Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Grace Notes: A Hellish Day

Image posted by Tess Kincaid for Magpie Tales #87

If as Sartre said, “L’enfer, c'est les autres”*
why don’t we beat them up
instead of ourselves?

It was a hellish day -
life in metaphor;
make the bed, do dishes,
murmur a few prayers.
Drive her to the lab.
Wrestle her walker up the long ramp,
turn left near the top
for the steeper incline to the door,
guide her through the dark twisting hall.
Left, right, right, left
to the dawn of the lab door,
flood of light inside.

But all was for naught;
she’d forgotten the lab order.
Blood could not be drawn
without the paper work.
Retreat through the back allies
of the doctor’s office to the off ramp;
curses murmured in smoldering silence.
Return home to retrieve the lab order.
Drive to the Lifespan Lab closer to home;
a few short steps and in,
a lovely place, lovely lady.
Can’t find her medical card – no problem,
“Call me with the number.”

No phone number listed for the new lab,
call the headquarters, hear a fax tone,
more silent fuming.
Call the doctor next door to the lab,
get the number, mission complete.
Settle her in, return home
to bake the birthday pie I promised
instead of a cake – the phone rang:
lab has no computer record for her,
will I please bring her medical card,
yes, tomorrow will be fine.

Bake the pie, put the chicken in,
peel potatoes, set the table.
The door opens, he’s home.
All I saw was the bandage
on his hand when he came in,
carrying bread and milk and mail.
He hit it with the claw of his hammer;
eight stitches – on his birthday!
Three hours in the emergency room,
I didn’t know a thing, he didn’t call,
didn’t want to worry me: “It’s nothing”.

It’s not about hellish days,
not about others;
she’s ninety, she forgets –
and I live in the clouds.
It’s about beating myself up
for the short-cut prayers in the morning,
the smoldering impatience, building to anger,
the helplessness, the guilt of inattention.
It’s about gladly slipping my own neck
into the iron noose I choose to stew in,
chewing on others, gnashing my teeth,
watching for an exit - waiting for grace.

*From the play, “No Exit”, by John Paul Sartre, 1944.

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  1. nice...i can feel for her as i do many that reach an age when it is not as easy to get around and no one to help...i like her bit of conscience there at the end as well on her own situation...

  2. Dear Ann,
    I could never have expressed with such honesty and eloquence the emotions you write about in your Magpie.
    Overwhelming to experience, and to read.

  3. A hellish day indeed, not getting around easy any more or relying on help and not getting it would be tough, really stirring piece.

  4. The poem's transition from the Sartre hell quote to your frustration about the state of watching for an exit is an interesting one. As does the conflict between frustration with others' troubles vs wanting to know about them all the same. It all stacks up.

    Style-wise, I was particularly interested in the deferred use of "I" and what it might mean...it comes onstage strongly with "I promised" but then afterward I wasn't as sure whether the use/non-use of "I" mattered. (Sorry, this is a weirdly technical question!)

  5. Brilliant the way you use language -esp the verbs - and form to convey the sheer exhaustion of the day. I felt your frustration at every turn and the guilt and the poignancy of the situation - 'waiting for grace' which of course we all are, was a great way to end.

  6. Guilt fatigue despair...& talent. ~Mary

    Just blog hopping.

  7. swinging back through on OLN...commented earlier but thought i would say hi...smiles.

  8. Tears came to my eyes as I read this, Ann, so honest and open and right on the cusp of experience; this poem makes an intimate world and draws us into it-- and there we are all of us transfusing each other to get through. I especially could relate entirely to and love:
    It’s about beating myself up
    for the short-cut prayers in the morning,
    the smoldering impatience, building to anger,
    the helplessness, the guilt of inattention.
    It’s about gladly slipping my own neck
    into the iron noose I choose to stew in,
    chewing on others, gnashing my teeth,
    watching for an exit - waiting for grace.

