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In this collection of new poems Goedicke presents us with a stark, frequently harsh, and uncompromising perspective on the relentless march of love and life toward death. Nature's rhythms--of the sea, the seasons, organic growth and decay--are both metaphor and reality as the poet takes note of changes in her mate and in their relationship against a backdrop of snow, night, natural and man-made disasters, and "lint and cat fur" ("What the Dust Does").
The book is dedicated to "Leonard," "for we who are one body." Many of the poems concern a long, deep, relationship, now become turbulent because of change: "Thirty years . . . now this // after hours of bitter contention / because nothing's right / anymore" ("The Things I May Not Say"). Two people who have been so close now face the inevitable but they are not fading happily into the sunset: "I know you'd mother me / forever, and I you, /but here, at the end of everything / we know // even the kindest / words scrape against each other like seashells" ("What Holds Us Together").
Yet there are times of pleasure and tranquillity: "everything we do, even the egg / sandwiches we eat stick to the ribs / like caviar: / because you make me laugh" ("Old Hands"). "For last night, in your faded photograph album of a voice, / you sang us both to sleep" ("Alma de Casa"). And where there is deterioration, there is also devotion: "The shell around us is cracked / and you're in my arms, shaking. Over the crumbling / excavations beneath us. Where I won't, / I will not drop you" ("The Ground Beneath Us"). "Children are coming to grief, / cars burning in the streets. / In the brightest light of all, / I would like to catch him when he falls" ("The Brightest Light").
In this complex poetry collection (divided into three sections, "Body," "Home," and "World"), the author moves from the specifics of the individual diseased or dying body to the more universal realm of suffering and politics. Not so much a poet of narratives as a conjurer of images, Levin writes from changing points of view: first as a man, then as a woman; as a surgeon, then a patient.
Poet Louise Glück's introduction states that the book's power "derives from ambiguity: the raised scalpel-healing that looks like assault," and Levin's raw imagery is indeed both challenging and celebratory. In the opening poem, "Lenin's Bath," we watch with Dr. Sergei Debov as Lenin's corpse is tenderly submerged in a vat of embalming fluid. Debov imagines the germs that crawl along the cadaver "seeking a way in."
In the next poem, "Eyeless Baby," the reader becomes a caregiver searching a deformed infant's face that is nothing but a single nostril and a cleft palate. In "Bathhouse, 1980," we see (as the blind baby cannot) through a young homosexual man's eyes both the human longing for passion and the viral "scourge" that, again, seeks entrance. The angels that gather in the bathhouse's corner become nurses ("The Nurse") who swarm like moths over a hospitalized patient's body.
This interweaving of place and point of view continues throughout, creating a magical, disturbing world in which a reader can be both body ("The Baby on the Table") and healer ("In the Surgical Theatre"). Other powerful poems include "Personal History," "The Beautiful Names" (in which a young boy learns to name the sexual organs and so discovers their beauty), and "Witness."
In the first poem, Starting the I.V. (see this database) the poet tells us that he will approach the secrets of the body without flinching, "I have learned not to hesitate here, / not to let fears of my own" get in the way. The instrument he uses is the poem. Through these poems he reveals some of the hidden truth of the healing relationship. "A transformation," he calls it, "as if through this intimacy / we have become part / of each other." ("Physical Exam")
Watts captures the pain and horror of illness in striking images. For example, the numbness felt by a person suffering from multiple sclerosis "felt like oatmeal / drying on the skin" and the disease itself was "this moth of his nightmare / . . . eating at the wool / of his nerve endings." ("ms") In another poem ("restrictive") a patient's tortured breath "creaks like a tight box / a ship in a storm." Among the most remarkable of these 35 poems are "The Body of My Brother," "July 16th," "Chronic Pain Syndrome," and the exquisite prose-poem, "The Girl in the Painting by Vermeer."
Death beds have been around for a long time. Ancient Greeks, Japanese monks, Medieval Christians, and tubercular Victorians all had opportunities to use them. Some folks were witty, some were slow, and some called for a priest when the time came. "And you and I, too, may lie on ours, / the vigilant family in a semicircle, / or the night nurse holding our hand / in the dark, or alone." We cannot avoid the death bed, but what we can hope for is "just at the end / a moment of pure awareness . . . . " [56 lines]
The poem takes place in a respiratory ward of a children's hospital, where the narrator hears "a children's wind ensemble / hooting through the weary nocturne." One mother is massaging her child's back, "working calm's liniment between shoulder blades / scarcely bigger than chicken wings."
The narrator appears to be a friend or relative, who silently tries to breathe for the breathless child, whose panic is held in check by "his mother's dulcet voice." It seems like everything will be all right "as long as the hand strokes, and while the voice croons . . . " [30 lines]
The narrator was ridiculed during adolescence because he was fat and socially inept at school. He had one friend, Marion, "a slender girl who came up on holidays from the city / to my cousin's farm." He liked to show-off to others, but couldn't express his feelings, especially to Marion, who he only now realizes was "my first love." At the age of 19, during her nursing training, "she had a fatal accident / alone, at night, they said, with a lethal injection / and was spared from seeing what my school did to the world." [28 lines]
Summary:The poems in this collection are elegant, economical, worldly, and humorous. The tone is generally one of amused ruefulness. In "Alcohol" the poet addresses his subject as "the eighth / and shallowest / of the seven seas." He salutes the "nice" people, "on whom depends / the diminishing goodness of the world."
This stark and sensual poetry collection is divided into three sections. The first, "Graveyard Shift," introduces the narrator's themes: the keen observation of suffering; the questioning of God's role in such suffering; the way caregivers and patients meld in shared moments of trauma; the struggle to integrate the reality of death and grief into a life outside the healthcare arena.
A longer second section, "Lessons," contains a chronology of poems that broaden the poet's themes. Suffering becomes personal through sexual abuse ("The Burning"), death of a baby ("To the Woman in the Next Bed," "Waiting Room," "Last Lullaby for the Dead Child"), and breast cancer ("Keeping Watch"); the mystery of God's role becomes the narrator's religious quest.
The final section, "The Ones Who Come," opens these themes to the universal: children and adults lost to "the holocausts" of war, poverty, and illness ("Lizard Whiskey: A Parting Gift from Viet Nam," "After the Siege," "The Ones Who Come," "The Man Who Stays Sane"), and how history repeats these cycles of birth, suffering, and death.
When at last the authorities came / to lead away her children, she turns around and retreats "inward to the recesses of her mind." This woman doesn't care what happens to the children because she has lived in her own world for a long time, but nobody noticed. The neighbors saw her trash stack up, they smelled "the stench of fetid scraps" in her house, but they continued along their merry way, oblivious to what was happening. [30 lines]
The poem's title refers to John Hunter Hospital, where Les Murray lay near death for three weeks as a result of a liver condition. He "turned yellow as the moon / and slid inside a CAT-scan wheel," then found himself emerging from a "time warp" of unconsciousness 20 days later. Murray reports that he is "the only poet whose liver / damage hadn't been self-inflicted."
He goes on to explain what had happened to make his liver rehearse "the private office of the grave." When he was over the crisis, he signed a "Dutch contract," presumably an advance directive of some sort. Surprisingly, surviving his bout of acute liver failure seemed to cure his other problem, "the Black Dog, depression." The poem ends with a paean of gratitude for "the project of seeing conscious life / rescued from death." [80 lines]