The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat by Stephen Massimilla

Review by Shauna Osborn

The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat

Stephen Massimilla

Stephen F Austin State University Press, 2013

Paperback, 88 pages

ISBN: 9781622880072

Getting the world right is a dying operation. To see myself, I swivel

tiny mirrors, piecing each feature together

                                                                                    one suture per second.

(“The Unicorn Has No Match Or Mate. The Artist Has No Peer.”)

Massimilla’s latest book began as a handwritten manuscript from a long ago trip to Italy. Before the book could become what he envisioned, the briefcase holding his journal and notes were stolen. This is when he began to recover and recollect the pieces as best he could from memory. The Greek root of metaphor—“to carry from place to place”—opened a new perspective to organize the travel-based poems upon and The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat reared its head.

The title refers to the 17th century primitive gas masks used by doctors working with victims of the plague, which would look right at home in any Tim Burton project (see the cover art).  Throughout the collection, the “old world becomes new world” feel abounds. Perhaps this is the nature of works created around European travel—the multiple centuries old buildings now housing imported mainstream rock albums and collections of Japanese manga.  Or perhaps it’s more than that—it’s the nature of travel, the nature of life. We all carry some things from place to place, even if our hands are currently empty. Massimilla’s poems hit at that truth. They ask the questions “What do you carry? Do you notice?”

While most of the poems in The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat show off the plumes of Massimilla’s Columbian educated vocabulary bank, the works I found myself drawn toward in the collection were the poems that were less verbose. The Parisian bookstore inspired poem “Even Plein-air-ists Do/Did Much Behind And On The Inside” and the culinary-based “How To Eat The Artichoke” are great examples within this type of work found in the book. The most enjoyable piece for this reader became “Self Portrait as a Fucked and Skinny Chicken.” The opening of the poem draws the reader into such a surprisingly wonderful and strange space. Such a powerful beginning.


            You uncovered me, vine tangled,

            yard-hardened, overgrown.

            Now I lie to your face, tarnished.

            Janus has painted an oxidant pattern

            over the pale cast of my body,

            furculum uncracked, cervical vertebrae



Poems such as this are balanced with other works that are just as strong in their own elegiac tone. For example, the final section of “Sicilian Swift Spouts” is written almost as a prayer:



Where the sea-wind rises and races

            to help feed invisible infants, I’ll wake

            to the secretive meaning

            of vacation. Free of inhuman

            or civilized dissent,

            germinating angels will yet

uncoil from ashes

for nostrils exulting in salt,

for eyes seeking rain from far countries;

rest assured the whole globe will well

up and dissolve into birds, will roar

and burst in their song.

The balance achieved throughout the collection on the language and style level is quite commendable. This is what I would consider one of its strongest feats—it does not become heavy in any set of poetic tricks or the common pitfalls of many collections: a lack of variety.  Nor does the tone stick to the somber and dark space I envisioned with a title as foreboding as this collection holds. That the collection won the Stephen F Austin State University Poetry Series Prize Competition should come as no surprise. It is a thoughtful and charismatic book.

Shauna Osborn is a Comanche/German mestiza who works as an instructor, wordsmith, and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She received her Master of Fine Arts from New Mexico State University in 2005. Shauna has won various awards for her academic research, photography, and poetry. Her first collection of creative nonfiction is currently being considered for publication.