My grandmother is only one day
into her infirmity and doped up
on Morphine. Her shoulder is immobile

beneath layers of plaster.
Her eighty-five-year-old frame droops
from the weight of it.

My mother confesses:
she cannot take care of her mother.
I am not she says a nursemaid.

My mother is angry. Angry
at my sister who didn’t give enough
support, angry at my grandmother

for shuffling her feet, angry even
at the dog that was tucked beneath
my grandmother’s arm

as they all three tried to squeeze
into the door of the vet’s office.
She calls me from the emergency room

to say that grandmother fractured her shoulder
in three places. She’s become an invalid
overnight, she says. My sister calls her cruel

for refusing to run the bathwater, refusing
to wash my grandmother’s naked body, for
not even considering renting

a wheelchair for her to move from place
to place. When grandmother whispers
that she is afraid to walk, my mother

tells her that there’s nothing wrong with
her legs, tells her she’ll have to go to a
nursing home if she won’t walk

to the bathroom: one piss in the bed is
understandable, two is teetering too
close to in-home care.

My sister does not understand that there
is too much to overcome between them—
always the memory of the black dress

grandmother refused to wear
on the day of her husband’s funeral—
the way she turned to my mother and said,

I am not in mourning.

Copyright © 2019 by Hali Sofala-Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 6, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

A body must remind itself
to keep living, continually,
throughout the day.

Even at night while sleeping,
proteins, either messenger, builder,
or destroyer, keeps busy

transforming itself or other substances.
Scientists call these reactions
—to change their innate structure,
dictated by DNA—cellular frustration,

a cotton-cloud nomenclature for crusade,
combat, warfare, aid, unification,
scaffold, or sustain.

Even while the body sleeps, a jaw slackened
into an open dream, inside is the drama
of the body’s own substances meeting

one another, stealing elements,
being changed elementally,
altered by a new story

called chemical reaction.
A building and demolishment,
creating or undoing,

the body can find movement,
functioning organs, resists illness—
or doesn’t. Look inside every living being

and find this narrative of resistance,
the live feed of being resisted.
The infant clasping her fist

or the 98-year-old releasing
hers. This is how it should be,
we think, a long story carried out

to a soft conclusion. In reality,
little deaths hover and nibble,
little births opening mouths
and bodies the site of stories

and the tales given to us, and retold, retold,
never altered, and the ones forgotten,
changed, unremembered

until this place is made of only
ourselves. Our own small dictators,
peacemakers, architects, artists.

A derelict cottage,
a monumental church
struck in gold, an artist’s studio

layered with paints and cut paper,
knives and large canvas—

the site the only place
containing our best holy song:

I will live. I will live. I will keep living.

Copyright © 2020 by Leslie Contreras Schwartz. This poem originally appeared in Pleiades: Literature in Context, October 2020. Used with permission of the author.
 

The lord doctor sits on the other side
of health from me. It’s a wall come between
flat & white &
spackled in places—

I was a student of ELOQUENCE.
I’d shape my mouth into a fountain
& out the names cascaded in June—

My brain is described in slow sentences
in similes like: grapefruit, telephones,
the medieval district of a city.

In ELOQUENCE though I couldn't fit
the madness in—no icy jackhammer
pneumatics, no I-can’t-hear-myself-think

Progress: the loss of neuron & synapse
Progress: tall lights of a stadium shut
one by one until the ballpark is left
in darkness. Then degeneration of
the temporal. Then furrows will close
the furrows the cheering voices carved
in the air will close. This is what happens—

cerebellum, the beautifulest sound
in the room

I rested my length in its green meadows.

Originally published in jubilat. Copyright © 2016 by Carolina Ebeid. Used with the permission of the author.

Floating above the gynecologist’s hands,
Dolor looks down at me
with her many expressions.

Someone sketched the eyes, the mouths,
someone pinned them up,
arranged the faces

so they softly say, like this? like this?
The doctor says to choose one,
but I’m no fool, I close my eyes

and the speculum is blind and cool,
widened and distracting.
Like the Chikyū vessel drilling

downhole from the ocean floor
into the untouched mantle,
it shows we’re scarred inside

by what years and use and trespass do.
Every day the women open their eyes
and follow me into the streets,

the cities, like a wind murmur begins
a rumor of waves, the faces of earth
saying let this pain be error upon me writ.

From Human Hours. Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Barnett. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.

An old man is playing fiddle in my head.
At least that’s what the doctor says,
pointing, as he holds my MRI to the light.

He must be eating the same hotdogs
my nephew microwaves. My nephew sees
Bob the Builder everywhere—smiling

in sauerkraut, sawing in the drifting sky.
Afternoons he names me Bob, knocks
my knee with a plastic hammer. I’m half-

naked, shivery with chicken skin,
napkin-gowned. But I don’t laugh
because I think the veined cobweb

looks like Abe Lincoln’s profile on the penny.
So let’s pretend I’m not sick at all.
I’m filled with golden tumors—

love for the nurse who feeds me
to the machine. The machine worse
than any death—the powerlessness

of a shaved & strapped-down body.
Even in purgatory you can wear earrings
& though the music might crack a spine,

at least in that torture, the tears from your arm’s
needle marks are mouth-wateringly sweet.

