Poem 20 ± June 24, 2015

Sophie Cabot Black
Among the Divided Lilies

(ICU Waiting Room, New York 1984)

Too late, I saw the body;
I compared. Either unlucky
Or clumsy with desire it lies
Wheeled along the wall, ready
To be sent for. An arrow
Elaborates the way out. Some angel
Stayed only as long as the life
Was solvable. Not so much
Waiting as listening, not so much
Witness as spy, I sit on blue
Upholstery and read the pamphlet
Again. Key points have been marked with
Stars: honesty, night sweats, patches that look
Like bruises. Such is the new precision.

One by one the houses
Close their doors: too risky.
I hold nothing against this holiness
But the snake of an old wound.
Whatever sickness exists
Is now in the hands of others:
Confirmed and public. There is the noise
Of people who hear nothing
But the latest results as they walk
Back into their life. And what is
Leftover survives the long reproach
Of new blood laddering through veins—
It becomes a wise wound, a chalk circle,
Bulls-eye. Oasis, a place where gathering begins.

How simply the cathedral turns
Inside out: here’s the steeple
But no door through which
The body comfortably fits.
Those left behind are busy
Guarding immunity
In a locked chest. They believe this
As their lifework. Be careful what you do
Unto others, gloves and masks upon
Entering. Cover the head, kneel
In the aisle, never with a short skirt
Or shoulders bared. Remove jewelry
And watch for blood, any sign of blood.
It is a river that refuses to be easy.

The face of the doctor
Learns to turn into a field
Of gray rock. It has seen too much:
No more shame in hesitating
Against what disappears. Yet his hands
Of repair continue their science
And he will send the white
Messenger with a tricky blur
Of either paradise or grief
To the bone. Stiff plastic curtains
Groan back into place and weary
Promises drip toward random dread. Do not
Move fast. Do not let yourself grow angry.
If you stay still long enough someone will find you.

A day will happen
When I can no longer visit;
From nowhere I will wake up
Finished with vigilance
And go through each room
To make sure each face
Does not look like mine.
Against these blank walls,
Among the divided lilies,
Beside the high-fidelity
Television, I will stop asking
The question and head down
The illuminated stairs, making a way back
To Arrivals and the suddenness of traffic.

Sophie Cabot BlackSophie Cabot Black is the author of three poetry collections. The Misunderstanding of Nature (Graywolf, 1994) received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. The Descent (Graywolf, 2004) received the 2005 Connecticut Book Award and was subsequently chosen as a hot pick on MSNBC’s program Topic A With Tina Brown. The Exchange (Graywolf, 2013) was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry. Sophie has received the Grolier Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s John Masefield Memorial Award as well as fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. She lives in New York City and Wilton, Connecticut, and teaches at Columbia University.

This poem originally appeared in The Misunderstanding of Nature and is reprinted with the kind permission of Graywolf Press.