Conventions of Language, Transformed: A Review of Jesi Bender’s “Kinderkrankenhaus”


I’m teaching an online poetry-writing workshop. It’s thematized; it’s called “Moderna-ist Literature: The Poetics of the Pandemic.” As you can imagine, enrollment is low; no one, except for me and 6 other people in the world (class caps at 10), wants to think about the pandemic while in the pandemic. I wasn’t hoping to teach poetry about the pandemic – this would be a stupid or at least non-pragmatic hope, insofar as there’s barely any poetry about the pandemic, barely any writing at all, because we can’t think through, or about, the pandemic. It’s the inverse of David Foster Wallace’s story of the 2 fish swimming along, where then another fish crosses their path and says “Hey boys, how’s the water” and continues on its merry way, and then the 2 fish look at each other and one of them says “What the fuck is water?” Here it’s something like “Please do not remind me of this poisoned air, I ask to be distracted from breathing” – but rather to use the conditions of the pandemic as a metaphor for the conditions of poetry writing, e.g. what is the mask of the poem, how does the poem socially distance itself from the reader or, and this is really interesting to me, is the poem vaccinated; does it have symptoms, is it diseased, is it in some way sick. Poems that are experimental or that are translated or that are written by members of a marginalized community – marginalized due to race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, or mental health, the latter two categories being largely the focus of this review I’m currently writing my way into, of Jesi Bender’s wonderful new play KINDERKRANKENHAUS, which revolves around issues of neurodivergence and takes place in a children’s hospital and whose characters are the neurodivergent patients of said hospital, as well as the one doctor overseeing them all. Here’s a small moment from it, where the longstanding patient Cinders explains to the new patient Gnome why it is that Gnome is a patient here at all:

Cinders: “What don’t you understand? It’s not about you. It’s all in how others read you. 

That’s what makes you ill.”

This is a metaphor about reading, and reading is about metaphor; I devoted the first class to teaching metaphor. It’s hard to teach metaphor without resorting to metaphor. “Metaphor is like a simile,” which is true, but is a simile. “Metaphor’s a simile,” which is a metaphor, but untrue. “It’s like when you cast a flower in concrete, suddenly the flower is concrete, but the concrete is flower, too. The flower becomes inert and obdurate death, the concrete becomes soft vital pollen,” and this is a simile about extended metaphor, but it’s still not very concrete? In figurative language one thing becomes something else, one thing becomes one thing it is not. This is already a description of the conditions of language, though, I say “tree” and suddenly an actual tree is not itself, but just this four-letter phoneme. I like flora I guess. Anyway I had them do an exercise. 5 minutes, write a list of concrete objects. Then, 5 minutes, write a list of abstract concepts. Then, 10 minutes, define each abstract concept using one of the concrete objects. For example, if you used “love” as an abstract concept (but it feels more concrete than anything, soft concrete) and “can-opener” as a concrete object (its name is defined by its function, its function has been abstracted into a name), you could create a metaphor such as “love is a just-used can-opener you are unsure whether or not to wash.” So I had them do this thing.

They come back from the writing exercise and I ask them how was that and the first response a student has is “Is death a concrete object or an abstract concept? And then what about memory?” I ask if I can phone a friend. She says “What,” which is a fair response. I open the floor to other students, what do you all think. One student answers the either/or question with “Yes.” One student says death has material consequences, but sometimes we think of it metaphorically. One student says Can we consider something concrete that we cannot experience, such as death, must it be experience-able in order to be considered an object. Another student says But we experience the consequences of death, the material consequences, and grief. Another student says Is grief a concrete object or an abstract concept. They’re all smart. They ask me again. I say “concrete object” is itself a metaphor; unless the object is concrete, or is cast in concrete (which is what metaphor does, if you remember), then it is not actually a concrete object but a metaphor, cast in abstraction. “I’m in hell” says the student with the original question. “At least there’s death” says another student in response. “What about memory” says the original student (I keep saying “says” instead of “asks” or “responds” or “protests,” whatever, but I was in a writing class where the teacher said “You should always say ‘says’ for character dialogue,” and someone asked why but I don’t remember why, I think it was just because Raymond Carver did it. Everyone just wanted to be Raymond Carver), and I say “I think I knew once, but I forget.” I make a joke to distance myself from my own lack of knowledge, what my students have revealed to me. They remind me of Gnome, who asks more questions than anyone else in the play, and thereby becomes the primary teacher of it, the one who reveals to authority figures the limits of their knowledge.

