Your only line is, “Oh, God.”
There are no small parts….
No, not like that.
Where is Lee Strasberg when we need him?
Deeper, let out all the air. No, ALL
the air and say it before inhaling,
before that one more time
that brings the world back in
and keeps the heart afloat.
Your moment of death
you rehearse 20,000 times a day.
I know the line, but I can’t do it,
yet. My mother, at 91, has about got it nailed.
She only says it when she tells the story
of her father, whom I never knew.
(He died out of this world
about the time I died into it.
We swapped worlds in the 40s.)
To get the voice for your own role,
be him. You are a physician.
You sit with your daughter
on the front porch. Sunday in spring.
She is 11, and your practice is solid. You’re considered
the best diagnostician in central Alabama.
You don’t know how you do it.
In early med school, 1914, the teacher would
present a patient who walked in,
sat in front of the class.
Male, age 55, three children, a plumber.
His hobby is painting. That is all you were told.
From skin, walk, posture, eyes, hair,
you had to guess what’s killing him.
Anyway, it is now 1931.
You are in the swing.
Your daughter’s chattering about the birds
competes with the birds.
The town loves you.
On the sweet-smelling sidewalk,
a pregnant woman walks toward town.
Your daughter stops talking
because you’ve stopped the swing.
She sees your skin has changed,
a harder skin, and your eyes
lose all she ever knew in them. Your voice—
and this is the voice you must feel your way into
for your own part—is a voice
your daughter has never heard.
She will remember this all her life,
but she will not tell it until she is in her 80s.
Then she will tell it often.
“Oh, God,” she hears the stranger beside her say,
“Oh, God. That girl is carrying a dead baby.”
The young girl is not your patient.
But she has guessed.
There’s no stillness in the world like that.
She hasn’t spoken of it yet.
To speak it is to make it real.
She can’t birth the word.
You will learn on rounds later in the week
that you were right. She was right.
She knew, and you knew that she knew.
And you couldn’t stop the saying of it
out of your empty chest,
not even to protect the innocence of your own child,
who worshipped you.
That’s not your role but that’s the line
and that’s the voice you’re working for,
a finality in knowing, and not knowing
how you know.
like all of us, you will have to practice.
With a lover or lost lover, being struck
dumb by what you’ve become,
seeing a Matisse in the next hall
after a dull room of 18th century
American portraiture, or
waking to a morning after sex
with a fool, or the moment of knowing
your kid is just wonderful in so many ways
you didn’t teach him.
You’ll work on it a lot
all your days.
Paul Allen retired (2010) Professor Emeritus, College of Charleston, after 36 years teaching poetry writing and writing song lyrics. He gave his furniture to his family, his books and CD collection to his students, and now lives full time on the road in a camper. His poetry books include: American Crawl (Vassar Miller Poetry Prize, University of North Texas Press); His Longing (FootHills Publishing); and Ground Forces (Salmon Poetry, Ireland). His recent albums of original songs are Waiting for the Last Bus and The Glebe Street Adios, a two-disc album. He is included in Pushcart XXXII. He has performed his poems and songs in hundreds of venues, including The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC. For reviews and full bio: www.poems-songs.com.