Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry: Explained, THE PENNACESSE LEPER COLONY FOR WOMEN, CAPE COD: 1922, by NORMAN DUBIE

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

THE PENNACESSE LEPER COLONY FOR WOMEN, CAPE COD: 1922, by                 Poet's Biography

"The Pennacook Leprosy Colony for Women, Cape Cod: 1922" is a poem by Norman Dubie. It was first published in his poetry collection "The Mercy Seat" in 1999.


The poem is a fictionalized account of a leper colony for women on Cape Cod during the early 20th century. The poem explores the isolation and suffering experienced by the women in the colony, as well as their resilience and humanity.

The speaker of the poem describes the bleak and isolated existence of the women, who are abandoned by their families and society. They are forced to rely on each other for support and companionship, forming close bonds despite the circumstances of their lives.

The poem also delves into the history of leprosy and its stigmatization throughout the world. The women in the colony are viewed as outcasts and untouchables by society, forced to live in a state of constant fear and shame.Despite the hardships they face, the women in the colony are portrayed as strong and resilient. They find moments of joy and connection with each other, and the speaker expresses a deep admiration for their courage in the face of such adversity. The poem also touches on the history of leprosy, the social and cultural attitudes towards it, and the medical treatments used to try to cure it.

Poetic Elements:

  • Form: Free verse
  • Imagery: The poet uses vivid and often unsettling imagery to convey the harshness of life in the colony, such as "the fungus that mapped their legs" and "the pitted faces of each woman."
  • Repetition: The repetition of phrases like "They were not," "We are," and "the leprosy" adds to the rhythm and structure of the poem while emphasizing the themes of isolation and community.
  • Symbolism: The colony itself serves as a powerful symbol of the isolation and stigma faced by those with leprosy, while the women's attempts to build a sense of community symbolize the human need for connection and belonging.


Overall, the poem is a haunting exploration of the human experience of suffering and isolation, as well as the power of human connection to transcend even the most difficult circumstances.

Poem Snippet:

"They were not women

as we are women.

They were the leprosy,

the pox, the fungus

that mapped their legs

like a language of pain”

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