Poem of the Week | March 15, 2011

This week we are proud to feature “At Twenty Minutes Past Twelve by a Clock in the Queen’s Apartment I Commenced to Give a Little Chloroform” by Cynthia Marie Hoffman.  Hoffman is the author of Sightseer, winner of the 2010 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize from Persea Books. She was a 2004-2005 Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Fence, Open City, Crab Orchard Review, and Best New Poets 2005.

Author’s Note:

John Snow was one of the first to use chloroform, an anesthetic, on patients during childbirth. His most famous patient was Queen Victoria. Snow’s success, with the Queen’s endorsement, helped popularize women’s search for “pain-free babies,” which evolved through the era of twilight sleep to the epidural we know today.

This poem is from a larger collection, Paper Doll Fetus, which considers the unborn baby, and the doctors and midwives who treated and mistreated the birthing mother through history.

At Twenty Minutes Past Twelve by a Clock in the Queen’s Apartment I Commenced to Give a Little Chloroform

April 1853 casebook entry, Dr. John Snow


A name like a blizzard in springtime summoned to the Palace

where the baby turns inside the Queen. A magician’s hand

come to release his apothecary jar into the darkened room

like a glass dove. Blessed handkerchief. Blessed sail laid at

your lips. Sweet drip of chloroform. What does the Queen see

in her closing eyes? Strolling the canal the length of the gardens.

Resting the fruit of the mulberry tree, heavy vaguely womb shaped,

in her hand. A name like white petals giggling in the whirl of his

swift gait, the glint of his waistcoat buttons all in a row, all things

delightful. Somewhere a curtained bed drifts downriver. Somewhere

a baby is crowning. Come back behind the closed door and lie down.

Come back already from the flank of trees. The bird has retired

to the sleeve. Someone lifts the baby His Royal Highness the Prince

like a balmy fruit plucked from the bed sheets. Has the sweet fire

thawed from your throat. Is that your baby. Did you see how he did it.