Gnome: “Doctor Schmetterling, I was wondering, do you know how we learn to remember? 

Is it a skill we acquire as babies, like eating or talking? Or do our memories not form before 

we have the words to describe them?”

Dr. Schmetterling: “I’m not sure, Gnome. You need to return to your seat.”

Gnome: “I was wondering ‘cause I’m trying to figure out if I think in language or not. And I 

know I can’t remember being a baby, before I spoke.”

Dr. Schmetterling: “We can’t communicate with babies, Gnome. So we don’t know. Now 

return to your seat. Don’t make me ask again.”

There’s a lot of Plato going on here: what is learning? Is the act of learning characterized by “learning” of something new, of being introduced to a concept we heretofore had had no knowledge of? Or do we already have knowledge, and learning is the act of remembering that knowledge, and being guided towards the recollection of that information? And then more critically, perhaps, or perhaps just foundational to each question, what is the role of a teacher? 

There’s also a problem or contradiction here. Let’s say that number 2 is the case, that we have knowledge of everything when we are born, but we forget everything by way of learning language, that language restricts and reduces our capacity to think and thereby to know, and we forget. And yet the very phrase “learning language” presupposes that language is one of those things we knew before we “knew” language; so what then? Is a teacher’s role to guide us, via language, towards remembering the knowledge that language caused us to forget? 

Another metaphor: a boat made of language is sailing a sea of language, but a plank in the language boat has rotted, and now the ocean of language is flooding the boat of language, and what do we do? Plug the boat with language to stop the language? How do we save ourselves from language, via language? Dr. Schmetterling would tell me to return to my seat so I could fill my empty head (this is epistemological proposition number 1) with her language that will drown me. This unwieldy Parable of the Boat, in any case, is also a description of what’s at stake in Bender’s incredible new play, KINDERKRANKENHAUS, from Sagging Meniscus Press, published in December in this horrible year of our lord, 2021, may we never suffer it again.

KINDERKRANKENHAUS – which in German means Children’s Hospital but, as an opening scene in the play specifically dramatizes, literally translates to Children-Suffering-House – takes place in an unknown time in an unknown country that is nonetheless by the sea. It could be taking place now; it could be taking place in Nazi Germany; it could be both. The stage is a ward of the gray institution, which is ringed (suffe-ring house) with cinders in varying levels of inflammation; sometimes a full-blown fire, sometimes burning at the level of spent coals’ glow, but in any case the kinder are surrounded by cinders, fire spent or fire ready to start. An admission to this children’s hospital requires a full-scale superficial conformity: all the patients wear gray robes, their skin is all inexplicably tinted gray, and their hair is cut into identical bobs. The characters are the neurodivergent children-suffering patients hidden away from the world because although they need healing and are “sicksicksicksicksick,” it is clear there is no cure; they are fashioned into products of their environment both in how they are dressed, and how they are addressed, insofar as their birth names have been replaced by the appellations foisted on them by Dr. Dorothy Schmetterling.

The play begins with the admission into the hospital of the newly named child, Gnome. We do not know Gnome’s given birth name nor gender; the only gendered character in the play is the doctor, she who wields a dual power of identification: she names the condition of the patient, and then in accordance she names the patient. And so we have as patients Nix, The Shadow, Cinders, Python, Eros, and then of course Gnome. 

Nix: “Do you want to hear how we got our names?”

Gnome, turning back and forth between Nix and Eros: “What? I mean yes, I do, but what 

did Eros say?”

Nix: “There’s funny stories behind all our names. the Shadow, mine, Cinders, Python. Sweet, 

hesitant Eros. With the speech impediment sounds like Errors. But no, it’s because Eros 

found a letter one day. It was on the floor, like an accident, occident, oracle. Picked it up and 

opened it. Pulled out words like Kinder, Toten, Lebens, Unwertes.”

