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,
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.
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
trying to think and all I come up with is a texture without
and to whatever
thou turnest —
the body I have is the body I once had but they could not
the teacher Agnes says abstract form holds meaning
I turn the pages
of the old book
the way certain feelings come to us with no discernible
the teacher Buddha says the practitioner agitated by
I have not held
makes stronger their bondage to suffering and the sting
during the time illness makes me feel most tied to the
its binding broken
its brittle paper
I sit in meditation and sunlight from the window calms
since the emergency I feel such sharp tenderness toward
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
miserable are all
who have not
an image or memory lends it a passing contour or a sort of
the white door open against the white wall snuffs
headache’s first flare
a sense of present
I remember a man patiently crying as doctors drained his
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.
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.