Mudlark Poster No. 100 (2012)


You’ve had ten years to tell me everything
you know about the Atchafalaya Swamp, 
the mangled devastation of its buffer marshes, 
the spectacular ascension of egrets and two-
winged anhinga. Remember sliding shirtless 
into the hospital bed while I was circling 
the drain at Kaiser Permanente? The man 
in the gorilla suit driving the small convertible
on TV was actually Robert Wagner, whose middling
skills were noblized by the death of Natalie Wood, 
she of the alabaster hands and green bikini. 
Love cannot be our tragedy. Recall how, while 
cracking my cast like an icicle,  the night surgeon 
said:  The more you love, the more you turn into 
an object, a beloved horse standing in the rain. 


I was bleeding profusely at Kaiser Permanente, 
sky-high on  morphine like the sad vampire 
in Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla. 
Why must age and degradation always stick 
together like fungus on a rock? Thank god 
you came along to braid my hair and play 
checkers, just like old times, before the polar 
bears were dying and we all got poor without
even trying. On clean hospital sheets, we re-
enacted July 20,1969, where I was the moon 
and you were the lunar module. The night 
surgeon arrived with my missing digit in a soup 
bowl and said:  Kids, we may not be able to see 
the stars from this window, but they’re there.


It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye 
game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven
times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente.
The QB landed a hook and ladder pass, I dissolved 
a little Librium under my tongue and the night
counselor talked about emotions. Big or small, 
emotions were cocaine and I craved a billion while 
poor Vivian got pre-defeated by a group hug. 
Counselor said:  The speaking is easy but the feeling  
is hard. I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging 
my childhood with unimproved love. Man down! 
Man down on the field, Bucky oompahed a cute 
tuba player, one more field goal to go and the kicker’s 
toe rose like a flag, true north and beautiful. Night counselor 
said:  It’s a gift from god, motherfucker, no two ways about it. 


I was having my heart started with sizzling 
paddles in the pale sinister halls of Kaiser 
Permanente and I was feeling revived as an old
steel mill on the first day of a brand new war.  
Then you blew in with pictures of Indianapolis 
and your Meyer Lansky trench coat and what 
could we do but snuggle? There is something
about a hospital that makes it easy to redefine 
desire as the absence of wires. The night 
surgeon tied up my loose ends and said: It 
would have been fun to be in Havana while 
Eartha Kitt sang When Smoke Gets In Your
Eyes to a roomful of New Jersey gangsters 
but even romance can be ugly and survive.


I was riding high on my slim artificial limb 
courtesy of the good people at Kaiser Permanente.
The way the prophets tell it, I had nowhere 
to go but up although it’s just as easy to go down
with a hinge in your fibula. While I was forbidden 
to operate heavy machinery we found fresh 
ways to tingle. We drank the apple juice 
provided and banned conversations ending 
in why. The remaining bones grew fidgety 
and shy, wary of the stranger in their lives. 
The night surgeon arrived with extra-long socks
and said:  Sure, getting old is a process of getting 
burned but there’re always new words to find the hurt. 


I was being revascularized in the aluminum 
canals of Kaiser Permanente and it was just
what I imagine cannibalism would feel like. 
John Prine says that blood looks like shadows 
in a black and white video but I say it looks like 
blood. Make me a vessel, lord, not a sieve.
From out of the long hallway of our marriage 
you appeared as Lancelot with a comic book 
and a fifth of gin. You ripped open the gray 
industrial drapes to let the erotic sunshine 
prick my skin, all lemon gone metallic, my 
superhero cape clipped for good. The night 
surgeon arrived with a vial  of me. He said:
did you know that human blood contains 
albumin? We can paint a Sistine masterpiece 
or simply cook it like an egg.


One night after you told me that anything 
that moves is headed for destruction, I 
ruptured a muscle trying to imitate a brain 
in action. Propped on orthopedic boxes 
in the terrycloth warmth of Kaiser Permanente, 
distance was collapsing between me and the lives 
of people I had never been. When I was my 
mother, I smoked Kools by the community pool, 
trying to remember the music that summoned 
the monster. You smuggled in salami on rye 
just as the night surgeon arrived with my file. 
He said:  Lady, a treasure hunt will soon begin. 
Then you will see something interesting.


I was hard at work on the next generation 
of parks that featured naturalistic plantings 
in the ruins of grain silos along the spastic
Mississippi when I was struck by lightning. 
Airlifted to the vestibular therapy ward of 
Kaiser Permanente, I twisted and wiggled like 
fiddleheads in the wind. You brought me 
the book of Rilke, his inner ear so finely tuned 
to insular human music trying to get out. For old 
times’ sake, the surgeon arrived with a pack 
of Lamictal and a small chalkboard that said: 
(in the immortal words of the Norse god 
Thor) when the thunder roars, go indoors.


I was at the stadium protesting the new national 
sadness, cheering improved human relations 
and solar power when I was knocked cold by 
a pop fly and revived with ammonium nitrate 
behind the olive curtain at Kaiser Permanente. 
You saw the razor in all this rising and falling, 
my womanly loneliness caramelized in blood. 
No crybaby, no waiting for fastidious grief. I made 
a vow to give up my Chekhovian sense of loss
and you promised to build me a miniature beach 
complete with pelicans and pirate’s gold. The night
surgeon measured  the lump on my head with calipers, 
decrying geometry and past times for the masses. 
Running in circles is not how to start a revolution, 
he said. That’s just how to hit a girl in glasses.


I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding Tolstoy’s 
heroine, exalted first then broken by a
moment of happiness. Marriage is waxed
with accident, contingency and birds that 
seem to mean more than what they are. 
I had just lost my hand building a makeshift 
village for ideological people; you opened 
your arms like a wound. Easily triaged at 
Kaiser Permanente, from my room we could 
hear patients cheering the new president’s 
motorcade on its way to the beach. The night 
surgeon placed a takeout order for some kung 
pao shrimp and another prosthetic. Hey, you
want see some magic, kids, he asked. There’s 
nothing we can’t replace with something else.

Jennifer Willoughby’s poems appeared in Court Green, Rhino, Conduit, Spinning Jenny, Indiana Review and elsewhere. Her first collection—for which the “Kaiser Variations,” she says, “form a semi-steely backbone”—is seeking a publisher. She lives in Minneapolis and writes advertising copy “for anything that wants it.”  

Copyright © Mudlark 2012
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