Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Richard Berlin


I don’t like to use the worn out word
“bruise” in my poems, but this morning
purple appeared on my inner thigh
like a little cliché.  A hypochondriac
might imagine this smudge to be
a harbinger of death, but I am calm,
accepting that the end will come,
perhaps on a clear morning like today
when I am the only doctor in the house,
studying the beauty of my lesion
with all the detachment and awe
I have learned from thirty years
of practice, the diagnosis as easy
and predictable as any cliché.


Listening to Dead Patients

They love to talk like air traffic controllers:
“Angle the spinal needle 20 degrees
and push gently toward the midline.”
And though I don’t say “Roger” or
“I copy that” loud enough for patients
to hear, that’s what I whisper to the dead. 
Sometimes they tease me about mistakes
I’ve made—  pneumonia I called heart failure,
thyroid disease I diagnosed as depression. 
They niggle me about lab tests I forgot
to order, forms sent without signatures,
all the phone calls I have to return. 
Their voices are the hum I hear at night
and in the first light of dawn.  Occasionally,
they are kind enough to praise my skill
and allow me to take pleasure in my work.
But all my dead patients love to laugh
and remind me, no matter what I do,
I will join them all too soon.


Sharp-Shinned Hawk

All morning we hike the upland meadows,
through devil’s paintbrush, poison sumac,
and the heady smell of wild apples rotting
in the pale fall sun.  Palm warblers twitch

their yellow rumps like strung out coke-heads,
and cedar waxwings sing drinking songs
as they eat fermented berries in the high
branches.  Two yellow feathers and a skull

drop from the sky and fall on the brown
scar of trail, a sharp-shinned hawk on a dead
branch watching us walk, his brown speckled
belly and slate gray wings reflecting the sun. 

He considers us, and without a flap
opens his wings to the wind and is gone.


A Headlong Act of Love

            -from a line by Pablo Neruda

It was a headlong act of love
when I kissed her.  She was gone.
No one could have saved her.
The dialyzer hummed a little love song.

The way I kissed her (she was gone)
was a reflex, a hand to break my fall.
The dialyzer hummed a little love song.
No one saw us, the curtains were drawn.

It was a reflex, a hand to break my fall.
My mouth was on her lips!
No one saw us, the curtains were drawn.
I’m a man who doesn't take risks.

My mouth was on her lips!
I closed my eyes, but not for long.
I’m a man who doesn't take risks.
The corridor was quiet, it was close to dawn.

I closed my eyes, but not for long.
Her lips on mine felt soft and warm.
The corridor was quiet, it was close to dawn.
She was dead, but I sang her a song.

Her lips on mine felt soft and warm.
No one could have saved her.
She was dead.  I sang her a song—
It was a headlong act of love.



After My Father Died

I left the hotel without a map,
lost as a star

in the mid-morning sky.
Orange blossoms fell,

their fragrance clinging to the air
like cologne on his collar.

A gypsy begged and whispered,
Your eyes contain sadness and light

and for a moment I forgot
his body in a hospital bed,

noticed each separate stone
in this fortified city

built over centuries
by a hundred thousand hands,

and stood alone with only two:
one to smooth grief 

from the faces
of my patients,

the other to jab
this pen into paper

like a shovel
stabbing a grave.


Lay Down Sally

He's dying on dialysis—
I’ve known him
since my first days as a doctor, 

and now he wants to quit.
I’ve been called
to write the sentence

that says he understands
the meaning of “no.
Seated on the corner of his bed,

I test him with questions
until Clapton rocks the radio
picking “Lay Down Sally,”

and I drift off, thinking
this is one more riff I’ll never master.
Though my white coat touches his gown,

he sees I’m gone and calls me back:
Remember when Clapton was God?
And we’re in the days of Blind Faith,

comparing calluses on our fingertips
earned from playing “Layla,”
and we agree dying is easier

than learning guitar.  Yeah, he laughs,
you don’t even need to practice.
We talk music as he fades,

his soft breathing a gentle strum.
A nurse hangs the morphine.
I write my blue notes.


Playing God in the Hospital

A fly buzzes
black complaints
at the glass.

Drawn by sunlight
reflected off snow,
it is trapped

without design
to know another way.
My pager calls

code blue.
And for no reason
at all

I lift the window
and blow a little life
back into the world.


How JFK Killed My Father

Within recent medical times psychologic investigations have reawakened interest in the psychological settings in which illness develops.  Reports in the literature have singled out loss as a precipitating factor in a variety of disorders…including ulcerative colitis.
                                                                        Arthur H. Schmale, Jr. MD
                                                                        -in Psychosomatic Medicine

It was a time when men wore fedoras
banded on the crown, each band with a feather
tucked into a bow, and inside,
sweat bands carved from calf skins
with their sweet smell of animal and earth.
I remember the photo over my grandfather’s desk,
a sepia toned panorama shot
from his ninth floor factory window,
Broadway below a surge of ticker-tape
and hats tossed in the air for FDR,
hats pouring into the street, hats
waved in exaltation, hats
taking off like America.

After two war-time winters in Greenland
my father came home, hat in hand,
and bought the sweat band business,
made it grow like his young family, presidents
and hopefuls motorcading down Broadway:
Truman in a Scala wool Hamburg,
Ike’s bald head steamed in fur felt,
Stevenson’s ideals lost in the glory
of a two-inch-brimmed Stetson.
But when thick-haired Kennedy
rode top down and bare-headed,
men all over America took off their hats
in salute, in praise and imitation,
flung them into the street forever.
Hat factories closed quiet as prayer books,
and loss lingered in my father’s guts
like unswept garbage after a big parade.

Years later, yarmulke on my head,
they asked me to view him in his coffin. 
I can still see his face shaved smooth as calf skin,
his dark suit, crisp white shirt and tie,
how I laughed that they dressed him for eternity
without a hat.  And I can still hear
the old men murmur in the graveyard,
Kennedy did it to him,
fedoras held close to their leathered hearts.
first published in Psychiatric Times


How the News Comes

It can come with a doctor’s steady stare
or words blunt as a headstone.
The news is published in lab reports,
breaks when old men stand
and femurs crack like frozen branches.
Headlines are written by fingers on a lump,
by eyes reporting shapes in an X-ray shadow,
and with stained sentences of cells on slides.
Sometimes it comes on fruity breath,
jaundiced skin, or sheets soaked
with banners of bright red blood.
We read it when a priest appears
and the nurse leaves, when a wife begs
her wasted husband to eat, when friends stop
calling and children run away.
Most days, news rants loud and public
as a tuned-out politician,
but if we have the courage to look,
it is broadcast from every face,
a black script all reporters know
by heart.

© Richard Berlin


No comments:

Post a Comment