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Epidemic, 1950


Tere has (most generously) asked me to post this prose poem series. This was my original submission to an editor who asked me to fill it out and resubmit it as a prose piece. The result is available on the link posted in Field Notes. It sure got morphed, is all I can say.

(I've forgotten how to format on these boards: please imagine L & R margin justified, centered subtopics, yadda yadda.)



EPIDEMIC, 1950


Diagnosis

I am two-and-a-half. My spinal tap is in my mother's memory. She has to have one too. Hers is Negative.

~

Quarantine

I remember this: my bed is made of metal tubes, curved and painted white. Everything is white. The walls. The curtains. The metal bedside stand with it skinny legs. The glass. Each straw. The sheets. The blanket. Each pillow. My gown.

Later this memory becomes a dream and I am floating in the hall outside my little room. I can see down the long row of curtains beyond glass doors that aren't there. Outside I see a busy street. Women in black hats with veils. Men in gray suits. Yellow taxis. A big cream and green bus. A brown dog on a blue leash. A red parrot eating candy corn in the window of a pet shop.

My feet don't touch a floor for seven months.

~

Skylight

The ward is huge. We are called patients and our beds form a circle. There are no curtains -- we can see each other all the time. The ceiling is glass. The pattern on the floor is a large mosaic compass star. I remember chips of yellow and I remember chips of blue. The woman in the next bed teaches me how to brush my teeth. I don't remember the taste of that toothpaste but I remember spitting into a curved enamel basin. I liked being told that I may spit.

~

Iron Lungs

We get around on wheels. Wheels attached to chairs. Tables and chairs are at the end of the room but we don't sit in them. Those chairs are for people who can walk. Games are on the tables but I don't remember playing. At the other end of the room are rows and rows of huge metal tubes. No. The tubes take up most of the room. They are up high, their legs are on wheels but I never see them move. Each tube has a person inside, lying on their back. I can only see their head and necks. One of the people in the tubes tells me Yes, I have arms and legs. The people who live in the tubes look up into mirrors, so everything in the room must be upside down until they close their eyes.

At night we are pushed back into our wards. The sounds of the tubes puts some of us to sleep. Not everyone sleeps.


~

Brace

I already know how to lace and tie. I become very good at buckles. At night I can tell which nurse is walking down the hall by the rhythm of her feet.


~

Marbles

My father is in another country. My mother has to work. I go live with my father's parents so I can have therapy every day. A woman in white stockings rolls a marble across the rug in my room. I crawl after it. The rug burns my knees. Then I lie on the bed and she asks me Can you do this? Can you try again? Try to raise your leg. Bend your knee. Now wiggle your toes. It's the same every day. It never changes. I feel sorry for her. When we are done for the day she lets me choose a bird sticker from her book. I lick the back of the sticker and stick it on the glass of my father's photograph.

My grandmother wants to know why I am covering his face.

I say The birds are presents.


~

Home

My mother comes for dinner on Sundays. I look across the lace tablecloth at a beautiful woman. I try to remember who she is.

When I am four I go back to live with her and she teaches me how to cross my arms in front of my chest to pull off my undershirt.

This is how girls do it, she says.

How do boys do it? I ask.

Depends on the boy, she says.


~

Consultations

The left leg is now the bad leg. The right leg is now the good leg. The bad leg is too short. The good leg is too long and the surgeons want to make things even. I lie down on a cold table and sand bags are pushed against the bad leg to keep it from rolling to the side. The X-ray person disappears. Hold still. Don't breathe. Little noise. Little noise. I don’t feel a thing.

Later the doctors explain the pictures to me. I look like I'm glued together from two halves of different people.

This is what we need to do. We want your permission.


Everyone wants me to walk without the brace. No one can explain the difference between better and impossible.


~

Surgeries

I am alone in the basement hallway. I am strapped down on my back. The narrow bed on wheels is called a gurney. The walls of this long hallway are green--I don't like this color. Later my mother tells me the color is supposed to help people relax. I don’t believe it.

I am wheeled into a room with giant round lights that can move very close to me. I want to see my doctor's face. The metal mask that goes over my mouth and nose. It looks like the strainer Grandmother uses when she washes grapes. The drips of ether smell horrible and sweet. I try to hold my breath. But I have to breathe.

I am told to count backwards from one hundred. I say I am six years old and then I fall asleep. The doctors try to fix something every other year until I am sixteen.


