WHEN WE WERE THREE

 This is a vignette from my childhood that I am working on. It is a draft, but I am tossing it out here anyway. With my writing, I find that it takes time, distance, and detachment to find  the final corrections and edits.

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When We Were Three

I am sitting on the pink porcelain tile floor of the bathroom in my childhood home. A bottle of St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin is on the floor in front of me, it’s contents carefully poured out two at a time into Dixie cups lined up in a row on the floor.  Several of the cups are filled with water. The cups are tiny, the size that hold just a few ounces. They fit easily in my hands. Using a fork, I crush the aspirin, add water and stir. The water turn pale orange as the tablets dissolve.

As I sit on the floor, I mull over the day;  how just a few moments earlier, I had awakened from my nap and found the house empty.  I remember wandering the empty rooms, looking, seeking.  All the shades and curtains are drawn to keep out the heat of the early summer sun. There is a buzz of cicadas off in the distance, rising and falling in continuos waves. The house is dead, the thrumming of the insects outside heightens the sense of stillness inside. Outside is nothing but the searing glare of the bright white light of the midday sun. I have no awareness of the other houses on the block, or of the families, all the people of the neighborhood, the city, the world. I have no awareness of anyone but myself.

As I search the house, I arrive at the door to my parents bedroom. It is ajar. I peek around the door. Mommy is napping in bed with my newborn sister. I want to wake her, but I know not to bother her. She has been so tired lately, caring for three children plus a newborn in the Texas August heat in a house with only two window unit air conditioners.

My two older sisters are at school, one in Kindergarten, the other in second grade. My father is “up school”  — it’s a different school than where my sisters go. It’s where he goes to teach organic chemistry and do experiments in the smelly lab.

Mommy is an artist. She is always painting on the walls of the house – lemon trees in the dining room, a window with views of boats in the entry hall, a European city square with a fountain drawn free-hand with Marks-A-Lots on the living room wall. But with the heat and a fourth child, she has not been painting lately.

Along with teaching me how to draw, mommy teaches me about life. She tells stories of her childhood in an impoverished neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Her family did not have much, but the challenges of the great depression was met by creating games and making toys and even houses by hand. She teaches me when she fixes things around the house. She saves butcher’s paper for drawing and talks about carving soap and painting with left over house paint. She talks about how Jackson Pollack learned to paint by peeing on rocks. She often talks of the government housing project call Terrace Village in Pittsburgh where I was born – how she painted the concrete floors of the living room and kitchen with black paint then drizzled white and gold paint like Pollack and painted windows looking out to the ocean. She knows how to create beauty and wonder anywhere, no matter how bleak the circumstances may appear to be.

She likes to tell me the stories. One of her favorites is the story of stone soup – how someone started with a pot of water, placed a stone in it, and inspired everyone in the village to add a few scraps of food until they had a feast. This is the inspiration for the soup that she makes every week out of leftovers and bones. I don’t like the soup, but I like the story.

I remember that my mother had often warned me to never drink or eat anything kept under the kitchen sink: Clorox Bleach, Old English Wood Polish, Comet, Windex, Brasso, Brillo. These are easily accessible, but they do not interest me.

On the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, as high as she can reach, is where Mom keeps the aspirin. She had given me some recently when I had a fever. It was orange flavored, she said, like candy. Although it was unlike anything I had ever tasted, I knew that candy was something special. A rare treat. I decided I liked it.

She told me that if I ever took too many pills, that I would have to go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped. I didn’t know what that meant, but the idea terrified me. I imagined a garden hose shoved in my mouth, down into my stomach, and attached to an elaborate Dr Seuss-like machine with tangled tubes, jars of fluids, a bunch of belts and pulleys, cogs and pistons, driven by a large motor that sounds like a vacuum cleaner and smells of ozone and oil.

