Two Poems


Joyce Carol Oates

Harlow’s Monkeys     

        Assume that we are not monsters for we mean well.

       — Harry Harlow (1905-1981)


To be a Monkey
is to be funny

If funny
you don’t hurt

& if you don’t hurt
you don’t cry

& if you don’t cry
the noise you make is funny

& if it is funny
people can laugh

for it is all right
for people to laugh
at a Monkey

& people are happy
if people laugh

& the one thing they agree
is a monkey is funny


Oh! it is not funny
to hear a Monkey
scream for a Monkey
scream is identical
to a human scream
& a human scream is
not funny

So in the Monkey Lab
to maintain calm
Dr. Harlow had
no choice but
to “surgically remove”
Monkey vocal chords

so if there is a (Monkey) scream
not heard
how is it a scream?


We were Harlow’s Monkeys
& Dr.Harlow was our Daddy
in the famous lab
at Madison, Wisconsin
from which you did not leave

hairless bawling infants
taken from our mothers
at birth to dwell
in Harlow’s hell

“social isolation”
“maternal deprivation”

to be a Monkey
is funny
nursing the dugs
of a bare-wire doll

clinging to
a towel
draped over
a bare-wire doll

seeking milk, love
where there’s none
yet: seeking milk,
love where
there’s none.
yet: seeking

How could a Monkey
be sad, could a Monkey
spell the word—"sad"—?

In the bottom
of the Monkey cage
listless & broken
when the wire doll too
is taken away

“learned helplessness”
“pit of despair”

You laugh, for you
would never so despair
mistaking a wire doll
for a Mother
or a devil
for a Daddy


(Look: in any lab
you had
to be cruel
to publish
& succeed.
As Israel, Harry
changed his name
to Harlow, Harry
to publish
& succeed.

Just had
to be cruel
the way today
a baby calf
in its cage
to veal.)

Hometown Waiting For You

All these decades we’ve been waiting here for you.  Welcome!
You do look lonely.
No one knows you the way we know you.
And you know us.

Did you actually (once) tell yourself—I am better than this?
One day actually (once) tell yourself—I deserve better than this?

Fact is,you couldn’t escape us.
And we have been waiting for you.  Welcome home!
Boasting how a scholarship bore you away
like a chariot of the gods except
where you are born, your soul remains.

We all die young here.
Not one of us outlived young here.
Check out obituaries
in the Lockport Union Sun & Journal.
Car crash,
Gunshot, fire.
Cancers of breast,
ovaries, lung,
colon.  Heart
attack, cirrhosis
of liver.
Assault, battery.
Stroke!  And—
did I say over-
dose?  Car

Filling up the cemeteries here.
Plastic trash here.
Unbiodegradable Styrofoam here.
Three-quarters of your seventh-
grade class now
in urns, ash and what remains
in red MAGA hats.

Those flashy cars
you’d have given your soul
to ride in,
just once, now
rusting hulks
in tall grass.
Those eyes you’d
wished might crawl
upon you like ants,
in graveyards
of broken glass.

Atwater Park where
you’d wept
in obscure shame
and now whatever
his name who’d trampled
your heart, he’s

Proud as hell
of you though
(we admit)
never read a
goddamn word
you’ve written.

We never forgave you.  We hate winners.

Still, it’s not too late.
Did I say overdose?
Why otherwise are you here?