~

The H-Bomb

I am ten. Four of us are in a ward. One of the visitors has left the TV on and we see a program about the H-bomb. The cloud moves up and billows out. About fifteen times. The nurse comes in and turns off the TV. She asks us if we were scared. Nothing on the TV scares us. At night all the flowers and plants are taken from the room so they won't use up all our oxygen. We try to hold our breath when the plants come back into the rooms in the morning.


~
      
Visitors

Eleanor comes to visit. Her mother lets her lie and say she is twelve. The nurse takes us to the courtyard and brings us milkshakes. Father Lucas visits from the St. Stephens. He asks How is your morale? I tell him that I don't know what that means.

Mother has a new baby so she can't come every day. My new step-mother brings me yellow baby-doll pajamas.

Granddad is a doctor and the nurses answer all his questions. My doctor’s names are: Ashley, Bost, Shottstad, Larsen, Ashley, Calendar. Dr. Larson is my favorite. He pinches my toes. When I tell him the cast hurts over my knee, he believes me.
They cut a hole in my cast. The sore was not a lie.

I read a book every day. I don't remember when I couldn't read.
     

~

Plaster of Paris

I wake up from another surgery and my leg in a heavy white shell and it is hanging from ropes. There is a big red stain above my ankle.

The nurse tells me to put my head down. Go back to sleep.

What is on my leg?

Don’t try to look -- keep your head down.

I get sick in a basin. The pain is bad. I cry Nurse.

Some of them get mad.

My mother brings a small bunch of artificial daisies and sticks them in the toe of my cast. My mother knows how to laugh.

The cast comes off in three months. The doctor uses a small circular saw. He says it will only cut through soft things and shows me on his hand. Two cuts, one down either side of my leg, through the plaster to the cotton. The blade buzzing against my leg feels hot. Then giant pliers.

My leg is white when the cast comes off and it feels so light it nearly floats. When we leave the hospital the nurse wraps a blanket around my legs. Mother doesn't return the blanket. I worry about that.

She says We have paid for it a couple of times over.


~

Art Lesson

We are in the brace repair shop. There is a mural high on the wall in front of us. On the left side of the picture people hobble on crutches in darkness. In the middle men who don't wear shirts work at a forge, making like horseshoes. On the right people wearing the braces walk in the light.

I tell my mother The painting is a lie.

Mother looks up from her magazine. You used to be crippled, then you were lame. Next you were handicapped. Wait long enough and you will be inconvenienced.

How will they paint that?


~

Boys and Men

Better not kick me with that. How much does it weigh?

We want her on our team. – Rich, you can run for her.

 Can you really dance?—Nothing fast though, right?

I knew a woman who couldn’t dance but she was very popular because she was a good listener.

Talk to boys about sports.

Does it hurt? Can you bend your leg? Do you have a foot or does your leg just end?

Does that thing go all the way up? Do you take it off when you go to bed?

Can you … ummm… do everything?

And this, once: Tell me everything I need to know.

Let me know when you’re ready to have babies—I’d like to be the doctor who delivers them –--your pelvis is very interesting.


My arms are good. I can beat nearly all of them at tether ball.


~

Wool

I have a panic attack in sophomore year in mechanical drawing class. I tell Mrs. Gravelle I need to leave the room because of the smell. She says the blueprint machine smells like hot wool. Mother figures it out. She tells me the nurses in the hospital wrapped steaming strips of wool around our arms and legs in the wards to keep the circulation going. And maybe kill the virus. She says A nurse thought of that.


~

Flying

I am four-and-a-half and I am upstairs in Grandma Willie's apartment. I tell her I had a dream that I could fly like Wendy. I am sure I can fly. I climb on the couch so I can show her how I fly. She is sitting on a dining room chair and crosses her arms and legs. She lets me try. I fall. When I can breathe again I ask what happened.

You just knocked the wind out of your lungs – you’ll be all right.

I pretend my name is Wendy and write that name in all my books.

~
      

Tortoise, Hare

I am twelve and I am visiting my grandfather and grandmother. We are watching the Olympics. Wilma Rudolph has just won a gold medal. We watch the story of how she came from a big family. They were poor, she got sick -- polio and pneumonia. Her family took care of her. She took her braces off in church one day and just began to run.

You could be another Wilma Rudolph, my grandfather says.

I tell him It’s OK.

