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When Hal Pingle was thirty minutes late
I walked the long, windowed wall
along the back of the Anatomy Lab
and passed myself back and forth
through the dull midwinter afternoon light
watching how the dust motes
scattered then closed again behind.
Outside the snow had begun;
the courtyard was a muffle of voices.
In the unlit center of the room, a wheeled
gurney: a cadaver, covered with clear plastic.
Even from a distance I could make out the blue-grey
shape of a man, the dark massed areas of hair
along his upper chest and groin, the long incision
where he'd been opened at the morgue.
I didn't want the first nude man I'd see to be dead.
I didn't want to empty him out alone,
piece by piece, his entrails, his heart.
What I wanted was for my friend to arrive,
to take up the instruments and begin the excisions,
the litany or organs. I would label and bag.
Then together we'd examine the corridors leading
to and from the faulty heart, make precise notes:
where the blood pooled in his body,
what it drained away from.
And so not to look
at the gurney, I studied the instruments: steel calipers,
thin cannulas, the razor-bright edge of scalpels.
How sharp? I wondered even as the fat pad
of my left thumb opened and blood seeped out.
At the pale blue door labeled Supply in the back of the room,
I put out my good hand and turned the handle.
I heard the latch click. I heard the hinge complain.
But I was watching my thumb separate
and swell purple like a seam on a plum.
When I did look up, I was inside.
The closet lifted into long shelves
where fetuses, far as the eye could see,
swam in jars, yellowed, curled in on themselves.
The door slammed shut behind me.
I stood there in the crypt-like dark and felt-- what?
Felt the silence entering my ear? Felt a coordior opening in me?
A coordior like knowing, or the edge of knowing?
Inside me, the seed of the tree of knowledge
took root and began a furious blooming.
I heard him come in. Heard him call my name.
Heard him mutter to himself; heard him leave again.
I heard a small noise that sounded like mice.
The sleeve of my labcoat was sticky. I turned in the dark.
I found the handle and opened the door.
I stepped out; I didn't look back.
I closed the blinds and locked the outer door; I turned off
all the lights but one.
Then I went to the gurney
and pulled the covering off the man. I looked
at him, at all of him. Nothing to distinguish him:
no moles, tattoos, no birthmarks or scars.
Only the incision running from sternum to pubic thicket.
I couldn't tell clearly where the wound ended
and the body began. I ran the seam of my thumb
along the long opened seam on the man.
"Here is where we meet," I told him,
"Here is where we are the same."
-from Flying Out with the Wounded
BIO: Anne Caston is a former nurse, a writer and an educator whose work has been published in literary and medical journals here and abroad. She received a grant from St. Mary's Arts Council in 1994 and has been a featured writer twice on WPFW's "The Poet and the Poem" and was interviewed by Michael Collier for The Writer's Life video series, broadcast over a tri-state television area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia). Her work has recently been anthologized in collections such as The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology, Where Books Fall Open, Sustenance & Desire, and Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets. A selection from Anne's poems was awarded Prairie Schooner's 2002 Readers' Choice Award and her poem, "Purgatory," received a 2003 International Merit Award in Poetry from Atlanta Review.
Anne was the 1996-97 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Fellow in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was also the 1998-99 Jenny McKean Moore Fellow in Poetry at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. She was awarded a Bread Loaf fellowship in 1999, and was the recipient of the Paumanok Award in 1997. She was also the recipient of the 2005 and 2002 Excellence in Teaching Award from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The second edition of Anne's book, Judah's Lion, has just been released from Toad Hall Press (New Hampshire). She is currently working on a third collection of poems, The Empress of Longing, and a memoir, Deep Dixie: A Southerner's Take on Life, Love, Friendship, Romance, Faith, and Coming-of-Age Among Southern Bapists. Anne Caston earned a B.A. in Language and Literature from St. Mary's College of Maryland in 1993 and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College in 1995.
Judah's Lion, a review by Mary F.Morris
I was not prepared for what I would find in Judah's Lion. There is one thing—the human condition, its beauty and terror. There is another—the rare voice able to speak its lacerations and intensity in distillations such as the poems presented here. Caston's poetry is gripping, her images haunting.
