Till Human Voices Wake Us, and We Drown

Currently trying to finish up writing a paper on mother-infant bonding and its management before my dear friend arrives for our 4-years-in-the-making Eurotrip! Exams are over (more later, perhaps, fingers crossed, good news?) and the last thing on the school year is the submission of this essay.

Sadly (? or amazingly considering I’ve actually done a decent amount of work) a typical occurrence when I try to do work is the distraction (or relief) of poetry.

Here are three I came across recently which I love and think relevant to this blog (because if that didn’t rein me in, I would be posting a lot more poems).

Carol Ann Duffy

Your last word was water
which I poured in a hospice plastic cup, held
to your lips – your small sip, half‑smile, sigh –
then, in the chair beside you,
fell asleep.
Fell asleep for three lost hours,
only to waken, thirsty, hear then see
a magpie warn in a bush outside –
dawn so soon – and swallow from your still-full cup.
Water. The times I’d call as a child
for a drink, till you’d come, sit on the edge
of the bed in the dark, holding my hand,
just as we held hands now and you died.
A good last word.
Nights since I’ve cried, but gone
to my own child’s side with a drink, watched
her gulp it down then sleep. Water.
What a mother brings
through darkness still
to her parched daughter.

“Waiting for Rain”
Ellen Bass

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener

someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on

making and unmaking. Maybe it’s wrong
to think of better and worse.
There’s no one who can carry my fear
for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.
The rain they say is coming
sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.
But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling
their massive legs without hurry, flaring
their great dusty ears. Once they drank
from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows
we’re just atoms combining and recombining:
star dust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out.
How tenuous it all is.
My daughter’s coming home next week.

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.

“The Teacher”
Hilarie Jones

I was twenty-six the first time I held
a human heart in my hand.

It was sixty-four and heavier than I expected,
its chambers slack;
and I was stupidly surprised
at how cold it was.

It was the middle of the third week
before I could look at her face,
before I could spend more than an hour
learning the secrets of cirrhosis,
the dark truth of diabetes, the black lungs
of the Marlboro woman, the exquisite
painful shape of kidney stones,
without eating an entire box of Altoids
to smother the smell of formaldehyde.

After seeing her face, I could not help
but wonder if she had a favorite color;
if she hated beets,
or loved country music before her hearing
faded, or learned to read
before cataracts placed her in perpetual twilight.
I wondered if her mother had once been happy
when she’d come home from school
or if she’d ever had a valentine from a secret admirer.

In the weeks that followed, I would
drive the highways, scanning billboards.
I would see her face, her eyes
squinting away the cigarette smoke,
or she would turn up at the bus stop
pushing a grocery cart of empty
beer cans and soda bottles. I wondered
if that was how she’d paid for all those smokes
or if the scars of repeated infections in her womb
spoke to a more universal currency.

Did she die, I wondered, in a cardboard box
under the Burnside Bridge, nursing a bottle
of strawberry wine, telling herself
she felt a little warmer now,
or in the Good Faith Shelter,
her few belongings safe under the sheet
held to her faltering heart?
Or in the emergency room, lying
on a wheeled gurney, the pitiless
lights above, the gauzy curtains around?

Did she ever wonder what it all was for?

I wish I could have told her in those days
what I’ve now come to know: that
it was for this–the baring
of her body on the stainless steel table–
that I might come to know its secrets
and, knowing them, might listen
to the machine-shop hum of aortic stenosis
in an old woman’s chest, smile a little to myself
and, in gratitude to her who taught me,

put away my stethoscope, turn to my patient
and say Let’s talk about your heart.

in particular the last one is lovely. I can’t bear to look at my cadaver’s face without grimacing (possibly because they took off her face and it’s just teeth grinning at you with hollow eyes). I find it hard to pick apart (and even hack at) her body without thinking about her painted nails. Who painted them? Did she, bent over with fingers stiff from 83 years of life? Did she think about preparing her body for 12 strangers to touch? There’s a fine line of remembering the body as a once living breathing form of a person without feeling like you can’t cut it. Summer offers up with it more journeys, maybe some of self-discovery ( 😉 ), hopefully no more studying. I’m excited to see what the new academic year brings; big changes, I’m sure. I’ve picked “Madness in Literature” as my top module for a taught component of the course, and I’m really looking forward to that. Maybe I’ll even curb my enthusiasm for parentheses (NEVER!!!).

Let’s talk about your heart,

N. x


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