Book cover: 'Hélène' by Deborah Poe


A selection from Hélène

And, moving still farther away from penality in the strict sense, the carceral circles widen and the form of the prison slowly diminishes and finally disappears altogether: the institutions for abandoned or indigent children, the orphanages (like Neuhof or Mesnil-Firmin), the establishments for apprentices (like the Bethléem de Reims or the Maison de Nancy); still farther away the factory-convents, such as La Sauvagère, Tarare and Jujurieu[x] (where the girl workers entered about the age of thirteen, lived confined for years and were allowed out only under surveillance, received instead of wages pledged payment, which could be increased by bonuses for zeal and good behaviour, which they could use only on leaving).

Michele Foucault, “The Carceral,” Discipline & Punish: The Birth of a Prison

A fish trap is for catching fish; once you’ve caught the fish, you can forget the trap. A rabbit-snare is for catching rabbits; once you’ve caught the rabbit, you can forget about the snare. Words are for catching ideas; once you’ve caught the idea, you can forget about the words. Where can I find a person who knows how to forget about words so that I can have a few words with him?


Some girls will color their toenails salmon, but I do not. Keenly aware of the details, I am cautious in the broken. Even at the feet, I feel but tell none.

To spring a short way upon the grass is the background way. Forget the elastic or bounding movement.

To eliminate succession of movements is to linger in lament. Feel but tell no one a way of being. Insects on the interior. The cocoon makes something beautiful in shelter, before the breaking out.

Five cranes on canvas. In motion one follows a different direction. Volcano. An art. A tree and land below clouds, above like candy. Grey and black and brown. Or fat bodied horses—three white one dark—only the hind end, a spectacle of one. Deeper bronze, the traced in gold.

Severe monuments, geometric full of martial allusions. Symbols like eagles and stars.

Color is our advance in chemistry. The domain of artificial teintures. A gold and silver mix. A polychrome cloak.

Translucent flowers in yellow, green, and blue.

Wooden is the immoral architecture. In the factory, it looms straight down.

Reader impressions

Deborah Poe’s 19th century heroine Hélène finds herself in the elaborate trap of a ‘factory-convent,’ manufacturing silk in western France—and her only release is the fantasy of producing it, instead, in China. Poe handles the implications and associations of these very different worlds with wrenching clarity. But finally, it is language—’We all our song within which voice finds its own escape’—that offers the window through which Hélène, and we, effect that escape. Poe’s handling of language throughout the book is nothing less than liberating, and yet it’s also arresting—it’s often, in short, simply breathtaking, while her acrobatically precise and dynamic balance between research and attention allows the reader to be simultaneously transported beyond and riveted to the present. A major accomplishment, and a haunting one. 

—Cole Swensen