This story results from the accidence – both accident and occident proceed from the Latin etymological root cadere, “to fall” – of preexisting letters, or words, fallen on the floor. This accidence – a happenstance, distinct from fate – converts the children nevertheless into oracles that negotiate their own fate. Throughout the play, just like this letter full of words on the floor, words appear seemingly “by accident” upon the walls of the stage:

Words appear [KINDER




And on the cover, a big red stamp that read ERO. Beneath it said Eugenics Record Office. 

When Doctor Schmetterling found out, she demanded that we give her ERO’s back. E-R-

O’s. Eros. Air-rose.

It would seem, then, that although Dr. Schmetterling refuses to call the children by their birth names, she is not wholly responsible for their institution names. Rather, the children tell their own stories, and to a certain degree consent to their names, their identifications. Hence the children resist the institution’s attempts at dehumanization – these are rhetorical attempts, words and diagnoses meant to reduce the children to stigmatized types – by repeating and reforming (re-forming) such attempts into a “funny” story. We are dealing with a play that champions linguistic play as a means of resistance. Similarly, as I pointed out earlier, the children are not gendered; this is a decision on the playwright Jesi Bender’s part, but it seems equally intentional on the part of the children themselves:

Gnome: “You can’t become whatever someone labels you. That name is not a part of you, 

like your nose.”

Nix, slightly desperate: “Oh, no, yes, they are. Eros is right. The name becomes you. No 

misnomer. No mis-no-more. Miss-gnome-her.”

Cinders: “Gnome, don’t confuse Nix. We live within a narrow language. Names are 

everywhere but meaning is mall-able.”

Nix: “Malleable! You mean malleable.”

Cinders: “Malleable.”

Nix, wandering away: “Malleable. Male-he-able. Mmm-ale-a-al. Mallet. Malicious…”

Gnome, who is new here, does not yet understand the power of language, and still thinks they can resist language’s power simply by denying it. The other children, however, revel in language’s power, and can thereby virtuosically re- and mis-appropriate the language the institution uses to appropriate them, i.e. to make them more societally appropriate. One of these sites of resistance is, again, through gender: gender, as we know, is the first act of interpellation in a human life (it’s a boy!). But Gnome has yet to learn this lesson, and doesn’t yet even understand that meaning, too, is malleable. So let’s return to the earlier scene around the Eugenics Records Office. 

Gnome: “What do you think that means?”

Nix: “What?”

Gnome: “That word?”

Nix: “What?”

Gnome: “Eugenics.”

Word appears [EUGENICS]

Nix: “Eugenics. You-genetic. You frenetic. Eu-phemism. You phonetics.”

Cinders, approaching: “It means the good birth.”

Words appear [EUGENICS (good-genes)]


Gnome: “No, what the good birth records office means? They keep track of births?”

Cinders: “Right, keeping track of people who were born with good genes. And who 


Nix: “Disease. Dis-eased. Disability. Dis-able.”

Gnome: “Okay, so? We know we’re sick.”

Cinders: “Do you know what those other words mean?”

Gnome: “Children, life, something.”

“Yes, unwertes. Wertes means worthy. So, unwertes, indigne.”

Word appears [UNWERTES (not-worthy)]

Gnome: “Children with unworthy lives.”

No one answers.

Gnome: “But the Doctor is going to make us better! We just have to–“

Eros: “Oh, no. Mmm. See? Doctors gave us this. Names. Mmm. Errors.”

What is the relationship here between error, love, and eugenics? On the surface it’s a frightening triangle but, at root – and I’m talking etymology – it’s the key to liberation. These children have been born neurodivergent, and are subsequently deemed socially deviant, and it is this birth error – not a good birth but a bad birth – this errancy from the path considered normal and appropriate, that deems them “unworthy” of life. I did not earlier refer to Nazi Germany glibly – who in hell would do that (besides Quentin Tarantino in “The Inglorious Basterds” and Roberto Benigni in “Life is Beautiful” and a whole host of people, actually, all the time, so question answered) – the German title of the play, and the historically resonant eugenics project whose letter is itself written in German, are all explicit references. Indeed, as in the Nazi programme, failure to comply with the reformation programme leads to death. When Gnome asks Dr. Schmetterling where children go who fail to recover from being “sick,’ she responds “Well, there is one other place. It is deep and it is dark and it is an absence forever. You don’t want to go there. I don’t want to send you there. But if you misbehave, if you don’t try to get better, then I will have no choice.” This is the price of error.