    I'm told the antidote is self-forgiveness at this late stage, checking the watch at 63-- how do we live in the moment and let its good things fill us up and let go of our worries and self-castigations? not easy...xxxxj

  9. The tiredness and hassle of life. The inability to be satisfied with others or oneself and not knowing which is to be blamed or if it can be helped, the feelings all overlap I think. I think the ending is appropriate, waiting for that exit, waiting for grace. Just hoping. Thanks for this poem, I can quite relate.

  10. love it,
    you have her live and I can feel her sadness here.

  11. My, you did have a tough time! ♥

  12. Must surely be one of this week's best.

  13. The lament of a thoroughly beaten-up soul, convincingly expressed and very moving in its intensity.

  14. All things to all men but there must be space and time for oneself. Very touching.

  15. Raw emotion beautifully expressed and certainly understood.

  16. Oh but I am never hell to another - am I?

    The step by step feeling, the trudging feeling, as the reader climbs, line by line, is very effective. Wish I could say I don't know the experience of stewing in the cauldron of my own hell, expressed so well in your final stanza. I think Jen is right, sometimes grace is a thing we must extend to ourselves.

  17. Hell is indeed not so much other people, but what we let them do to us. Hard to let go of all those human feelings of frustration and inadequacy and impatience, and they do all circle back to the 'short cut' way we ignore the inner peace at our disposal, however we go about accessing it--we need it more than we will make room for. A fine poem, full of immediacy and also its own grace.

  18. Ann, this piece, in its vigor and honesty, reminded me of MFK Fisher's work, especially a piece in which she lets loose with her frustrations and anger at having to care for her aging father. I think Fisher is one of our best....and this piece rivals the short essay I refer to above. Thank you.

  19. great poem and now as I sit and see my parents and see how hard it is for my Dad I can really relate to this poem well done thanks for sharing

  20. You took such a creative direction with this prompt. Excellent.

  21. Superb piece. Heartfelt pain and wonder. Absolutely superb.

  22. You've brought out the overwhelming helplessness very well here. Thought provoking read...

    Arnab Majumdar on SribbleFest.com

  23. This is good in so many ways...... It's not cumbersome, I didn't have to put my thinking cap on to solve any riddles or try to figure out wordplay. You didn't use aggrandizing language or fluttery words in an attempt to beautify the piece - you let the story come alive and just gave it freely to the reader in a language the reader's heart can understand. And the heart is the true target of poetry, not the brain. Mark Twain once said that "A man who has been to war always tells interesting war stories, but a poet who talks of the moon but has never been there is simply boring." I could tell from start to finish that you had lived through this day, as I'm sure we all have at one time or another. And in my opinion that is what makes great poetry, a poem that can be read and understood by the masses...... Truly a great poem Ann and you have a new follower......

  24. Thanks again to all Magpie and D'verse followers who have so kindly commented on this rambling prose poem. It is an actual experience – day in the life of... It occurred to me that so many elements combined to reveal it in hindsight as metaphor, such as the route through the narrow passage ways of a doctor's office to a lab that does not have its own handicapped access. To an elderly person with macular degeneration it was dark (although merely dim with normal eyesight). Then of course an easy launch into the dark/light, heaven/hell symbolism.

    I have long pondered Sartre's comment about hell being other people and wondered if he might have thought we create our own hell through guilt over what we do to, or don't do for, others. Everyone’s answer is different of course: nature, nurture and resulting perception. Philip Larkin's poem, “Best Society”, is a point of view touching on this subject and leaving one with a feeling of ambiguity I find in some of Larkin’s poems – not having read all of his work.

    Thanks to John Richter for following my blog after reading this poem. Of course these are the marvelous boosts of support and sometimes the just-in-time confidence builders that keep us from calling it quits on an activity that keeps our heads in the clouds, keeps us perhaps not as attentive to others as “we think they think” we should be. Ah, GUILT…

    And I did make a cake as well as a pie this week for my husband’s birthday (Devil’s Food and whipped cream, what else). His hand is healing fine but I could not help memorializing the fact that in spite of the injury he didn’t miss a beat in his normal routine, selfless as always, spoiling me rotten day after day since we were 14.

  25. Here is a link to Philip Larkin's "Best Society" to copy paste into your browser: