Sometimes the gentlest patient
in the Emergency Room
is from the city prison.
This one too—soft-voiced,
lifting his large dark eyes.
He whispers "yes, ma'am,"
shy as a deer,
young and brown-skinned
with loosely muscled limbs
gangling off the bed.
His clean, uncoiled anatomy
is almost embarrassing against
pus & pannus, abscess & scarred vein—
everyone bearing his body
like some separate, stricken animal,
its disappointments inevitable.
It seems impolite for us to notice
the fact we are the same age,
his silver handcuffs, track marks,
the inefficiency of my exam,
a rising smell of hot dung
from the old lady in the next bed.
Once, when realms were not distinct—
celestial and earthly—
angels visited, god-wed
women ministered, bathed the feet of sinners,
doe muzzled the saints' hands,
and this would be the moment
of cloud-break revelation.
There are no figs or honey here,
just betadine and isopropyl pads.
My mother, thinking that her heart would burst,
sank softly, pale, between the grocery aisles,
still clawing at a half-filled shopping cart.
Cool drifts of wordless jazz continued faintly
through bright ravines of jelly, tea, and soda.
It happened several times again, years later,
before they diagnosed the flimsy valve.
She'd wake all sticky, dizzied by a hammering
beneath her breast, as if some desperate thing
were trapped inside of her and wanted out.
I've held a human heart and cut apart
its muscled walls and felt the rubbery strands
that fasten lengthwise to each ventricle.
Its cold potato-heft, wet, veined, and gnarled—
this chunk of love, of passion—seemed petite
and unimpressive, like weird butcher's meat,
or bleak foodstuff for starving pioneers.
I laid it gently back into the hull
of opened ribs, into the gray cadaver
whose face I kept concealed with dampened
Nowadays, my mother never mentions
her shadow-thoughts—except for once this
"Remember how I talked, how sad I was?"
I nodded, glad myself that she no more
sees hints of death graffitied everywhere,
can once more play dismissive symbiote
to that dumb pump, forget how intimate
it sits between us while I lean to hug her
and feel it beating, measuring what's fleeting.
Joanna Pearson's poems have
appeared recently or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2010, Blackbird,
Bellevue Literary Review, Gulf Coast, Linebreak, The New Criterion, Subtropics,
River Styx, and elsewhere.