It is easier to lie than say I am tired of needing to be fixed.


~

Vacation

I tell my mother I remember sitting in the sand at Tahoe the summer I was two. Wasn’t my bathing suit red with a ruffled skirt? She says How can you remember that? I tell her that is all I remember until the white room. Mother tells me about the in-between.

After we came home from Tahoe I called to her in the middle of the night I have to go to the bathroom.

She called back Well get up and go.

I said I can’t walk.


~

Vaccine

I am standing in line on crutches on a Saturday in the grade school cafeteria. The cast is heavy, my back aches, and my wrists and armpits are sore. I don't know why we have to be here.

Mother explains There are three strains of polio virus – we don’t know which one you had. We don’t want to do this all over again.

It's my turn. The nurse hands me white paper cup. Inside, a pink sugar cube is waiting.



Apr/15/2010, 11:30 pm Link to this post Send Email to MsParataxis   Send PM to MsParataxis
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


Yes, Ms P. Now my question for you. Viewed back to back this way, which telling you figure truer to the early history?

Tere
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


Tere -
   I'm running with Komunyakaa on this one: "Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault."
   I do think a prose poem provides the reader with a more consuming imaginative space for the reader, whereas a personal essay provides a more psychologically projective space. One's a Disneyland ride on The Pirates of the Caribbean. the other's like sitting down, eating your hot dog, while eavesdropping on a conversation between folks at the other end of the bench.

Last edited by MsParataxis, Apr/17/2010, 7:12 am
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Terreson Profile
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Well put, Ms. P. You've actually touched on why I prefer poetry and the essay form to working in any other. Between the two I am a happy writer.

Tere
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


Ms P,

Yes, this prose poem got morphed when you turned it into an essay. I can't say which one is "better" since the aims of both are different. I can say that this poem has so much immediacy. I think that is because, although this is a memory piece, most of it is told from the child's perspective. Each detail is vivid and the whole has a "just the facts, ma'am" feel to it that is unaffected, unsentimental and damn effective. I confess that I'm glad I read the essay first; it gave me courage. When I read:

Everything is white. The walls. The curtains. The metal bedside stand with it skinny legs. The glass. Each straw. The sheets. The blanket. Each pillow. My gown.

I knew the narrator was one who sees and doesn't look away and that, as a reader, I wouldn't be able to either. I get what you mean about the poem offering "the reader with a more consuming imaginative space." It's a wonderfully strong piece. Thanks to Tere for asking you to post it and to you for doing so.
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Hi,

This is so very well-written that we are fully exposed to the poignancy. It's utterly gripping. I have read the prose and the poem now and vote for this poem as the more...ultimately truthful somehow, I'd have to say. There seems to be no artifice at all, as if the memories flow straight from mind to fingers. And you have so much skill in English from reading that book a day that the words seem to match the memories and feelings perfectly. The poem is written from an urgent need to lay out the overall story told in these vignettes.

The prose is beautiful, but I feel the mind at work there. I feel some work is involved in drawing the relationship between Syid and the patient. We are told slightly too much what to think as the conversation progresses. It's a little more literary, while the poem is non-literary, it's necessity. Both the poem and the prose are successful, but I care far more for the little girl than for Syid. The focus is where it belongs in the poem.

Just some thoughts about two terrific pieces.

Take care,

Auto
Apr/23/2010, 1:02 am Link to this post Send Email to pjouissance   Send PM to pjouissance
 
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Auto -
   Just some thoughts? Yours are always insightful and welcome. Posting both pieces, having people read and compare them is so intriguing and so very helpful.
  Will we ever understand how we decide to tell a story? All I know is I go to an entirely different place in my language/image brain for the prose poem. It's a place I love to inhabit. I came (shamefully) late to the form and once again, have to thank de la Paz's "Names Above Houses" for blowing the roof of my jail about the prose poem. "Holy cow, we get to do this?" It was as if someone said "Yeah, you CAN eat pizza every day!"
   I think it's time for breakfast.
Cheers, my dear - cheers!
M

Last edited by MsParataxis, Apr/24/2010, 1:01 pm
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


K -
  Many thanks - many. You know, this is an experience that is much augmented by imagination and the drive of language. Cadence alone can help you find the next word, the next image. And the imagination is, sometimes, more emotionally true than the facts and that's my story and I'm sticking to it. You know what I like about writing this sort of thing? You get to go anywhere you like, as long as it works. And I'm glad this worked for you. And you know what else? Writing is one of the ultimate redemptive forces in our lives. I'm sticking to that story, too!

