Friday, April 15, 2005

What's Written on the Body

What’s Written on the Body

He will not light long enough
for the interpreter to gather
the tatters of his speech.
But the longer we listen
the calmer he becomes.
He shows me the place where his daughter
has rubbed with a coin, violaceous streaks
raising a skeletal pattern on his chest.
He thinks he’s been hit by the wind.
He’s worried it will become pneumonia.

In Cambodia, he’d be given
a special tea, a prescriptive sacrifice,
the right chants to say. But I
know nothing of Chi, of Karma,
and ask him to lift the back of his shirt,
so I may listen to his breathing.
Holding the stethoscope’s bell I’m stunned
by the whirl of icons and script
tattooed across his back, their teal green color
the outline of a map which looks
like Cambodia, perhaps his village, a lake,
then a scroll of letters in a watery signature.
I ask the interpreter what it means.
It’s a spell, asking his ancestors
to protect him from evil spirits

she is tracing the lines with her fingers —
and those who meet him for kindness.
The old man waves his arms and a staccato
of diphthongs and nasals fills the room.
He believes these words will lead his spirit
back to Cambodia after he dies.
I see
, I say, and rest my hand on his shoulder.
He takes full deep breaths and I listen,
touching down with the stethoscope
from his back to his front. He watches me
with anticipation — as if awaiting a verdict.
His lungs are clear. You’ll be fine,
I tell him. It’s not your time to die.

His shoulders relax and he folds his hands
above his head as if in blessing.
Ahh khun, he says. All better now.



— appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association, August 2003

10 comments:

Radish King said...

Peter, this was the first poem I ever heard you read, at a reading I mean, and I've never forgotten it. (Hugo House!) It is one of my favorite's of yours and I can hear your voice reading it in my head.
xor

Ivy said...

Gee, that had me tearing up...

loveandsalt said...

That is a wonderful poem. Thank you.

Charles said...

I started reading Saying the World on the bus on the way home. "Baby Made of Flowers" took the top of my head off.

My heart broke, and then I got goosebumps.

Peter said...

Thanks R,I,L,C.
Charles: I'm glad you are enjoying the book.

early hours of sky said...

I think we all have a country marked somewhere within us that we will return to when die. I think my spirit will pass over the ocean of Maine and then Haiti. Beautiful poem, it was his gift to you…

Jennifer said...

Superb ... and offering much to think about, re: the physician as shaman or priest, and the nature of belief.

Peter said...

Thanks Jennifer, Teresa:
Yes I think this poem was his gift to me; a lot of medicine is that way.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

Peter Pereira said...

"Yes I think this poem was his gift to me; a lot of medicine is that way."

Love it.

32poems said...

Oh, Peter,

What a poem. Thank you for sharing this with us.

I must get your book now, and I am so picky about what books I buy.

Deborah/32 Poems