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This is the first full-length collection by pediatrician and international health physician Roy Jacobstein. These 40 poems engage a wide range of topics, settings, and tones, but all demonstrate the same fine craftsmanship and strong voice.
Among the most engaging of Jacobstein’s poems are those dealing with memories of childhood and adolescence. Consider, for example: “Mr. Gardner in 10th grade told us there was no purpose / to mitochondria, only function.” (“Atomic Numbers,” p. 5). Or, “What transgression made fat Mr. Handler / drop his towel, his gloves, everything… to chase you from one end / of Fullerton to the other?” (“The Lesson,” p. 30) The poet displays a delightful sense of humor in pieces like “Bypass” (p. 36) and “Squid’s Sex Life Revealed in USA Today” (p. 59). Poems with explicit medical themes include “Pre-Med” (p. 6), “Admissions” (p. 8), and “What It Was” (p.11).
In Especially Then David Moolten discovers his poetry in the ordinary, often painful, texture of childhood, adolescence, love, and marriage. Each memory becomes a small story-like poem that looks simple and straightforward at first, until suddenly the poem reveals its hidden truth. A sense of existential loss pervades these poems, as in “One morning as a man’s wife offers to fill / His empty bowl he feels suddenly desolate / For how plain he has become…” (“Cornflakes,” p. 31) But Moolten’s melancholy is sweet, rather than bitter; energized, rather than depleted; and cumulatively powerful, as “The tractor / Of memory drags on, churning its femurs, / Its numbers and dates.” (“Verdun,” p. 64)
Especially Then is ripe with traumatic events: A father’s abandonment, “During that proud, petulant year my father left / And I became a punk, nothing could touch me.” (“Achilles,” p. 17). A brother’s death: “in the shallow dark of years since / I buried my brother…” (“Pulled Over on I-95,” p. 23) Divorce, “despite the years between you / And a hard divorce, the unshrived recriminations…” (“Seen and So Believed,” p. 51) And a wife’s death, “As if his wife had always gone / By the name of death he thinks of her / Whenever he sees or hears the word.” (“In Name Only,” p. 49)
These ordinary tragedies play out against a panorama of tragedy, as evidenced in “Photograph of a Liberated Prisoner, Dachau (1945)” and “The War Criminal Gives His Testimony.” Most often, though, the world’s suffering has little impact on the way we live our lives, “Someone at the next table sighs / Over Guatemala, the tragedy / Of having read an article or watched / A TV special…” (“Who You Are,” p. 53) We go on as we always do.
Summary:In this sonnet, the speaker meditates on the fact that he has become blind (Milton himself was blind when he wrote this). He expresses his frustration at being prevented by his disability from serving God as well as he desires to. He is answered by "Patience," who tells him that God has many who hurry to do his bidding, and does not really need man’s work. Rather, what is valued is the ability to bear God’s "mild yoke," to tolerate whatever God asks faithfully and without complaint. As the famous last line sums it up, "They also serve who only stand and wait."
This is a long (110 lines) narrative poem about the poet’s wife’s cancer, "large, rare and so anomalous / in its behavior that at first they mis- / diagnosed it." At first the poet personifies the cancer, then he demonizes the chemotherapy. He describes Tumor Hell and Tumor Hell Clinic, which "is, it turns out, a teaching hospital. / Every century or so, the way / we’d measure it, a chief doc brings a pack / of students round." Back on earth, his wife’s cancer is gone.
"This must be hell for you," some of his friends said. He reflects on the meaning of Sartre’s hell (created in Sartre’s own image) and Dante’s hell (created in his city’s image), and he considers the tumor’s name. He concludes that his wife should "think of its name and never / say it, as if it were the name of God."
Summary:The old sit "on the porch in rockers / Letting the faded light / Of afternoon carry them off." The narrator visualizes them mulling over the past as they rock back and forth. Although the old people cover "ground / They did not know was there," they learn nothing new in this. They receive no redemptive message, not even "a reason / To make it seem worthwhile." In fact, evening comes and soon it will be time for them to go to their solitary beds and fall into the "sheepless / Pastures of a long sleep."
The poet stands before an ancient Lycian tomb, upon which is carved the sorrowful face of a woman: "One woman garbed in sorrow’s every mood." He reflects on the constancy of loss in human life. He asks the woman to weep for him, also, because [I] "Share thy stilled sadness, which must ever be / Too changeless, and unending like my own . . . . "
Though the Lycian woman’s grief is old, the poet’s is young. He has lost a child: "With that too human wail in pain expressed, / The parent cry above the empty nest." He is skeptical about dreams of a better life. He rejects "The first confusing, mad bewilderment, / Life’s unbelief in death . . . . " Death is real and final. He concludes with full understanding that "life is but a tender instrument / Whereon the master hand of grief doth fall."
The poet describes a loving scene "entwined with you / on the long sofa . . . . " She playfully clips hairs from her husband’s nose as they listen to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Later the same year, he kills himself, "you were dead / by your own hand . . . / I have never understood."
Summary:In the heart of New York City the narrator comes across a tall, Senegalese man "speaking to a piece of chalk." The man is "neatly dressed / in the remnants of two blue suits . . . " and regal in his bearing. The man’s language is French, and he speaks "so slowly and precisely" that the narrator, no longer young, is reminded of his high school French class. He is also reminded of writing his name on the blackboard after returning to school, following his father’s death. The man knows "the whole history of chalk"; he knows "what creatures had given / their spines to become the dust time / pressed into these perfect cones . . . " The narrator knows that they are both elderly men "sharing the final poem of chalk . . . " [58 lines]
The speaker of this poem undergoes surgery for some kind of abdominal cancer--the important detail being that her mother had recently gone through the same experience and died several months later. A number of images convey the strangeness and alienation of serious illness. The mother’s cancer is an "embryo of evil" that curiously grew inside her like her own daughter (the speaker). The hospital room is the place "where the snoring mouth gapes / and is not dear."
And at her mother’s bedside the speaker finds that she must "lie / as all who love have lied." Her body hair shaved for her own operation, the speaker finds important values have been stripped away: "All that was special, all that was rare / is common here. /. . . Fact: the body is dumb, the body is meat." Coming out from under anesthesia, the speaker calls for her mother.
Later she realizes that, unlike her mother, she will probably survive. The last lines are comic in a self-deflating way, as the speaker gives herself get-back-to-life marching orders partly in the voice of her mother, concluding: "and run along, Anne, run along now / my stomach laced up like a football / for the game." (About 120 lines, in 6- and 9-line stanzas)
Editor Chip Spann created this anthology as part of his Ph.D. dissertation in creative writing. The poems were selected because Spann hopes they "can be a comfort to the sick and a rabble-rouser for those who work at getting well" (5). The book’s 234 poems have been organized into seven sections, each section named with a phrase from one of the poems contained therein. Each section is prefaced by an introduction that focuses on Spann’s own journey from a difficult childhood and unanchored young adulthood to his current life in which he is able to combine a love of reading and writing poetry with his background of working with patients in a variety of settings -- he leads a writing group of patients, caregivers, and health professionals at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, California.
The seven sections concern: the body; illness and life’s journey as quest; "feelings that are screaming to get out"; looking inward at dark truths; reflecting on "early wounds"; finding creative inspiration from unexpected and small things; and "perspectives on death and aging." I counted approximately 80 poets who are represented in this anthology; those with the greatest representation (number of poems) are Raymond Carver, Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, Grace Paley, Muriel Rukeyser, Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi, May Sarton, William Stafford, and May Swenson.