Poetry / Poets / Prose / Prose Poetry

On Trying to Teach The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by John Bradley

You don’t believe in spirits, do you? Shandrika begins, as corporeal bodies float past us in the hallway.  I’ve never seen a spirit, I confess, not sure what, or how to say.  I think of Hector “Cootie” Henry, who saw a several-ton headless hog, links of broken chain dangling from its bloodstained neck, roaming the dirt roads of Lacks Town.  Well, she says, my grandmother’s ninety-two, and she sees them.  She told me this woman, Henrietta, her spirit’s angry with all them white doctors who stole her cells.  Henrietta Lacks: the woman in stirrups, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Negro ward, Baltimore, 1951.  Henrietta Lacks: her cervical cancer cells harvested by a white doctor who never asked.  Not Henrietta, her family, her cells.  Which gave us: chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization.  My grandmother said I shouldn’t be reading this book.  The book written by a white woman.  Taught by a white man.  Who once received a polio vaccine, thanks to Henrietta Lacks.  HeLa, her cells were called.  To make them nameless, faceless, the property of medical science.  HeLa, given away free and then later sold, grew and grew.  Grows and grows: the profit of pharmaceutical companies.  This woman whose body died at thirty-one, but not her cells.  Her spirit’s finally at peace, I tell Shandrika.  Henrietta’s finally getting credit for all her cells have done.  I can hear Shandrika’s grandmother telling her: Whatcha expect?  He’s just covering for the crimes of all them whites.  What would I see, what would I say if I lived in Lacks Town?  Money from this book goes to the Lacks family for medical care, I explain.  But I don’t say: the pharmaceutical companies, they donated not one penny.  I don’t say: the chain sways, link clanking against link. I don’t say: the bloodstained hog rubs its headless head against a shaggy-barked tree.  I press my thumb on the cover photo, shielding Henrietta’s eyes.

John Bradley’s work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Caliban, The Diagram, Hotel Amerika, Josephine Quarterly, and other journals. His most recent book is Trancelumination (Lowbrow Press). He teaches at Northern Illinois University.

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2 thoughts on “On Trying to Teach The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by John Bradley

  1. Hi, I showed this poem to my literature class. The prose poem, its style, and subject matter intrigued them, and I hope that some will write about it in their journals and even papers. By the way, the student who read this poem for the class was African-American, which added some twists and turns to our understanding of the poem.

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