I push a chair to the kitchen counter and climb onto the grey and gold speckled formica. It is difficult to open the door of the cabinet. I nearly fall backwards as the door lurches open, I hold onto the handle of the swinging door to steady myself. Standing on my tippy-toes, I am able to reach the box. It is white and orange, with dark brown lettering and colorful balloons — red, yellow, blue. I look at the balloons. The balloons look cheerful and hopeful.

I retreat to the bathroom where I open the box, slide out the bottle and pry off the white plastic cap. My heart is racing. I imagine this is like what daddy does “up school” in the smelly lab, pouring fluids into flasks, adding chemicals like the ones under the kitchen sink, and stirring the contents. But this is not a chemistry lab. Aspirin is medicine. It is made to be swallowed. It makes you all better when you were not feeling well.

I down one of the cups. It is bitter and sour and only vaguely orange-flavored — like Tang. Then another cup, and another. I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I hurry up and finished off the rest by chewing the pills, one by one, chasing the acrid taste with tap water.

I place the cups in the trash then put the empty bottle back into the box and hide it under my bed.

Later that evening, after dark, I am lying on the dining room floor, breathing heavily. My chest is heaving. It’s like I am hungry for air, taking in deep gulps, unable to get enough, like an unquenchable thirst. My heart is beating in my throat. My ears ringing and humming louder than the cicadas outside. I feel funny. My lips and fingers are tingling — not in a good way. My eldest sister is sitting on the floor next to me, watching with a look of horror, ordered by my mother to sit with me and make sure I don’t stop breathing. Mom is on the phone in the kitchen, frantically dialing various people, describing my breathing, and asking what to do. After several more calls, she locates my father, who is still “up school” in the lab.

I do not remember much of what happened next. I remember being held down on a table, in a room with shiny green-tile walls and a bright light blinding me from above. My arms are taped to wooden boards and needles are being stuck into me by a crowd of concerned strangers wearing green pajamas. They keep sticking me, all at the same time, in my arms, in my legs, my feet, my hands. I twist and pull as I am restrained and held still. I wish they would stop. I count what I imagine to be hundreds of shots. One hundred is a big number, its more than ten. That’s all that I know.

I look around for the dreaded stomach pump. The room is full of strange things. It’s hard to see past the crowd of people. Is that the pump? But no hose is stuck down my throat, and the shots eventually subside. The people in pajamas are calm now. They step back from the table. I look at my arm. A thin clear tube runs from under a swaddling of tape up to a bag of water hanging on a hook atop a chromed pole. I am wheeled into a room and placed in a crib. My father is there. He tells me everything will be alright. I am exhausted and disoriented but feel secure with my father’s presence. I want to stay awake. I want this moment to last, to feel more of this newfound peace.

When I wake in the morning, my father is still there, sleeping in a chair next to the crib.

I wish I could remember why I took the pills. At that age, did I already know about death? Was I hoping to escape, to free my mother of some of her burden? Perhaps nothing has changed. Perhaps I am still that little boy, isolated in a darkened house in the middle of a brilliant summer day, wanting my mother to wake up, wanting her to take me out into the light, wanting her to be happy, wanting her to show me the way out, to create something out of nothing.

©2013 Kurt Biehl

WHEN WE WERE ONE

Back in 1984, when I attended the Humanities in Medicine Conference sponsored by the William Carlos WIlliams Competition, I read this poem along with six others. After the reading, Richard Selzer walked up to me and in reference to the juxtaposition of  birth and death in this poem proclaimed, “From such callow youth!” while clasping both hands over his heart. I was so callow at the time that I had to look up the word “callow.”

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WHEN WE WERE ONE

It was a chance meeting

in the night that brought

me together, my two halves

became whole within you.

As I grew, suspended

in time, zygote to

blastomere, morula

to blastocyst, embryo

to fetus; I had no

awareness, no sense

of the journey

just begun. Floating

within your ontogenous

sea, your body

enveloped, your warmth

sustained; we were one.

