Words on Wellness: A Selection of Poems

As part of our ongoing series, poet and longtime Pelican Bomb contributor Benjamin Morris shares a selection of poems reckoning with health, sickness, and grief.

Maria Lassnig, Double Self-Portrait with Camera, 1974. Oil on canvas. Copyright the Maria Lassnig Foundation.

“To Be Held”
Linda Hogan

To be held
by the light
was what I wanted,
to be a tree drinking the rain,
no longer parched in this hot land.
To be roots in a tunnel growing
but also to be sheltering the inborn leaves
and the green slide of mineral
down the immense distances
into infinite comfort
and the land here, only clay,
still contains and consumes
the thirsty need
the way a tree always shelters the unborn life
waiting for the healing
after the storm
which has been our life.

Deborah Pope

Suddenly it is there
on its pogo-stick of sound,
like some bastard brother
out of Beatrix Potter—
Flopsy, Mopsy, and Biopsy.
You cannot shove it away.
It settles in
like the quality of light
in the sky.
It is not the door
but the heavy, brass knocker;
not the frost
but its first stark breath;
it is not the word
but the tongue that shapes it,
the language that nothing,
and everything, waits in,
the truth
of that shriveled meat
of rabbit’s foot.

Sheryl St. Germain

in memory of my brother, Jay St. Germain, 1958-1981

The truth is I loved it,
the whole ritual of it,
the way he would fist up his arm, then
hold it out so trusting and bare,
the vein pushed up all blue and throbbing
and waiting to be pierced,
his opposite hand gripped tight as death
around the upper arm,

the way I would try to enter the vein,
almost parallel to the arm,
push lightly but firmly, not
too deep,
you don’t want to go through
the vein, just in,
then pull back until you see
blood, then

hold the needle very still, slowly
shoot him with it.
Like that I would enter him.
slowly, slowly, very still,
don’t move,
then he would let the fist out,
loosen his grip on the upper arm—

and oh, the movement of his lips
when he asked that I open my arms.
How careful,
how good he was, sliding
the needle silver and slender
so easily into me, as though
my skin and veins were made for it,
and when he had finished, pulled
it out, I would be coming
in my fingers, hands, my ear lobes
were coming, heart, thighs,
tongue, eyes and brain were coming,
thick and brilliant as the last thin match
against a homeless bitter cold.

I even loved the pin-sized bruises,
I would finger them alone in my room
like marks of passion;
by the time they turned yellow,
my dreams were full of needles.

We both took lovers who loved
this entering and being entered,
but when he brought over the
pale-faced girl so full of needle holes
he had to lay her on her back

like a corpse and stick the needle
over and over in her ankle veins
to find one that wasn’t weary
of all that joy, I became sick
with it, but

you know, it still stalks my dreams,
and deaths make no difference:
there is only the body’s huge wanting.

When I think of my brother
all spilled out on the floor
I say nothing to anyone.
I know what it’s like to want joy
at any cost.

“What of a Body”
L. Lamar Wilson

that cannot lie,
of sinews that do not obey
when commanded to cease
their quaking? What
of a body that scoffs
at holy water’s
conditions, of pores
that hunger for
a tongue’s fetter,
of nerves deaf
to homilies of sweet
by & by & batty bwoy,
boom bye bye? Who
can hold this body
in his hands, silence
its tender, muted moan
beneath scars
that will not heal?

“Institute of Defectology”
Thomas Lux

The skeletons covered with sores—if they can walk,
this is where they’re sent; whoever’s civic pulse
is uncertain, thready; whose only thought’s
a picture: el vomito negro. The half-wits,
the borderline nincompoops, left-handed pinheads;
collectors of rats’ feet; the boy who torched
his grandmother’s cat, the grandmother
who torched her granddaughter’s doll—you'll find them

here: on Green Ward, Hilarity Section, Sedation Floor.
Those permanently broken
in spirit, who won’t pray
or denounce prayer, who admire Jesus personally
but never mind the Immaculate etc.—
they’re all sent here. The surfeit-sensitives,
the metromaniacal, sociopathetics,
the non-numb psychically hyper, loaded

in vans, pried from the streets
with spatulas, snatched at recess from playgrounds,
from circles of jeering peers, hauled
from factories and offices—they’re all
here. The boy who collected
15,035 lbs. of snake,
pounded those not already flat flat
and stacked them in his room. The girl

this moment in Morbid Ward for pinching
the hearts of canaries, or the teenager,
on her way to hard-water hydrotherapy,
who would not believe
her boyfriend or the president:
they’re all here—in paper slippers,
no pants—brought for study,
for adjustment, help, removal, cure.

“The Kaleidoscope”
Douglas Dunn

To climb these stairs again, bearing a tray,
Might be to find you pillowed with your books,
Your inventories listing gowns and frocks
As if preparing for a holiday.
Or, turning from the landing, I might find
My presence watched through your kaleidoscope,
A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned
In lovely forms of foresight, prayer and hope.
I climb these stairs a dozen times a day
And, by the open door, wait, looking in
At where you died. My hands become a tray
Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.
Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry
For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.

“Head, Heart”
Lydia Davis

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

“What the Living Do”
Marie Howe

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.


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