MsP
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Oh, I so love basking in the first moment when sunlight barks on the horizon and once again, as has become habitual, I get to be right. Of course, ya'll know I am a bullshit artist and wrong most of the time, a misdirected stance I don't mind.

Ms P I hope you get your prose poem comes through clean and clear to discrimating readers. This thing rocks.

Tere
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


Oh, quick—somebody hand Tere the SPF50 before he burns to a crisp.

(ducking) - thanks, old friend. Yes. I get it. And I've just spent a little time spiffing it up and putting stamps on its back. I'm pimping the poem. Seeing if there's any rag brave enough to take it.

Your encouragement means much. Now, here's a hat. emoticon

MsP


Last edited by MsParataxis, Apr/24/2010, 7:31 pm
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pjouissance Profile
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


 Hi,

"Cadence alone can help you find the next word, the next image."

Very true, but I never thought about it like that before. It's an intuitive technique. One way is to mumble the words in a singsong and pretend it's already written, you've just temporarily forgotten the word...oh yes, that was it...

Thanks for that thought,

Auto
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Thanks, Auto, for highlighting Ms. P.'s offhand remark. I kind of read over it. That is exactly how the case seems to me. Exactly what I learned from Eliot way back in '74, immersed in his The Wasteland poem. I can be damn hard on the Old Possum. But one thing I cannot gainsay him. When it came to vers libre he reigned supreme. And I think he got in his body precisely what Ms. P. points to: rhythmic drive can lead you to the next (I will say right) word and image.

But there is a flipside to this, a downside, a danger. Anyone else noticed how every great discovery has a downside? It's like what Jung said: every concept has its reverse. Something I once put in my own words: every dream has its nightmare. I've quoted Pound before on the topic more than once. I am sorry for the repetition. About the iambic foot he said: "the god damn iamb magnetizes certain verbal sequences."

Boy howdy this is so true for me. And when verbal sequences get this way magnetized what follows is not just a sameness of sound, but a sameness of sense, texture and, ultimately, meaning. And I think the danger is not just particular to closed form poetry. I think it is present in the case of vers librist poets, free verse poets, lang-po poets, what have you, any poet who does not dance to different tunes.

Maybe I'm just pushing myself to learn a new tune?

Tere
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Oh, I love this 'brood' - Here's Woolf's quote, which set my hair on fire:

"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates in this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year."

by Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)
Letter to V. Sackville-West, 16 March 1926

A lit teacher was writing this up on the board: I walked into class a few minutes early - read the quote and before I could think to shush myself, I blurted out: "She sure got _that_ right." ... He replied: "Where Woolf says "makes words to fit it, Elliot would say 'finds words to fit it.'"

Auto: Can you elaborate on that, please? I'm not quite understanding. Not all the synapses are firing today.

Tere: here here! I think the singular most important aspect of rhythm is understanding the necessity of its variance (unless, of course, your goal is to bore someone to death) - tension, suspense - look what Dickinson does with rhythm. Phew. Dang. Lady. Perhaps the marriage between rhythm and meaning was the only one she needed. I dunno.

Last edited by MsParataxis, Apr/29/2010, 1:24 pm
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Ms P. I am in love with this brood too. Everyone of you put something out there that tickles my brain, gives me pause, makes me stop, incites clarification in my thinking.

Woolf had it right of course. Rhythm doesn't just modulate or give form to thinking. It is procreative of how thinking thinks itself. I figure that is what she means. And the discovery wasn't just hers alone. Somehow, in the somehow way of zeitgeist, so many poets of that generation came to the same realization. Sure they were in revolt against Victorian tastes. But they were also after something, something more, rhythmic driven poetry in which the rhythm generates the syntax. This hits precisely on the genius of the Age.

If I was an MFA, and not a knuckle dragging beekeeper, this would be my thesis paper. They all took from Whitman, Dickinson, the Symbolists, and Hopkins, and they put their faith in the rhythm of the line and sentence, in both poetry and prose. Rhythm became their muse.

As it keeps as mine.

Tere
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elizabeth anne Profile
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Re: Epidemic, 1950


Wow.

That's all.

Just "wow".

Great stuff. So glad I came.

-EA
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