here.