The Phrenologist

The Widow Hamilton apologized
for Arthur’s odd behavior. He’d not been
himself in recent weeks; her husband’s death
had left them all quite altered. Surely his
obsession with a man called Beecher—some
Northern preacher—would dissipate with time.
While privately she told herself a young
and handsome heir would be forgiven one
or two peculiarities, the time
he tried to feel the heads of visitors
unwittingly sipping their cups of tea,
they failed to tolerate his quirks of grief.
It wasn’t long before the mothers came
without their eligible girls, then not
at all. The widow cleared the sitting room
of books and busts that mapped propensities,
but still they took their lunch and tea alone; in time
the front-door knocker rusted in its place.

He couldn’t fathom how his newfound skill,
supposedly in vogue, could meet with such
disgust among his mother’s trend-spurred friends
and their pretty daughters. He’d rather not
keep company with deviants, engage
a maniac in intimate discourse
befitting only kindred souls. Although
the scalps of pleasant people might betray
a predilection for tempestuous moods
or impropriety, he always hoped
to find instead the forehead pitched towards mirth,
a love of life revealed behind the ear.

How else to judge compatibility
and character? The girls whose names still graced
their mothers’ calling cards were taught to play
coquette, to either flirt or feign disdain
according to each suitor’s bank account.
In times when ladies’ proffered sentiments
could neither be accepted nor rebuffed
with certainty about their true intent,
science seemed as good a gauge as any,
the Fowlers’ skill a better bet than most.
Relying on his fingertips to scout
the landscape of the skull, he might discern
the bump predicting conjugal success.

Spring 2007