Copyright © 2006 Alex Lemon. “MRI” originally appeared in Mosquito (Tin House Books, 2006). Reprinted with permission of the author.

 

Do you hear that? All the things
I meant to do are burnt spoons
 
hanging from the porch like chimes,
Do you have some wind? Just a hit
 
and was the grass always this vocal?
A hit and the blades start sharpening
 
in the sun. I wear a belt
because my pants don’t fit.
 
My pants don’t fit because I wear
the belt. I can tell you how it tastes.
 
Tannin. Heaven. Is it May already?
As onetime owner of my own
 
private spring, I can say
it’s overrated. Remember? Someone
 
found me in a coffee shop bathroom
after I’d overdone it
 
and carried me like a feed sack
to the curb. As they brought me back,
 
they said, the poppies on my arms
bruised red petals.
 
They said, He’s your savior.
But let’s not get carried away.
 
Let’s stop comparing everything
to wings. Have you ever even felt
 
like you’re going to not die
forever? It’s terrifying.
 

From I Know Your Kind: Poems by William Brewer. Copyright © by William Brewer. Reprinted by permission of the author.

When I walked across a room I saw myself walking

as if I were someone else,


when I picked up a fork, when I pulled off a dress,

as if I were in a movie.


                                    It’s what I thought you saw when you looked at me.


So when I looked at you, I didn’t see you

I saw the me I thought you saw, as if I were someone else.

 

I called that outside—watching. Well I didn’t call it anything

when it happened all the time.

 

But one morning after I stopped the pills—standing in the kitchen

for one second I was inside looking out.

 

Then I popped back outside. And saw myself looking.

Would it happen again? It did, a few days later.

 

My friend Wendy was pulling on her winter coat, standing by the kitchen door

and suddenly I was inside and I saw her.

I looked out from my own eyes

and I saw: her eyes: blue gray    transparent

and inside them: Wendy herself!

 

Then I was outside again,

 

and Wendy was saying, Bye-bye, see you soon,

as if Nothing Had Happened.

She hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t known that I’d Been There

for Maybe 40 Seconds,

and that then I was Gone.

 

She hadn’t noticed that I Hadn’t Been There for Months,

years, the entire time she’d known me.



I needn’t have been embarrassed to have been there for those seconds;

she had not Noticed The Difference.

 

This happened on and off for weeks,

 

and then I was looking at my old friend John:

: suddenly I was in: and I saw him,


and he: (and this was almost unbearable)

he saw me see him,

and I saw him see me.

 

He said something like, You’re going to be ok now,

or, It’s been difficult hasn’t it,

 

but what he said mattered only a little.

We met—in our mutual gaze—in between

a third place I’d not yet been.

Copyright © 2017 by Marie Howe. From Magdalene​ (W. W. Norton, 2017). Used with permission of the author.

Let the seats be plentiful and padded.  
Let the magazines be recent or let the book 
I’ve brought last until we can leave.
Let the TV on its bolted stand be off, 
muted, or showing something I can ignore—
weather, gameshows, CNN.  Let the room 
be mostly empty—no one shouting, sobbing, 
asking about my husband’s health.  
Let everyone be strangers except 
the staff.  Let the walls be freshly painted, 
soothing to behold.  Let my husband 
be there for a physical or routine checkup.  
Let no one comment on my clothes
or unwashed hair, how I can sit 
so calmly while he has staples 
or a catheter removed, his lungs or heart 
or kidneys tested, an infected wound 
debrided.  Under no circumstances 
let me be called into the back by a nurse 
who touches my arm, says I’m sorry but—  
Let my husband walk out whistling 
before I’ve finished my book, looked 
at my watch too many times.  Let the news
be good or benign, his next appointment 
not for months.  When the waiting is over, 
let us walk outside feeling better,
or at least no worse, than we did before.

Copyright © 2011 Carrie Shipers. Originally published in New England Review Volume 32, Number 4. Used with permission of the author.

The barber, with his mug of warm foam, his badger-hair brush.

My mother and sister and me and the dog, leashed with a measure
of anchor rope, in the hospital parking lot, waving good-bye
to my father from his window on the 7th floor.

Just him and his tumor, rare as the Hope Diamond,
and his flimsy paper cup half-filled with infirmary water.

The lump in my throat, a tea party cup left in the garage all winter,
holding the silver body and wing dust of a dead moth.

The barber, sweeping the day’s worth of hair into the basement,
remembering how he’d traveled to Memorial
to lather the face of the dying man and shave him smooth
in his raised hospital bed and sometimes he shaved the faces
of the dead as a favor to the mortician.

Wondering how this particular life was the life that had been chosen for him.

The barber, walking home in the dark
to a late supper of torn bread in a cup of heavy cream.

Even the mayor’s wife sipping from a teacup
wreathed in Banded Peacock butterflies wonders, in her loneliness,
why me? Why this cup?