And yet it is the “error” that leads to “eros,” this newly forged linguistic connection – from eugenics to love – that allows for love. These are children that are trapped in language’s societal implications. There are several hints at autism throughout the play: that they lack emotional intelligence, an inability to read social cues and that, as Doctor Schmetterling proscribes, they need to become “autonomous” (etymology being self-law, whereas “autism” is simply “self” “-ism,” it is lawless). This is a prejudicial bias inherent in the very diagnosis, in the language that interpellates, reduces, and distorts the children. Therefore, in order to resist the institution’s violent attempts at social reform, the patients all play with language. Through linguistic errancy, the children actually succeed in discovering the errors inherent in the institution, and offer a loving corrective. Dr. Schmetterling is terrified of this errancy, and considers any straying from “appropriate” speech to be “silence”:

Dr. Schmetterling: “You’ll see children here like you, without autonomy over their own 

minds. Children that have a hard time expressing themselves. Some that don’t talk at all. The 

whole reason people speak is to kindle recognition of meaning in another. There is a 

madness in silence. You see, we are social creatures. We need each other. Silence takes 

everyone else away.”

Schmetterling here is speaking specifically of Python, the youngest child, who inhabits an oracular role in the center of the stage, where there is a small cave with the Greek symbol , or sigma, inscribed above its entrance. Python has been left to their own devices, insofar as Schmetterling is concerned, they are beyond saving. This is because, like Python’s coding-language name suggests, Python only speaks in code, in numbers and in indecipherable letter combinations. Similarly, the sigma in mathematics is the operating symbol for “sum” or, in Latin, “I am.” It is also the 18th number in the alphabet, the age where an occidental citizen begins to be tried as an adult. Perhaps for this reason, upon entering the cave, the actors playing Gnome and Cinders are to be replaced by adult actors, as indicated in the stage directions. The cave of the sigma is a place beyond stigma, it is extra-judicial in the play, and it is the place where dangerous silence, or dangerous linguistic and symbolic connections, are made; hence Schmetterling leaves it and Python absolutely alone. 

Gnome: “Python told me something and I’m trying to figure out what it means.”

Dr. Schmetterling: “If it came from Python, it means nothing because Python does not 

understand how to communicate with us.”

Perhaps Schmetterling feels a presentiment about the destabilizing power of Python, but whatever the feelings, they manifest in a disregard and a discounting of linguistic divergence, similar to her discounting of the experiences of those who are neurodivergent:

Dr. Schmetterling: “The important part about finding friends, about forming normal 

relationships, is that you are communicating properly. You are providing proof that you are 

able to function in a society, in a shared reality, and that is contingent on how well you use 

your words. How unfathomable would the mute mind be that thinks without language!”

Gnome: “I don’t think the mind can ever be mute.”

Dr. Schmetterling: “Look around, Gnome. This room is full of mute minds.”

Gnome: “No! No. No, those are timid tongues. Broken tongues. Twisted tongues and 

confusion. I’m still not sure how anyone communicates at all – when people say things they 

don’t mean, they state opinions like facts, they say things they think mean one thing but are 

really its opposite[…]And then there are words that have multiple meanings, opposite 

meanings. Like cleave[…]No. Speech…words are the last things that should show you what 

is inside a mind.”

Here we reach the true distinction between Schmetterling and Gnome: Schmetterling is a prescriptivist, she believes there is one correct way to speak language, and that that is the one way to access a mind, and that without that access there is only silence, madness, and the need for institutional correction. This is Schmetterling’s diagnosis and prognosis; the patient is deviant, and the cure is to conform. In fact, there is no cure if these kids were “born bad,” they must instead– as if in a play – be “good” actors.

