Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum

     {from Nightwork)



The whole story reminded him of Cinderella.  You might say it was a fairy tale.  Tommy didn’t like that word.  Not a modern fairy tale, an old one.  A Cinderella story with the first hint about six months back when Tommy King was taking a specimen over to the lab.  He was passing the dinette when he saw Jarvis Barclay sitting there in his wheelchair beside someone young, slender, well-dressed, pretty for a woman.  She was holding Barclay’s trembling hand, and they seemed very happy.  Tommy walked on by, trying not to look them over too closely, but all the way down to the labs he wondered who the woman was.  A sister?  A cousin?   A new social worker?  A friend of the family?  And then he began the painful memory of when he, King, was floated to 11-3, where they had most of the zombies that were still fairly young, and he had had to wash, dress, toilet, and feed young Jarvis Barclay along with seven others of varying degrees of cruel disability.  It seemed then that Jarvis was the worst, maybe because he was still with it.  God, was he with it!

     Somehow they had gotten started on poetry, perhaps because Tommy had mentioned that his friend Barry wrote some and that just to keep up with him Tommy had started reading a bit, some of E. E. Cummings and some Eliot that stuck in his mind, here and there a few lines that he quoted to Barclay just to see if he could guess the author.  And Jarvis Barclay had gotten them all.  And Jarvis Barclay had MS and was just a lump of quivering tissue with a catheter in him and had to prop his head with the one good arm so that he could be steady enough to be fed by someone with a big spoon.  And Jarvis Barclay was 38 years old and had discovered his illness while completing his Masters in Theology at some big seminary in New York.  And Jarvis was the brightest man Tommy had ever met, even smarter than Barry, who had studied six years at some university in the Mid-west before he got into drugs and strung out and ended over there in Building 6, a lowly nurse's aide, no more, no less, with all his education.

     Tommy made a special point to spend the last hour of the shift with Jarvis, and just before he left, he said he’d bring a tape of Barry’s poems, a tape since Barclay couldn’t read anymore with the tremors, and Barclay said, no rush, that he’d be there for the rest of his life, and Tommy choked up, knowing from their conversation that that young guy’s wife had left him six months after the diagnosis, that his two children were nearly grown and couldn’t bear looking at him it scared them so much about their own lives, worrying if the disease was hereditary, though they said it wasn’t, that, from what Barclay said, there were few visitors, perhaps a distant relative once in a while, for both of his parents had passed on when he was still a boy and he was raised in foster homes.  That he had won a scholarship to a big university like Cornell and had graduated with special honors and was studying to be a minister when all the trouble started.  That the only way out of that ward for Jarvis Barclay was maybe thirty years down the line after a dozen years of tube feeding and incontinence and what have you, all the way out in a box.  And the worst part about it, Tommy King couldn’t bear to go back there with the tape of Barry’s poems.  He didn’t want to face that pain again.  He didn’t want to face it the way it came flooding back that day six months back when he was headed the last hundred yards to the labs after passing Barclay and friend in the hallway out in front of the dinette.

     There was a lot of pain in the hospital.  Tommy had seen already so much in four years it had aged him.  He did his best to loosen up when he left them, but the patients had a way of following him home, following him into the discos, the jazz clubs, even into his love making.  If he hadn’t found Barry, he would have probably walked out of that job a long time back.  It was Barry that made it possible to hang on with the only employment available just at that point with his lack of training.  Oh, later on he would take the LPN course and move up, but there would be just more of the same stuff, only more money.  It was all such a dead end.  And then came the only LOVELY ending he had known in all the months at Twin Oaks, and he got that second hand just a few days before his summer vacation when Slacey Oakes floated over from 11-3, and he had a chance to ask her about old Jarvis, young Jarvis, the guy that would die in Twin Oaks with all his brains and all his kindness and all his education, expire without the slightest trace of dignity in it, expire after thirty some years without the taste of hope.

     “Oh Jarvis,” she said, adjusting her bodice.  She was a fat dark lady with a sense of humor sometimes but not much else.  “Jarvis be gone from here near three months.  Jarvis be off with a lady friend sure enough.  You never heard the story?”

     He said he hadn’t.  Somehow what she had already said was confusing him.  It didn’t seem that real.

     “There was this young lady with money that come in one day to the lobby and say she wanted to visit patients, and the guard stopped her and say she need a pass and some kind of relative there, and the lady, young thing that she be, commenced to crying, and then Miss Samson, the ADN, come over and be asking the problem, what it be, and Samson lets the lady go up to 11-3, and who will she, the lady, be meeting but Jarvis, and she come back and come back, and just three months back what do you know but they pack him up and ship him off to her place in Port Ferris, some big Condo where the richest people lives, and they be living there ever since.  I never heard the like, but I guess she must of known what she be doing, cause they say his catheter be out and he be feeding hisself and even taking a few steps with her help, and they planning to be marrying by winter, and the whole thing just so beautiful it made me almost sick.  Imagine young girl like that taking on that old bag of dead bones and raising him up, so to be speaking, just like Lazarus.”

     And then Tommy King raised up himself and crossed to the visitor’s toilet without saying a word of excuse to Slacey Oakes, not even knowing that Slacey Oakes existed, crossed to the toilet and entered and sank down at the sink and started to pray in a blur of tears.  He prayed for Slacey Oakes, for the amount she could feel that story, and he prayed for telling it to him, and he prayed for the lady that took Jarvis Barclay home, and he prayed longest for Jarvis, and then he prayed for himself.  And when he was done praying for himself he tried to pray for everything else, but he didn’t have the words for it, and then he thought he might be weakening the prayer, spreading it out too thin, so he asked God for forgiveness, not for quite being a real man like old Jarvis Barclay, young  Barclay revived, and he asked that somehow he find his way, however long that took, out of his OWN imprisonment, and then he went back to the world again and then the universe, and then he knew it was going too far, that some things didn’t work in prayers, but he went on anyway, and then he heard them calling him to lift a patient and Slacey hollering he was in the john, and he stood up and dried his face with a paper towel and avoided what he saw in the mirror and stepped out and was back IN the world again.






He is still for a moment,

Stone still as I soap the rag,

Doubled paper against his skin, his paper skin,

That thin.


Could I claim that aching heart,

Knotted in a sac of skin,

Investigate this own, my very own act

Of contrition,


Study his sudden shift to twitch,

A neuron rattle, quake,

Suddenly Dachau,

Amplified Auschwitz,


A paradox of motion,

Seething devotion,

Bone fizz juking from a spare hooked thumb?

Even his fingers linger,


Clotted blood-sticks,

Itching linen, at the yellow skin,

At sin, so much of him

To coil in waste against my furious haste


To be rid of him, rid of him,

Even now feeding him.

Harvey, so multiple-ly sclerosis—nothing, nothing

Chose us?


I fish for stasis, basis,

There in the mire of his eyes, his febrile thighs,

His jerk and shudder,

Reaching to grip the jaw


To pry the oatmeal in—

What God has done him in, what word, what voice

Has done him in,

Has fashioned Harvey, Harvey’s grin?