The speaker of this poem is a nurse who is recalling and attempting to come to terms with a disturbing clinical encounter she’d had the week before.  (I should note at the outset that there’s no indication in the poem as to whether the nurse is male or female.  I choose to think of her as female).  What had happened is that a mother had brought her five-year-old son in for treatment, and the nurse’s exam revealed that the child had second- and third-degree burns on his torso—in the shape of a cross.  The mother, weeping, confessed that her boyfriend had, as a punishment, applied a cigarette to the child’s body—while the mother had held her son.  Seeing the mother’s tears, the nurse considered offering the woman some Kleenex, but could not bring herself to do so.  The child retrieved the box of Kleenex, then clung to his mother’s skirt, and glowered at the nurse.  Then the nurse had participated with three others in prying the boy away from his mother.  In the present of the poem, a week after the encounter, the nurse attempts to deal with the guilt and shame she feels in her failure of professional decorum and compassion—at having failed to rise above her moral judgment against the mother and offer the woman basic human kindness and respect.  In confronting the chaos of her emotions, the nurse turns to a story she’d learned in high school: the story of St. Lawrence.  The significance of her attempt to think with this story can be overshadowed, for readers, by the intensity of the clinical encounter she recalls; but her endeavor is of at least equal significance as the encounter.


Ironically, the nurse uses the wrong story to assess her experience.  St. Lawrence, she says, had the capacity to smell sin in others.  He and his band of followers had traversed the Roman Empire smelling out sin in others and condemning them.  Not until Lawrence had been crucified himself did he smell his own sin and feel remorse for all the judgments he’d made and all the lives he’d destroyed.  The nurse had mostly forgotten this story; but then, in her encounter with the abusive mother, she thought that she’d smelled sin—the scent of a soul rotting—and the story returned to her.  It’s not the right story, though: Lawrence did not have the olfactory powers she reports, nor did he condemn others, nor was he crucified.  Lawrence was a martyr who is rather famously known for having been barbequed and for blithely commenting to his executioners at one point that he was done on one side and could now be turned over.  The nurse’s mistaken memory of the story (complicated beautifully by the fact that we don’t know the origins of the mistake: Did the nurse’s high school teacher tell her the wrong story?  Did the nurse mishear or wrongly remember the story?  And what of the apocryphal nature of the stories of saints, generally?) is centrally significant to the poem.  Why?  The cigarette burns, inflicted as a punishment by the boyfriend, lie in the shape of a cross: the abuse is founded, it appears, upon a tragic misunderstanding and application of the story of Christianity.   We don’t know the details of what happened, but we can piece together a plausible chain of events.  Obviously, the mother had managed to get into a troubled relationship. It makes perfect sense that a 5-year-old boy, otherwise powerless to object to this relationship, would set fire to his room.  He gets caught.  The boyfriend has the mother hold the child and may well have conveyed  something along the lines of, “This is God’s punishment for what you did,” as he inflicts the burns in the form of the cross. “This will help you remember that God will always be watching what you do, and he’ll never forget that bad thing you did here today. ” He is inflicting what he thinks is some kind of divine justice on the child, imagining that he is on God’s side in punishing wrongdoing.  This is absolutely opposite of the message of Christianity, which is about forgiveness, understanding and love—not at all about cruelty and violence in the name of justice. The boyfriend constructs a despicably damaging re-writing of the story of Christianity, and drags the mother into its devastating effect.  Thus, the nurse and the boyfriend and mother draw upon the wrong stories in the judgments they make, even if the boyfriend’s misuse has far more tragic consequences than the nurse’s.  Smelling one’s own sin consists, then, in recognizing the shortcomings and incompleteness of the stories we tell to make sense of the world and in empathically understanding our common plight.  Acquiring such a capacity, we might be able to help people like the mother in the poem tell a new story about herself and the companionship she seeks—before it’s too late and before she’s willing to injure the son she loves.  The great challenge of this poem lies in resisting a judgment against this mother that prevents our empathic understanding of the human condition we share with her.  


I would note that my friend Professor Sara van den Berg reminded me, when we’d discussed this poem, of the story of St. Lawrence—which I’d learned in grade school and managed to forget.  I don’t think I would have questioned Deppe’s presentation without Dr. van den Berg’s recognition of the error.

Primary Source

Imagine What It's Like


Maine Humanities Council


Ruth Nadelhaft