.

But those waters have long since broken and we are oceans

apart, now. I search within

for those lost memories, a sense of

how it felt; for this is what death

must be like, a reversal

of the process, a sucking back

into the womb, quiet,

dark, effortless. A shrinking

back through time

as each cell of life decays

then recombines, dissolving

into fluid, flowing

into waves.

©1984 Kurt Biehl

RHAPSODY FOR SOLO VIOLIN

This is one of three poems that I submitted to the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition back in 1983. Two of my poems were chosen for the final ten.  I ultimately placed third and was invited to attend a conference on The Humanities in Medicine where I was gave a 20 minute poetry reading. Poetry is meant to read aloud. To my eye and ear, a poem is a like a musical score that can only be fully realized by hearing it out loud – word choice is determined by the non-verbal sound of the syllables, with the progression of sound being crafted like a melody. The challenge is to try to achieve some sort of literal content and meaning. I also pay attention to rhythm, line breaks, and punctuation to help convey the musicality of language.

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RHAPSODY FOR SOLO VIOLIN

 

A wisp of smoke rises from the ashtray, arcing

in a glissando of pirouettes, fading upwards

into the brilliance of a single nude lightbulb, dangling

from a frayed cord. Record covers lay strewn among

discarded kleenex, empty reminders of the music

they once held. The records are stacked naked

next to the turntable, their mysterious grooves

exposed to dust as Subotnick mingles side

by side with Bach and Stravinsky.

 

Botticelli’s Venus is born over the crumpled sheets

of a stained mattress, a thumbtack

holding her against the wall. Bartok is spread open

across a music stand, his bare belly exposed

and scarred by the cut of a discerning pencil.

Nearby lies the violin, a 1738 Guadagnini

resting quietly in its rosin-scented case.

 

It is a scene that I view from within;

all boundaries are blurred between myself,

this room. Within this portamento of space,

the walls become my walls, my skin.

I can feel the night breeze brushing

across the shingles, I can sense

Venus and Saturn in conjunction

within the arc of a moon sliver

rising above the roof, way out there

where there are no walls, or windows

or doors. I often dream

of fading these walls, bending the flat planes into curves

that spread out, dissolving; until it is no longer

a matter of edges, until there is nothing

but space.

 

©1984 Kurt Biehl

 

To Die To Sleep No More

This is a poem written as a challenge to write a poem based on one of several “thesis sentences” provided during the Yale Writers Workshop. I chose the sentence, “Nightmares aren’t as bad as insomnia.”

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TO DIE  TO SLEEP NO MORE

A tropical depression moves in

and falls upon the shore.

No eye can stand still or evade

the demons and succubi that haunt

my nights. A tsunami of blood,

zombies chase me after dark,

Naked I arrive to the Calculus exam,

every time, I have forgotten to study.

Again I fail, my sleep is uneasy;

My car won’t start, I get lost walking home.

The alley is empty and long and ominous,

they follow me again, this time dragons and bears.

Tonight my eyes burn after lights are turned off,

heartbeats thrum in my throat. The moon glares

into my window, the neighbor’s dog is barking again.

I cannot escape the exhaustion of unrequited slumber,

The creeping regret of loss and boredom.

I would dream of nightmares, if only I could sleep.

©2013 KURT BIEHL

FIFTY SHADES OF WHITE

During Stephanie Hart’s Poetry Workshop at Yale on Friday, we wrote “circle poems” (that’s what she said.) I wrote the first two lines of this poem, then it was passed around the room for each person to add another line. After it was edited by the class, I took it and made some final edits in an attempt to  breath some life into this Frankenstein creature. I cannot take credit for the beast-with-two-backs reference, nor the phrase “sweet taut rump.” Those were the creation of a couple of attractive blonde women in class, one of whom went to Cambridge and the other Oxford.  It’s always heartening when intellectuals peruse the gutter.

