Night: The Mayo Clinic

Steve Gehrke Click to

Steve Gehrke is the recipient of a grant from the NEA, the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and a Pushcart Prize. His books include The Resurrection Machine (BkMk Press, 2000), The Pyramids of Malpighi (Anhinga, 2004) and Michaelangelo’s Seizure (Illinois, 2007).

When they’ve seen the vision of their own bones
corpsed with the creatures whorled into the stone,
when they feel their bodies turning hieroglyphic

in the cave, each ax-stroke echoing, internally, their own
decay, do trapped miners still fidget in the mountainside,
or do they sit and listen to each other die? That’s

how I imagine it, tranced by the ventilator’s hydraulic drive,
my father comatose, his mind like the quiet of the hospital
at night, dim but still electrified, post-lingual and numb,

though that, too, must be imagined, everything beyond my grasp
tonight, the nurses swanning silently in the halls, my mother asleep
in some distant lounge, though she, too, seems to occupy only

the backyard syntax of my youth, her sadness as foreign to me
as these other patients in these other rooms, one of whom I watched
die last night, the room hung like a painting at the end of a dark

hallway, so bright it seemed I had projected it, her body — was it
a girl? — small as a newborn calf curled in the sheets, the mother
with her head pressed to her chest, as if what grief wants most

is to enter the bodies of those who’ve died. The grandparents
stood at a tactful distance from the bed, two old somber farmers,
holding hands, and me in the hallway like some helpless angel.

But no, more like — I’m ashamed of this — a man who’d
wandered into the rehearsal for some play, their grief so far
away, so vague, so unreal, that I understood how inadequate

my own gestures of sadness had become, my weeping, my
siblings and I passing each other like shift workers in the halls,
nothing sufficient, no way to put into words that black spot

in a mind that will not speak. Tonight, I’d like my father’s
mind to expand and hold me in its vacancy, but the silence
between us is just another argument, his body saying emptiness

and me turning to watch his numbers drifting downward on
the screen. This morning, I watched as the room in which the girl
had died was cleaned, the sheets bagged, the smell of ammonia

erasing her presence from the air. I wanted to be clean
for my father’s loss, to build myself around him like a cave,
but here, at the edge of death, thoughts freeze like water,

or so Descartes once wrote, in some other city, some other time,
coughing himself into a mucous cup, the harbor frozen
in the window at his bedside, that city he hated walking

itself through him as he died, he who knew that we die without
one person, ever, having entered our minds, that the silence
we are heading for is the one we’ve always occupied.