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To Hygeia

ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Goddess, I have watched your motions gratify the world.
Votaries of all casts and ages, genders, voices
bow to you as they must, for nothing follows without you.

I once met a man in an iron lung, puffing his words,
and youth was a much-too-long parade of unfortunate data:
the infirm, the wizened, the washout, the accidental suicide …

An old man with a tinkling highball sat like a lord
orating, “When I was a boy,” and we knew a story was coming.
I never minded those times, being an odd duck
who actually listened, but the lesson I failed to get was the one
he always meant: One of these days, you smug twit, 
you’ll be me.

    Now my sage joints prophesy like rats
from a leaking ship, and every morning’s gulp of pills
pules in silent offering to Hygeia. Keep moving
until you stop. The hell with the good opinion of others.
Wisdom of age, goddess—the sort we laugh about
if lucky enough.

          In dreams I’m still the boy who listens.
Others suffer sleepless nights, others find the day
too hard to climb, but climb to summits anyway.
Think of them, betrayed by their own bones or blood,
bent inside with maladies no one else can see,
for whom merely to walk a city block would be
a woozy flight. 

      So I’ve become a spinner of yarns—
hopefully not a sower of yawns—my hearing aids,
crow’s-feet, and specs, and all my hidden pangs and pains
pleading the Fifth before I find a fifth and pour
a neat inch at cocktail time. “Look with thine ears,”
said Lear to the world prolonging. Well, I’ve been there,
half-hearing my way through human mazes.

              When I was a boy
I listened to men weathered and withered, withstanding all
the way they’d ducked at mortar fire or kamikazes,
and women who took my arm to make it to the car.
I chauffeured the old, cajoled them to keep up the work of living,
helped them to their doors, found keys, conveyed them
to dough-smelling kitchens, pans of foiled leftovers,
letters they’d never written, love they’d never conveyed,
whatever decay of night was left to wander in.

Now I’ve only to hallow their too-neglected names
with yours, goddess, each time I offer a lit candle
or swallow the pills and pride or raise my ringing glass.


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Kathleen Chaffin's picture
Kathleen Chaffin · 8 years ago

This is a wonderful poem. 


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