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Fifty Shades of White

The bright light white of the next day’s sun,

glimmering pebbles along the river run.

Her skin trembles, our kneecaps bump;

My hand flows down her sweet taut rump.

She glances towards the meandering stream,

Her toe dips in, I begin to dream:

Our bodies are one, or so it seems —

A two-backed beast in four-legged jeans.

HAMLET REDUX

Back in the 1980′s, my medical school  adopted  a Pass-Fail system of grading. The administration boasted of how they had reduced the pressure and competition of medical training by eliminating grades. But they added an additional grade of Honors for the top 10% of each course, thus negating the original intent. For many students, the presence of the rare and lofty “Honors” actually heightened the intensity and ruthlessness of competition to which doctors in training are prone.

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MD or not MD, that is the quandary.
Whether ’tis easier on the butt to suffer
The hours and minutes of outrageous lecture.
Or to take a stand against a sea of schedules
And by leaving end them: to sit, to study
No more; and by no study, to say we end
The head-ache, and the thousand unnatural exams
This flesh is heir to – ’tis a vacation
Much to be admired. To sit, to study,
To study, perchance to learn; Aye there’s the rub.
For in this study of life, what learning may come,
When we have bubbled in this meager sheet,
Must give us Pass. There’s the respect
That makes Doctors out of B.A.’s,  B.S.’s.

For who would bear the classes of so long a time
The lecturer’s wrong, the proud Profs disdain,
The pangs of borrowed money, the sleep’s delay,
The insolence of course directors, and the stench
Of formaldehyde and rotten flesh,

While he himself his dissection make
On a bare cadaver? Who would gladly bear

To bleed and sweat under a weary light,
But for the hope of something here after;
The Doctorate of Medicine, with whose bestowal
All good things come. Piques the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than to cast off eighteen years of education.

But compulsion makes cowards of a few,
And thus the nature of these students
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of concern,
And enterprises of little consequence,
With this regard, their meanings twist awry,
And lose all moderation.
I want you now, the fair Honors!
Nymph, in thy transcriptions
Be all my virtues remembered.
KURT BIEHL @1986

THE ANATOMY LESSON

The opening sentence of this poem is a direct quote from an anatomy lecture during first year medical school. The entire class of 160 was hunched over their papers scribbling maniacally the entire lecture.  As usual,  I wasn’t taking notes but was instead  listening intently when I  was struck by the beauty of this description of a rib. I looked around the room to see if anyone else had noticed the that high art had entered into an anatomy lecture. As I scanned the room, he lecturer locked eyes with me. He shrugged his shoulders as we stared at each other. He then slowly bent his knees until he  disappeared behind the lectern. No one else in the room noticed.
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THE ANATOMY LESSON

“Ribs are long, and thin,

and curved, and slightly twisted.”

Attached at the spine and arching out

to each side, these bones reach

the mid-axillary line; then bending

inward to grasp the sternum, a cage is formed,

enclosing the thorax and holding within,

by a solid hug of ribs, the vital organs:

The Heart and Lungs,

The Phrenic, and the Vagus.

To Autopsy is to self inspect; to self reflect.

Dissected free from fascia, picked clean

from flesh, the rib mirrors the eye.

It has a simple beauty, an archaic truth,

revealed by the careful touch and the proper gaze

of Galen or Vesalius, who while holding this lone

bone torn from chest and bringing it to light

cries out, “Why this bone is long and thin

and curved, and somewhat twisted.”

A single rib, alone, separated

from the body, has a history; it connects

to other times, other spines;

evoking the carcass of each man

now dead and recalling the birth

of Eve. This is the bone into woman

transformed: long and thin,

and curved, and lithely twisted.

After midnight when I cannot sleep

and my thoughts dissolve and blur

along the uncertain edge

of my darkened room, I murmur

to myself, ribs are long, and

thin, and curved, and

sightly twisted.

KURT BIEHL ©2011