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“Ancient History in the Eye Center”, a poem by Maxine Kumin

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Ancient History in the Eye Center

Loud enough for Stentor himself, the waiting-room

video recycles hour after hour the same

weary sequence reciting the grim

signs of glaucoma, advising Restasis

to increase tear production, praising the League of the Legally Blind, which is

what I am in one eye, the bad eye, as if it had done

something wrong and needed to be punished every month.

Somewhere I read that in an ancient kingdom

victors gouged out the eyes of nine

captives in each group of ten, leaving one

sighted soldier to pick the way home,

a vision that stays with me as antibiotic drops

alternate with numbing ones. Then come swabs

of Betadine and with one stroke my chair collapses

to lay me flat, the medieval metal pry

applied to hold this bad eye

open and I begin to hy-

perventilate knowing the needle is next,

hearing the retinologist flick

the barrel of the hypodermic

to expel the fleck of air bubble

before he plunges it into my eyeball.

More Q-tip swabbings. Last of all

donning his miner’s lamp he leans over me

asking can I see a bright light? Can I see

it? Can I ever find the way

home? Does he fear he has rendered me blind?

In the war against Spartacus decimation

bludgeoned to death one out of every ten men.

Crucified thousands lined the Appian

Way in 91 B.C. from Rome to Capua,

phantasms that assault me, left supine

to marinate for half an hour.

A techie comes to check my ocular

pressure. Released, I breathe out au revoir.


This picture showing the blinding of the Biblical figure Samson illustrates my state of mind while being tested for the same condition that has affected the speaker of this poem. Gioacchino Assereto – “The Philistines Gouging out Samson’s Eyes” via Picryl

Response to “Ancient History in the Eye Center”

Think about your about your own response before you read mine! There is no “perfect” interpretation to poetry: share your thoughts about your own interpretation (or mine) below! Tell me what you think I missed!

For a general guide to approaching poetry, try this: Reading Poetry: Why and How


“Ancient History in the Eye Center” is the story of a visit to the doctor for glaucoma treatment. You know those lost bits of time in which you are left immobilize while you are in the dentist’s or doctor’s chair while you wait for your treatment to take effect? During that time, the thoughts of the speaker drift to the practices of ancient Romans, who methodically blinded 90% of enemy soldiers and bludgeoned 10%, while she waits for her release.

I’ll admit, I chose this poem in part because I have recently had to go to the eye specialist for this very issue: glaucoma. It is a different experience after doing nothing but routine eye exams for years. I’ve always had sensitive eyes, so I’ve even struggled with some of the different tests they have to do, which involves touching your eyeball with an instrument. It’s not the pain for me (they do numb you), it’s seeing someone coming at my eye like that. The first time they did it, without warning, I imagined myself as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, when the doctor clamps his eyes open to force him to watch the videos. So I totally get the speaker’s train of thought.

One thing to watch and think about in this poems is Kumin’s use of odd breaks in between stanzas, especially when she actually hyphenates words, such as between the sixth and seventh stanzas. She also has a characteristic tendency to use short, one syllable words with precise sounds until the third stanza from the end. It seems that almost all of the long, difficult to pronounce and read words are crammed into the two penultimate stanzas, with the last stanza returning to Kumin’s characteristic deceptive simplicity.

My assumption is that she really wants us as readers to pay attention to those two stanzas, so she uses language that is meant to slow us down, but the question is why?

Regardless, my take away from this poem is the expression of the sense of foreboding that we feel in an environment where we feel so vulnerable, even if, unlike the Romans, the people we meet there are there to help us.

Read this poem and more in Kumin’s And Short the Season, below. Read about Kumin’s life and work along with more excerpts from this collection here.

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