Experiment. Kathryn Cowles. Metal, treadmill, buttons, psychiatrists, the artist. 2014

By Kathryn Cowles

Featured art: Hawkin’s Machine for writing and drawing

I must be present in the gallery
7 hours a day 7 days a week
with 25 minutes for lunch.
Water is always available to me in a tube
extended from the ceiling.
I have bolted to the wall and floor behind me
long, thin iron spikes like the ones
in the dungeon of the castle in the film
with the handsome anthropologist
when the floor breaks away and he falls
and his length of rope, hastily tied
around his middle
is just shorter than
the distance to
the longest of the long spikes.
The psychologists in the corner
in the white coats and with their clipboards
are part of the art piece,
though they fancy themselves to be
conducting an experiment.

The children who visit the gallery
are often cruel, though in the way
a winter is cruel, without intention.
They have visited the natural history museum
where a button lights up a portion
of the exhibit on
quadrupeds of the Sierra.
They are merely experimenting with cause and effect.
So they push each button in turn
just to try them out
and I am glad when they leave.
Most people only push up to 3
and then laugh uncomfortably and push 1 again.
Some people never go past 1.

Then there are
the ones who enter the gallery
alone and wander around the periphery at first
as if with no purpose, never looking
my way until they stand
directly in front of me.
Then they look right in my eyes.
The guards are instructed
not to intervene.
The psychiatrists scribble furiously.
And then these visitors begin pushing buttons
and I know in a knot in my gut
they will push all the way to 5—
slow, deliberate pushings across each button—
and then they will watch for less than a minute
with no change in expression,
and then they will turn and leave the room
casually, as if with no purpose,
the sounds of my frantic movements
as if nonexistent, and they will walk
straight out of the art show
never once looking back over their shoulders
and they will go to meet their dates for dinner
or go home to their husbands and wives and children
or sit in front of the TV alone, faces blank,
microwave dinner grown cold.

Kathryn Cowles’s newest book is Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World (Milkweed 2020). Recent poems in Best American Experimental Writing, Boston Review, Diagram, Free Verse, Georgia Review, New American Writing, Verse, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-day, and elsewhere. She earned her doctorate from the U of Utah and is an associate professor of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where she co-edits the poetry and multi-media sections of Seneca Review. kathryncowles.com.

Originally published in NOR 22.

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