I remember her smile—quick and fleeting
on the day she arrived in the EEG Lab.
She was tentative, curious, quizzical.
What’s wrong with me? she asked.
She knew the drill, understood I’d fasten
electrodes like tiny ears to her scalp, connect
a wiggle of wires to the EEG machine
as she lay on the gurney and I began to calibrate,
roll the paper across the console, wake
the stainless steel pens. This was a long time ago.
I was young; it was my first job and only a few
years before the CAT scan and MRI began
dragging the heavy iron lid off the human brain.
For millenniums, the brain lay buried,
hidden like an ornate jeweled sarcophagus
until the bony inflexible bowl that holds
the “crux of you” suddenly fell prey to the prying
eyes of magnets, radio waves, and x-ray beams.
But what did I know then of the brain and disease?
And what did this young woman know of me?
I was nameless to her, just another hospital
tech conducting another test. Yet, fear staggered
around in my gut; I was afraid of what the EEG
might find in her cranium, the dark forest
of a hundred billion cells, branches, and roots.
They have their language, a chatter of whispers,
hums, and roars. They send messages to each other
that rise and fall in waves. I heard a faint click
as the EEG began to transmit the brain’s voltage
into a clatter of pens, scribbling the ancient dialect—
alpha, beta, delta, and theta waves across the page.
Down, over, and through the brain’s plump
hemispheres, the fissures, the lobes,
the wires and threads, the knots of neurons
and convoluted folds the EEG went, winding
its way through the rhythm and resonance,
the oscillations and cacophony. The brain
too has its instruments—an ensemble
of percussion, strings, and brass. Every
now and then, the keyboards chime in.
But what lurked? What crouched in the dark?
What shadow lay awake in some spiny crevice
plotting against this young woman, the least
of her dreams still wingless within her?
I kept going, eager to complete the test, quell
her fears, and have the neurologist scrawl
within normal limits” across the EEG report.
I stared at the paper; her brain was spelled out
before me like the score of a vast symphony,
alpha and beta waves scurrying up-tempo,
brisk and lively in the opening sonata as she
lay awake. Soon, an adagio of delta waves
came waltzing by, swirling like petticoats
across the page as she drifted into a dreamless,
drowsy haze. Next came the stately minuet
of REM, her eyes dancing back and forth
as she dreamed in three-quarter time.
The test was nearly over.
So far, so good.
Everything looked normal. I could relax again.
Suddenly! a stray beat, a wrong note, the strings
were playing out of tune, the snares drumming
in a waning staccato,
tick … tick … tick …
like the stroke of time winding down.
When I saw it lurking in its deep trench,
I knew it for what it was. The EEG pens
vaulted out of control, surged into a rondo of spikes
resembling tuning forks bolted upright.
Tumor! Tumor! Tumor! screeched the EEG
as the pens feverishly scribbled their ill-fated
news across the page. No! No! No!
I felt as if I were caught in an undertow—
some dark wave pulling me under, some
jaws clenching in the tide. I saw both of us
teetering on a rock ledge and me reaching out
with both arms trying desperately to pull
Too young, I was shouting to myself,
the sound of my inner voice like the shriek of metal
being sliced or the way thunder drags
itself across a bruised sky, a vibration, a low
frequency swell upon which I floated with fear
and recognition. I never saw her again. Perhaps
in time, a decision was made and she was wheeled
down some long, sterile corridor into a miracle,
and somewhere she combs her daughter’s hair,
packs lunches, drops the kids off at school, drives
to work. Or there is that tragic song that plays over
and over again; you know what I mean. I thought of her
often as I wound my way through my own years,
how her life had brushed against mine, soft as a bassoon,
teaching me life’s unending refrain, the rhythm of time
that spirals on and on, and fate—the dark flame
flowing past us like a river, heartless and infinite.
from Rattle #74, Winter 2021
Rattle Poetry Prize Winner
Ann Giard-Chase: “The title of this poem, ‘Encephalon,’ denotes the upper part of the central nervous system that resides inside the human skull. When I graduated from college years ago, I worked as a registered EEG (electroencephalography) technologist in the neurology department of a major hospital. Patients of all ages and disease states came and went, presenting with a variety of symptoms to be analyzed by attaching electrodes to the patient’s head and recording their brain’s electrical activity. Based on this data, neurologists were able to detect certain brain abnormalities since brain waves change as a function of disease states. Being young myself, I was especially saddened when a young woman whose EEG I conducted was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I hadn’t dealt with early death or the potential for early death at this time in my life, and it impacted me greatly, and I never forgot her.”