Diane Seuss, "Jesus, with his cup" from Four-Legged Girl. Copyright © 2015 by Diane Seuss. Used with permission of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

wretched thou art
wherever thou art


          I sit and work on a line and lean into the pain my mind
              continues
          trying to think and all I come up with is a texture without
              ideas


and to whatever
thou turnest —


          the body I have is the body I once had but they could not
              differ more
          the teacher Agnes says abstract form holds meaning
              beyond words

  
I turn the pages
of the old book


          the way certain feelings come to us with no discernible
              worldly cause  
          the teacher Buddha says the practitioner agitated by
              thoughts

 

I have not held
since childhood

 

          makes stronger their bondage to suffering and the sting
              of becoming
          during the time illness makes me feel most tied to the
              material world


its binding broken
its brittle paper

         I sit in meditation and sunlight from the window calms
             my nausea
         since the emergency I feel such sharp tenderness toward
             common objects

   
its dog-eared corners
torn at the folds —

 

          sort of attached to the white wall white door white dust
              on the wood floor
          mostly pain is an endless present tense without depth or
              discernible shape


miserable are all
who have not


          an image or memory lends it a passing contour or a sort of
              border
          the white door open against the white wall snuffs
              headache’s first flare

 

a sense of present
life’s corruption


          I remember a man patiently crying as doctors drained his
              infected wound
          lying on the gurney in my hospital gown we suffered
              from having been being


but much more
miserable are those

 
          adjacent and precarious the way a practitioner sits alone
              on a cushion
          resting alone unwearied alone taming himself yet I was
              no longer alone

 

in love with it —

 

Copyright © 2015 by Brian Teare. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 16, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Arriving late, my clinic having run
past 6 again, I realize I don’t
have cancer, don’t have HIV, like them,
these students who are patients, who I lead
in writing exercises, reading poems.
For them, this isn’t academic, it’s
reality:  I ask that they describe
an object right in front of them, to make
it come alive, and one writes about death,
her death, as if by just imagining
the softness of its skin, its panting rush
into her lap, that she might tame it; one
observes instead the love he lost, he’s there,
beside him in his gown and wheelchair,
together finally again.  I take
a good, long breath; we’re quiet as newborns.
The little conference room grows warm, and right
before my eyes, I see that what I thought
unspeakable was more than this, was hope.

Copyright © 2014 by Rafael Campo. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on January 3, 2014. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

We could say that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Kandinsky. We could not say that Rembrandt was three and a half times better than Kandinsky. . . . We could say, "I have more pain than I had yesterday." When we tried to say, "I have nine dols of pain," we found we were talking nonsense.


		   - Leshan and Morgenau

This is the pain you could fit in a tea ball.
This is the pain you could pack in a pipe
 – a plug of pungent shag-cut pain,
a pain to roll between the thumb and the forefinger.
Here: this pain you could pour down the city sewers,
where it would harden, and swell, and crack
those tubes like the flex of a city-wide snake,
and still you would wake and
there would be more for the pouring.
Some pain believes its only true measure is litigation.
For other pain, the glint of the lamp
in a single called-forth tear is enough.
Some pain requires just one mouth, at an ear.
Another pain requires the Transatlantic Cable.
No ruled lines exist by which to gauge its growth
(my pain at three years old. . . at five. . . ) and yet
if we follow the chronolinear path of Rembrandt's face
self-imaged over forty years - a human cell
in the nurturing murk of his signature thick-laid paint – 
we see the look-by-look development,
through early swank and rollick, of a kind of pain
so comfortable it's worn, at the last,
like a favorite robe, that's frayed by now, and intimate
with the frailties of its body, and has
an easy fit that the showiest cloak of office
never could. In 1658, the gaze is equally
into himself, and out to the world-at-large
 – they've reached a balance of apportioned
disappointment – and the meltflesh under the eyes
is the sallow of chicken skin, recorded
with a faithfulness, with really a painterly
tenderness, that lifts this understanding of pain
into something so accommodating, "love" is the word
that seems to apply to these mournfully basso
bloodpan reds and tankard-bottom browns. Today
in the library stacks, the open face of a woman
above this opened book of Rembrandt reproductions
might be something like the moon he looked to,
thinking it shared in his sadness. What's
her pain? her ohm, her acreage, her baker's dozen,
of actual on-your-knees-in-the-abattoir misery?
I don't know. I'm not writing this
pretending that I know. What I can say is that
the chill disc of the stethoscope is known to announce
an increment of pain not inappropriate
to being blurted forth along the city wall
by a corps of regalia' d trumpeters.
Who's to say what a "unit" of pain is?
On a marshy slope beyond the final outpost,
Rembrandt stares at the moon, and stares at the moon,
until the background drumming-in of the ocean
and the other assorted sounds of the Amsterdam night,
and then the Amsterdam dawn, are one
with his forlornness, and the mood fades
into a next day, and a woman here
in Kansas turns to face the sky: she's late
for her appointment. She's due
for another daily injection of nine c.c.'s of undiluted dol.

Copyright © 2007 by Albert Goldbarth. Reprinted from The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007 with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.