Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The ED Sonnets: Room 1

Here I've begun to run into a narrative difficulty. In fiction, one doesn't tell everything: writers leave out the boring bits about how the protagonist got from the bed to the kitchen table, for instance. My original conception for this sonnet cycle was one poem per bed, but of course, not every visit is "meaningful." Some patients don't want to talk to me; some are asleep; and at any time, I'm liable to be swept out of the way by the arrival of medical folks, who are far more important (and very properly so) than I am. This is why many chaplains don't enjoy ED work. It's often pretty fragmentary, although of course there are also patients who've been in the department for hours, are bored or worried out of their minds, and desperately need to talk.

So, anyway, these three sonnets depict those kinds of visits. But are they too realistic, and therefore boring? Would I be better off summarizing the entire room in one poem? (The next set will be about deeper visits, but I'd be interested in hearing readers' thoughts on these.)

There's also a technical issue. I struggled for quite a while with the final couplet for the second poem. I like the one I finally came up, partly because of the pun in the last line, but that means that both the first and second poems end with that "doubt/out" rhyme. Does this mean fixing? Should I change one of them? Or, instead, should I revise the third poem to end that way too, since "out" is more or less the theme of this room?

Thanks in advance for your feedback!


Bed 1.1

Right now I feel less holy than a head
of cabbage. It’s too early for a break --
I’ve only seen three patients -- so instead
I’ll choose an easy room (I hope) to make
this stretch less draining. Ah, one-one’s asleep;
that worked out well. He’s middle-aged and gaunt,
cheeks sunken, forehead bloody, clothes a heap
beside the bed. He twitches. Spirits haunt
his dreams: distilled, I think. Oblivious
to wailing from next door, he snores in peace,
hands pillowing his cheek. I’m envious.
I practice seeing Christ in him, release
my anger at the mom, note mocking doubt.
So easy to be loving when they’re out.


Bed 1.2

Next door, a baby howls. His parents -- young
and anxious -- hover, cuddle, whisper rhymes
and lullabies. “He’s gorgeous, with the lungs
of champions,” I say. They laugh. “Each time
he’s sick, we get so scared! We hate to bring
him here, but with this fever . . .Tylenol’s
no good. The doctors want to do this thing --
a spinal tap?” The baby caterwauls
so loudly I can hardly hear them. Then
a doctor, nurse and EMT arrive:
time for the test. “I’ll come and visit when
they’re done,” I say. The baby will survive
this better than his parents, I’ve no doubt.
They haven’t heard. The doctor’s in; I’m out.


Bed 1.3

“Hello! Aren’t you a sweetheart to come by!”
She’s sitting up and beaming, ankle propped
on pillows. “I sure hope that little guy
will be all right.” (Have curtains ever stopped
the slightest sound? Is HIPAA unaware
that cotton’s not concrete?) “That foot looks sore,”
I say. She nods. “I tumbled down the stairs.
The puppy tripped me. Now we’re waiting for
the films. They think I might need surgery.”
“That’s awful! Did the pup apologize?”
She chortles. “Duke’s a big old baby, see,
a Newfoundland who doesn’t know his size.
My son’s home walking him -- oh, here’s my nurse!
Thanks, Susan: pray this evening gets no worse!”


  1. Well, I'm enjoying these far too much to suggest you leave them out!

    Clearly, this is in work-in-progress: a year from now, there'll be some of these you'll want to revise and some you'll wish you'd never written. But that's life as a writer, eh? Go with the whole set; you can always prune it later, when you put together the book. (You are going to put together a book, aren't you?)

    I love formal poetry; so few people do it anymore. :)

  2. Thank you!

    I must admit that the idea of at least a chapbook had crossed my mind . . . although that's far, far in the future and depends on my maintaining steam on this thing.

    I love formal poetry, too. One of the obvious inspirations for this project is Marilyn Hacker's sublime Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, although if I ever get anywhere close to her level, I'll have achieved satori.

  3. I can't speak for all your readers, but these certainly aren't too mundane for me.

    I quite like your use of doubt/out as end-words in two of the poems. I mean, it works well in each poem, and I wouldn't change either one. So my inclination might be to separate those two poems -- not place them in immediate sequence -- so the re-used endwords aren't highlighted.

  4. okay, some comments on poetics...

    I really admire that the language of your sonnets is so colloquial and unforced: I think it helps that you use a lot of dialogue in them. (Trimmed to fit, I imagine.) It also makes them immediate, which keeps the less dramatic ones from getting at all boring (IMO). It's all very present-tense, and very present.

    I never would have thought of rhyming Tylenol with caterwaul! Supposedly Richard Wilbur once said you should never use the same rhyme twice; obviously that's over the top, but there is a lot to be said for unusual rhymes and you have plenty of those. Again, keeps the familiar form from becoming too familiar.

    I share your reservation about the doubt/out couplet, but both of them work so well I'd hesitate to change either of them.

  5. I think they're great the way they are! This is a great project, and I agree with the first commentor, you should definitely put these into a book.

    I think the fact that two of your sonets end with the doubt/out rhymes is good. It shows the unpredictibility of the rooms, and how you never know what each bed will bring. Your readermight expect that rhyme, but not seeing it, get that feeling of unpredictibility.

    That's what came to mind anyway. Great work!

  6. Thanks, everyone. This is all very helpful. I think I'm going to follow Tiel's advice and plow through until I have a complete set, and then see what I want to change (there will undoubtedly be lots!).

  7. "less holy than a head of cabbage"

    That's a great line, even though I suppose that cabbage, as God's creation, is indeed holy.


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