When I studied the book of God, I thought
I could swallow the words and become
God's page gleaming through the wilderness
I have lived in many deserts:
the sick brick of Pittsburgh in 1987,
its shut steel mills, its workers with spent
hands; the hollers of Kentucky--I have prayed
over a nine-year-old with parasites.
I have tried to rub the balm of Gilead
into the side of a suburban church,
a spiteful creature that bit its own scabs off
for pleasure. But I had not seen death swallow
its tail like this. I saw a hospital
as a calm light-tunnel to life, to death,
imagined I would pour still waters,
bathe the whispering flesh of ancients.
We get the broken girlfriends from New Brunswick,
the last indignity of too many gay men
dying alone, the gangleaders' vengeances.
The bodies construct novels in my sleep.
On call, I wake to seal the story,
never to heal. I'm the one
who Brings the Family In. Last night
someone's father was already wrapped
in plastic (nurses needing the empty bed).
I had to peel the clinging bag away.
I thought of Lazarus, unravelling graveclothes.
But Lord, he stinketh. What if I shut
my mind to matter, said "I command,"
said "Lazarus, come out!" She is not dead
but sleeping is a coward's
euphemism. I remember the 12-year-old
girl on a stretcher in the E.R.,
the glass and blood on her naked skin,
possible paralysis. She could not hear
my voice. But I could wipe the urine
away when she wet herself in terror,
could cover her exposed breasts and trace
her body's song through her wrist. I could give
her flesh that honor--and I have come