There is no interest here in knowledge of the patient’s inner experience; there is instead an assumption that, because the outward mode of communication is not recognizable to others, there is no inner experience, and therefore no knowledge of the patient to be had. This is all too recognizable in our own mental health “system.”

Gnome, on the other hand, is a descriptivist. They advocate for multiple modes of communication, they “diagnose” in our normative modes of communication errors and a lack of understanding from its practitioners, they even point out the limits of language’s capacity to communicate inner experience, and rather decry how language instead reduces modes of expression. Gnome is, perhaps ironically, a “corrective” to the homogenizing effects of the institution, of its labelling, of the flattening of experience via the diagnosis:

Words appear {GNOSIS (knowledge)}

Nix wanders on stage below the words.

Nix: “Noses. No-sis. Know-sis. Gnosis. Know-m. Gnome.”

Words appear {PROGNOSIS (before-knowledge)}

Nix: “Prognosis. Progress-is. Pro-gnosis. Proactive. Reactive. Creative. Pro-creative. Pro-, 

prof-fessional. Pros and cons. Confessional.”

Words appear {DIAGNOSIS (apart-knowledge)}

Rather than these procedures and epistemological technologies of pathological classification that precede knowledge and are apart from knowledge, Knowledge itself comes to KINDERKRANKENHAUS in order to teach it. 

This is where Gnome comes in. Gnome is the only patient, after all, with a known surname: Liebschutz. The name in German spells out “love shelter,” a one-to-one alternative to “Suffering House.” The gnomon is the material object that detects and measures the symbolic (the sun) by way of casting a shadow. It is a kind of joint. So Gnome could be the squat earthy grunting figure guarding a treasure beneath the earth we know a gnome to be (and yet it is fantastic, unreal, a reduced parody of the human) or the gnomon that unlocks the secret of time by being itself a measure of the sun. Or gnosis – the hinge of diagnosis and prognosis – knowledge itself. This is why gnome asks more questions in the play than anyone else, because gnome knows knowledge is not fixed. Or, as Gnome puts it:

“How can you cure something you cannot see? Isn’t everything made visible through me?”

There is also an analogy here; in the way that the inner experience cannot be adequately translated into words, the word of the script of KINDERKRANKENHAUS cannot be entirely made flesh in the world of the stage performance. Language fails, the body smolders. Language cannot adequately contain the world, only restrict it. 

Dr. Schmetterling: “Gnome [stern, as a reprimand]. Just do your best. I will be here to help. 

And remember, it’s not like a single word can swallow the whole entire world.”

Gnome swallows hard.

{light falls and curtain lands on the stage heavily as the fire intensifies}

This is one of the most beautiful moments of the play, to me, and it also highlights one of the most beautiful and interesting aspects of the play: how difficult it would be to stage this. It’s not just the nonverbal technical aspects – the cinders to fire continuum lit on the stage’s periphery, the lawsuit waiting to inflame – but the stage directions like “Gnome swallows hard” at the end of the scene, in response to Dr. Schmetterling’s comment about words swallowing a world. How to stage this? I put the question to Jesi Bender herself in an email, who told me she is currently at work producing it for Colgate University:

“To be honest, I’m not 100% sure how they’re going to do it. The most important aspect of 

this first performance is that the cast is predominantly autistic or neurodiverse actors. I 

know the director is going to do a lot of projections rather than set building (i.e. the ‘set’ will 

be a part of the projections).  There are a lot of elements that are hard to film or perform – 

I’m not sure how to capture it all (outside of words! paradoxically).”

In the same way that Jesi Bender so wonderfully, acrobatically, gravely and playfully demonstrates that behavioral errancy from societal convention does not in any way imply social error or sickness, so KINDERKRANKENHAUS offers itself as a genre model of innovation, an opportunity for something completely new. I can’t wait to see how theater performance changes forever, for the better, what’s new to learn, how to capture it all, inside and outside of words, which is also a metaphor, paradoxically.


by Jesi Bender
Sagging Meniscus Press, 74 p.


Jared Joseph is boring.

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