Symmetry

Sand Crab

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Transcript:

I walked along the bay
with my five-year-old nephew.
What are those little holes
with bubbles coming out?
he asked. Sand crabs, I said.
They hide under a thin layer
of sand to protect themselves.

Have you ever seen one?
he wanted to know. Yes,
I said, thinking of my first day
at the Washington V.A. Hospital.
A young man, age twenty-two,
was hidden under a white sheet.
He was pale as a moonbeam,

and his mouth puckered
in and out with each breath.
He had returned from Vietnam
with acute leukemia. His name
was Howard, I said
out loud. You’re making
it up, my nephew laughed.

Poet’s Commentary:


"This is the first poem in the newer collection, Symmetry (2000). The poem looks back on my first day as an oncology fellow at the National Cancer Institute."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright A2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Red Polka-Dot Dress

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Transcript:

I can’t decide what to do,
her husband said, the X-ray films
still on the screen. He pulled out
a picture. This is us in 1963,
standing near the stone parapegm

built by the Greeks around 400B.C.
On it they engraved the ruler’s laws and
proclamations. That’s Athena with
an eroded nose and worn-out hands.
Mildred’s in a red polka-dot dress.

See how beautiful her auburn hair
looks in that morning light
pulled up in a bun above her neck.
And that’s me holding her hand.
I see, I said.

Poet’s Commentary:


"This is a poem that has to do with the voice of a patient’s spouse."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright A2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press

 

Over Roanoke

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Transcript:

From thirty-three thousand feet
it looks like odd-shaped farms are pocketed
between deep green octopus hills,
pudgy tentacles coursing out,
Just yesterday the antibiotics were stopped.
One antifungal drug blistered
my mouth when the white count
dropped. I agree,
the smallest thing is loss of hair,
but the woman to my right
fidgets nervously. I want to say,
My eyebrows are bushy, the hair on my chest’s
like baby silk. . .
The hills are folded up now
in long vertical ridges, and the few towns
are tucked alongside, I don’t see how anyone
gets across.

Poet’s Commentary:


"I’ve written a number of poems in the voice of patients and I realize looking back that rarely do they indicate gender but I think most people would guess it quite clearly. This one is more obvious. I actually wrote this one on the plane on the way from New York down South and it must have triggered a whole bunch of ideas. It’s in the voice of a young man and you’ll hear that."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright A2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Two Weeks

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Transcript:

A man’s cough bounces down the hallway
like pick-up sticks. Three rooms away
an IV machine beeps constantly. I know
the distance by now. I know Mrs. Mandelkorn
was discharged today and Mr. Singer
died. Not just the overhead intercom blaring
Code Blue, or everyone running to his door.
It was the stillness afterward, the leaden walk
of the nurses. They’ve seen it before, but death fills
their shoes. They pass the pills in silence
and at the station their conversation is muted.
I asked Angela. She said he was old and frail
and his kidneys failed. It is more than
she should say, but she is kind
to differentiate his circumstance from mine,
I am here now two weeks.

Poet’s Commentary:


"There are six poems in the book [Symmetry] in the voice of the same patient. The book wouldn’t tell you that-nor would it tell you it’s a woman, but it’s been extended into a new body of work that’s going to be published separately as twenty-six poems in her voice. It’s been staged in several places in the country and is called ‘The Bridge’ as a one-woman production. This is her first poem and in it this woman has obviously come into a hospital. We, I think, understand within a few poems, that she could not have understood how sick she was. She’s becoming an insider unwittingly in a system she really knew very little about."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Chapel

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Transcript:

There is a chapel downstairs. I passed it twice
on the way to radiology. No one was inside.
There are twelve wooden benches, a large crucifix
and stained glass above the altar. A note in the elevator says
"religious services for Jews available on request."
Today a priest came in and offered me absolution.
I think you have the wrong room, Father,
I said. He checked his notes, laughed courteously, and replied,
Now that I’m here. . .A few minutes later I was sorry.
What harm is there to accept his prayer? I could borrow
his God for a while.

Poet’s Commentary:


"There are six poems in the book [Symmetry] in the voice of the same patient. The book wouldn’t tell you that-nor would it tell you it’s a woman, but it’s been extended into a new body of work that’s going to be published separately as twenty-six poems in her voice. It’s been staged in several places in the country and is called ‘The Bridge’ as a one-woman production. This is her first poem and in it this woman has obviously come into a hospital. We, I think, understand within a few poems, that she could not have understood how sick she was. She’s becoming an insider unwittingly in a system she really knew very little about."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Semaphore

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Transcript:

Sometimes a word seems to fall
into an inaccessible gyrus
of my brain and is lost forever.

