For Adam, my student, in Walter Reed
“Take One!” says the sticky
by the AFG decals,
but I don’t, though I want to,
I have no claim to sacrifice,
no stump swinging
like a wind-wild bell, no
appled fist, no marbled
skin. Quite possibly
I’m imposing, no better
than a driver slowing
at the scene to count
the bodies, the jellied
patches of blood.
Quite possibly I mean
to stand, unblinking,
in the face of another’s,
your exquisite pain.
I am wife, mother, sister,
daughter of no one here.
Whitman rushed towards
the wounded, wrote how
they piled around him
a heap of amputated feet,
legs, arms, hands,
mass casualties and his
longing, grief a hunger,
that must be filled.
These are not like other
hospitals, he wrote.
As with the homeless
woman whose terrible cry
peals in the street, God, please,
someone give me something
to eat, I run towards.
I keep my hands open.
When I see how swollen and purple it is, how the skin,
like a film of dried glue, stretches over the bones
of his foot, so clearly now not a foot,
more like the burnt end of a candle’s wick
or rain-soaked rotten wood which, if I pursed my lips
and blew softly, would crumble onto
his white sheets, I think this would be less painful,
one small grace which surely he deserves,
and when he says it’s no longer a foot to him anyway,
that it’s only one limb, a paper cut,
I imagine his foot as punctuation mark, curled as it is
like a right parenthesis, already half-afterthought.
“thousands of spirit limbs [were] haunting as many good soldiers, every now and then tormenting them”
Phantom limb pain, the Civil War physician called it
when soldiers swore they could feel the most
inconvenient presence of their missing arms and legs,
a burning sensation with every blow . . . touch,
or . . . change of wind. How many times had Adam
posted on Facebook that he could not sleep
because his foot, like a match, had curled into flame?
Except he had no foot, so it could not be.
Nothing makes sense. I watched him once
sip dessert from a straw, back when no one was sure
he would make it, when all he wanted to know
was how soon the horse and carriage was coming.
Those cinder block rooms at Walter Reed?
Never completely empty. They come. They go.
Adam refused medication, insisted he wasn’t suffering
from PTSD. He was so proud of his new gun.
When Charlotte Perkins Gilman was suffering
from postpartum depression, that same Civil War
physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, prescribed rest and said
she should live as domestic a life as far as possible,
to have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. Also, a diet
rich in milk and cream. I remember nights in the rocker
watching ER reruns while my son, hungry,
cried in my arms. I never made enough milk,
but my friends? They pumped bags of it.
I still run when I hear a child crying in the produce aisle.
Little mewling mouths. So much need.
When have I tended to any other than my own,
even now, writing this? I begin to think that need is
another word for selfishness, or, more accurately,
self-destruction. Why else throw my body
on the pyre for the sake of burning?
“I will pass even to Acheron the River of Pain of my own free will, and with rapture even”
He’s signing papers next week—
next week in Coronado—
another student, gamer kid
who hated school,
smoked Black and Milds,
fought town kids with glass bottles. He could
already be a Marine—
he’s got biceps now,
a crew cut, says he’s gonna
let loose, he’s gonna kill,
he’s gonna go
to the worst place on earth. He’s gonna
fuck some shit up.
But first he’s gonna run ten miles,
put his fins on, swim from Sandy Point
to the moored barge.
deeper and deeper
into the dark murk until he finds it,
and when he does,
he’ll tie a red ribbon
around its stem.
- The line, “These are not like other hospitals,” in the poem, “For Adam, my student in Walter Reed,” is taken from the article, “The Great Army of the Sick,” by Walt Whitman, which appeared in the New-York Times on February 26, 1863. The line, “whole heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands,” is from the article, “Our Wounded and Sick Soldiers,” which appeared in the New-York Times on December 11, 1864. These articles can be viewed online at The Walt Whitman Archive (whitmanarchive.org).
- Silas Weir Mitchell, a neurologist and noted Civil War physician, is often credited with coining the term “phantom limb pain.” The title of the poem, “thousands of spirit limbs [were] haunting as many good soldiers, every now and then tormenting them” comes from a description Mitchell gave in an 1871 article titled, “Phantom Limbs,” which first appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, 8 (1871). Mitchell went on to publish Injuries of Nerves and Their Consequences in 1872, where he wrote, “Nearly every man who loses a limb carries about with him a constant or inconstant phantom of the missing member, a sensory ghost of that much of himself, and sometimes a most inconvenient presence, faintly felt at times, but ready to be called up to his perception by a blow, a touch, or a change of wind” (348). I have borrowed phrases from this sentence in my poem. Mitchell, who considered himself a poet, was famous for treating Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow Wallpaper (1891). Gilman, in a 1913 article titled, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’?” claimed to have suffered “from severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond.” The Yellow Wallpaper, she notes, was a response to the “rest cure” that Mitchell prescribed and to his recommendation that she limit her intellectual activities. Lines from Gilman’s letter, which is reproduced in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism (Norton, 2007), appear in this poem, as does information from the editors’ biographical notes on Gilman in their anthology.
- The title of “I will pass even to Acheron the River of Pain of my own free will, and with rapture even,” is a line from Nonnos’ Dionysiaca, 4. 152 ff., Greek epic C5th A.D. Trans. W.H.D Rouse.
Image by Amanda Newell