McDoc

Just another Medical Humanities Blog

Poems for December 2009

Posted by mcdoc on December 1, 2009

Maria Mazziotti Gillan (1940 – )

In My Family

In my family we’re all tenacious, decide what we want and go after it.
We work hard, moving forward, when we’re exhausted, and
think we can’t move one inch more. I wonder if it’s in the
genes, this need to finish everything we start, this belief that
hard work and perseverance will get us through. My sister
kept going to work for months after she had seizures and
couldn’t walk. Her live-in aide took her to work in a wheel-
chair, pushing her down the road, because the sidewalks in
Hawthorne aren’t handicapped accessible.
My father had a degenerative disease of the spine. He dragged
one paralyzed leg behind him wherever he went, and went he
did, driving until he was eighty-seven years old, cloth around
the pedals of the car so he could reach the brake, one shoe
built up to compensate for the unevenness of his legs, driving
to his friends’ houses to play cards and visit, driving to the
courthouse in Paterson to file a petition for his friends or reg-
ister the legal papers he drew up, his body failing him, but his
mind sharp and willing him on.
My son John wants to think he is not like us. I hear how even
at thirty-two he takes responsibility for his life, how he gets up
at 5 a.m., so he can be at his office by 5:30, how he handles the
complex legal problems of a large corporation, working
straight through till he returns at 6 p.m. to help with the chil-
dren and to deal with the house, the yard, repairs. He takes
everything seriously. I love the way John carries his son in his
arms, the child running to him for comfort and the way they
speak to each other without words. I know that even my son,
who wants to think he is not like our family, is driven as we
are to keep on going, no matter what.
These are the things my mother taught us by example, my
mother who tripped over our skates when we were children
and got up and walked the twelve blocks to Farraro Coat
Factory on River Street. She worked until noon, walked back
home to make our lunches, and then walked back to work.
Only after she came home at 3:30, so she could be there when
we got home from school, did she collapse into a chair unable
to move. When she came back from the hospital clinic with a
cast on her leg, fourteen bones in her foot broken, she had to
rest her leg on a stool. That was one of the few times in her
life that I saw her cry, not because of the pain, but because she
couldn’t do the work she told herself she had to do.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from the town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

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