Then there are times it snaps back,
coursing up from a hidden sulcus,
bounding across thousands

of synapses. Adamantine recently
did that. It was a word I had once read
and never looked up.

Then this week-brindled, gibbous,
Rift Valley fever, Gaucher’s disease.
In medical school I depended on

my excellent memory. I was quick.
I gathered them in, each word
a shibboleth to be placed

in its proper quarry. Again today,
a patient I often see was in and
I couldn’t remember her name,

but then a girlfriend’s phone number
from tenth grade came to mind.
That’s the proof. It’s all there

carefully tucked away. Everything
is recoverable: agnosia, semaphore,
Von Hippell-Lindau disease.

Poet’s Commentary:


"A lot of the work that I do relates to the nomenclature of we specialists- a kind of rarefied language we take on very quickly in medical school. Oh how medical school students love to talk in the elevator as soon as they know these new words! It doesn’t dawn on us at the time, it’s just like learning a foreign language. So I write a lot about the interstices between that language and everyday language."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Not God

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Transcript:

I thought to delay the answer, camouflage
it, by waiting until he asked another
question. But he prefaced the question with

I know you’re not God. This is commonly said
to me, second in frequency only to What
would you do if it was your father, or wife,

etc. I accept this statement of my undeity
to be rhetorical, a mechanism to permit me
to be imprecise, to use phrases like "it depends

upon many factors" and "a range of." But lately
I’m increasingly tempted to say, How do you know
I’m not God? What gives you such certainty?

Do you say this to your lawyer, accountant,
or mother-in-law? And, if I’m not God then why
ask me a question that only God can answer?

Poet’s Commentary:


"I had meant to title this book by the title of the next poem which is called ‘Not God.’ The editor rejected it immediately saying, ‘No library in the United States would buy a book called Not God’-which I hadn’t thought of at all. For me it is a poem which is a little bit of a riff on something I have faced as a clinician my whole career, especially as an oncologist. Is it not odd that a couple of thousand times I walk into a room and a patient or family says to me, "Well Dr. Straus, I know you’re not God, but . . . "-so of course, that became a poem."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

19332

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Transcript:

First at breakfast, now next to me
on the beach in Barbados. Maybe
if I concentrate on the emerald water;
nineteen sailboats in the bay, thirty-three
windsurfers. I stop, realizing the symmetry.
The numbers: a blue black tattoo, so clear

over fifty years later. And, when I talk
to her, she swings the left suntanned forearm
around-numbers in full view. She asks me
what I do-where I live-about my
children. I say: doctor-New York-two.
There’s the symmetry again. Such a low

number, meaning she was taken early.
She tells me her age; captured at nineteen,
I calculate. The forearm flashes again. Nineteen
sailboats. She sees me staring. The world
comes full circle, she says, pointing. Everything
has meaning. This number was meant to survive.

Two men behind me playing steel drums . . .

Poet’s Commentary:


"The title of the book, Symmetry , comes from another poem that I couldn’t use as a title because it’s a number and the publisher couldn’t conceive of having the book called by a number (19332). Now I understand that but as a poet I didn’t understand it at the time. Symmetry is in this poem twice and it dawned on me after we fought this out for a few months that what it meant in this poem stands for the book."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Monday

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Transcript:

Miami Beach: Everyone is eighty-two. Fourteen men
walking on the boardwalk look exactly like my father.

It is inauguration day in Washington, Martin Luther King
Day, and back in New York the temperature’s

twenty-two. The last time I was here I spent three days
in the ICU, my father on a cardiac monitor, IVs

supporting his pressure. I am attending a conference
on memory. An anthropologist speaks about anti-

aesthetics in the museum world. A curator talks about
the controversy surrounding the installation of the cattle car

in the Holocaust Museum, how a survivor on the board
refused to step into the building if she was required

to walk through. I am thinking about Mr. Vallone.
The pain in his hip has increased again and the PSA

levels are higher. I am thinking about my father returning
three months later jaundiced, about his sister who said

I was criminal to treat him, about the day he had gram-negative
sepsis, the walk we took in Belle Harbor after

he responded. A man going by has the same mustache.
My father asked me to grow a beard. I kept it six years

after he died, and then it was gray, and my son married.
I’m trying to think of a treatment for Mr. Vallone.