The Stone Boy (pg 6)
"Before the diagnosis was confirmed
I knew it, knew from the night of his birth, knew
When I lifted first the blue bundle of his body
And he ached – a wild thing, roaring,
Bloody still –and clenched himself against me.
… In the second year: that midnight
din of banging in the house; I'd race the stairs to find
him upright, bumping hard, the wall behind him crumbling.
One night, he rocked his crib to pieces; just in time, I found
him, hung and blue, where he'd fallen through the tipped mattress…"
Anne Caston is the nurse/Walt Whitman in the Civil War of our times, working with poverty and illness, horror, compassion, and beauty in this complex, psychological-physical theme.
Purgatory (pg 11) "You spoke of it once as a place between/closed doors the no-longer-living/come to, kept company for a time/by the souls of infants. But I/say it's a hospital nursery in Alabama,"
Some mysterious and surreal images and ideas going on in this poet's brilliant head, as in the title poem, (pg. 16)Judah's Lion. “Irony is beyond a boy like mine. As is symbolism./Allegory. Metaphor too. All is literal with him/though that doesn't rule out a wildebeest, the one he meets each morning in the fallow field/beyond our yard, the one who lies beside him/each night now in the dark."
Many biblical passages thread this book. What moves one closer, beyond these references, is the magical realism measure they take on in an astounding natural instinct reminiscent to the early work of Marquez, yet these poems are about reality, never distancing from the hard truth, grounded in the south.
The Hunt (pg 19)
“Two wings inflate/and before me again rises last night's/x-ray and its white butterfly, dead-/center of the girl: two wide wings/where her heart and lungs had ruptured/from the concussion of the suicide/bomb – a pale smear riddling the black/sky of her body…"
Poems of the nurse, sickness and healing, cure or not, there is a sacrament here in each testimony at what enters and exits the human being, as in Anatomy 101 and
The Burden (pg 21)
"I stooped to see: again, a son,
third one in three years to arrive half-made.
A changeling, the man called him, the Devil's
work in a woman's womb. He left off
the exorcism of her body long enough
to tell me: Throw it, like the others, to the dogs."
…and in a mother's fervor, Beseeching The Lord Of Tooth And Claw (pg 24),
lines like: "But oh, the songs he came here with!/Even the silver spoons of the forceps knew/enough to envy him that./…My father's word for this/a prayer. Others say heresy./I call it the heart's last falcon-cry/going out, the soul nailed to the body's/cross, while eternity's sirens sing."
Mother, nurse, social worker, truth sayer. Thick with endurance in the suffering of every day saints, a book of martyrs. And proverbs. These poems live in swamp and river, bird calls, howls, the south in all its glory, horror, and mysteries, barbed and shining.
There is a relationship, husband and wife, war and loss, the disturbing lines trembling like neon. This is the writing of death, what many poets attempt and what Caston does so well. There is also remission, the coming back from.
(pg 73) Psalm, After The Fall From Remission
"Remake me, Potter, or break me
Into three final holy pieces: scatter me
Knucklebone, eyelash, and tooth to the wind and rain.
Give what remains of me to the poor – called
Last to every table save Death's.
For reasons worse than hunger, I'm driven
Into bargaining again with You, the throttle thrown wide.
What a strange affliction being mortal is.
In one night, the camp of the body is made
Or broken. I arm myself; I resist; I try
Not to enter the one dark pass
Where I will be taken.
Tonight my house is full with waking.
I, too, am full of a curtained hour I have not yet known.
When the sun rose today, this iron bed was bright with morning
And all the daily little blisses of ignorance. By the time the sun went down,
The world of the living was closed again to me, even the false light hope gives
Off, and I lay feverish in cotton sheets so clean the rain was in them still.
Even the pillowslip was innocent of my undoing."
Judah's Lion gives access to the history of others, hardship and misery in its compelling compositions and mysteries, spinning each poem into humanity and compassion, unsurpassed.