Poet’s Commentary:


"I began to write seriously only eleven years ago. It was for me very interesting because I’d been writing some poetry and certainly writing a lot of science and it was this mid-career thing where it was clear that I always wanted to do this. Then I became interested in the fact that many of our very best doctor-poets in history rarely wrote about medicine, so it was strange for me that people wondered why I did. I always think that what you write best is what you know the best or at least where your imaginative process takes you and for me, although perhaps half of the poems do not deal directly with medicine, there’s always been this intersection-the lives that criss-cross in this unconscious process. I was in Miami Beach joining my wife for a very esoteric conference and I was getting bored, so I started writing this poem."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Apple Cores

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Transcript:

Suppose, just suppose, you’re shown
an apple core and are asked to describe
its inside, having seen hundreds before
(they’ve all been pretty much the same),
but the question put to you,
almost as a matter of life-and-death,
makes you wary-there may be
an exception, a core unlike any you’ve ever seen,
yellow and luminescent with garnetlike seeds,
or no seeds, or no core.
Do you generalize, not having analyzed
the issue, having no statistical data?
And even if you knew everything
about apple cores, the very latest studies
and their methodology, would you answer
simply, or would you equivocate,
knowing each word is a shard of glass,
translucent, dazzling, and dangerous?

Poet’s Commentary:


"This next poem I sent to my younger brother who is a well-known academic scientist. I spent twelve years running a research lab and I thought I would take my shot at part of the scientific process in this poem called ‘Apple Cores’."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Fifth Finger

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Transcript:

A tissue slide on the microscope
flips upside down as if to reverse
its diagnosis. My golf ball sits on the tee
like the lumpectomies I infused
with isotope.

It is twenty-eight years ago. John Lennons
photo is stapled in my research book.
Abe Janower picks his teeth with a needle
used to inject the mice. I killed them,
forty-two

thousand in all. With my right hand
I tightly pinched the skin on the back,
pressed its belly on a board,
quickly looping the tail in my
fifth finger.

Then with left thumb and index finger
behind the head, I stretched its neck.
In room 5D19, building 37, the National
Cancer Institute, I became expert
at this.

Poet’s Commentary:


"Some of the poems in the last couple of years looking at the caregiver’s life, the doctor’s life, has taken on a dark tone. I think if you are an active clinical oncologist for thirty years that may be a normal reaction. This poem looks back on my first lab job at the National Cancer Institute when I was in drug research and development."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Eleventh Floor

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Transcript:

A van near the west parking lot sells bagels,
jelly rolls, hot dogs, and soda. I can’t read its sign
from here, but I see a workman holding a can
in one hand and with the other eating food
from a paper wrapper. I don’t know why
they design these buildings so high. A conference
on hospital architecture should have been convened
to establish the optimum height. I doubt many
have paid attention to this. What if
a patient is acrophobic? Wouldn’t it be better
if one were level with a flowering dogwood,
a Japanese maple? From here I look down
on sunsets. Why the eleventh floor? Admissions
is on the first, radiology the second, surgery the third,
pediatrics the fourth, obstetrics the fifth. Everyone knows
what’s in the basement. Perhaps that’s why
oncology is so far away.

Poet’s Commentary:


"I’ve actually written a lot of funny poems-maybe not a lot-that’s an exaggeration, but when it’s an MFA audience where I’ll go out to universities, we deal with a wider spectrum of poems. This poem is in the voice of the ‘house-wise’ patient. In the newest series I’ve begun to write her doctor’s poems. Ultimately I think they’ll now be staged as a larger stage production where she’ll have a few poems, he may have one or two, and as you hear these develop he doesn’t hear her poems-he doesn’t hear what she has to say. He’s telling us his thing. She’s telling us her things. This poem is called ‘Eleventh Floor’ and we’ve probably learned early on that the oncology unit is on the eleventh floor and towards the end there’s a specific poem where she’s in room 1122."

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern AUniversity Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.

 

Sigh

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Transcript:

I sighed this morning, a slow deep inspiration
that dragged the air into the recesses of my lungs,
portions I imagine had been forgotten
in the last few months. And then for a second
or two I felt the life pass out of me.
As if it were a prelude, a taste for the sake
of recognition, to diminish my anger.
As if it were a gift to make me more accepting,
so that when the angel lifts my hand
onto her atomless sleeve I will have no animosity.
She is so like my physician. He has no tolerance
for remonstration, his head is so cluttered
with obligatory data. I might articulate my pain
but he is filled with dying and I’m obliged
to keep the sigh inside.

Poet’s Commentary:

[This poem is in the voice of the ‘house-wise’ patient.]

*Text from Symmetry. (Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) 2000 . Copyright 2000 by Marc J. Straus. All rights reserved. Permission for electronic use of audioAand text granted by Marc J. Straus and Northwestern University Press.