“Essential Tremor” by Donald Platt

Donald Platt


My right hand shakes
as if a low-watt electric current runs through it—harmless
palsy, neurological

tic that I inherited from my dead father. It affects only
the one hand.
The doctors call it “an essential tremor.” I’m trimming the blue spruce

that Lucy, our younger
daughter who turned eighteen last week, and I bought yesterday.
I’m hanging fragile

red, blue, gold, green, and silver balls with my right hand.
It trembles
uncontrollably. Eleanor, our older daughter who had her first

and so far only
manic episode two years ago, is coming home for Christmas
from Guatemala’s mountains,

where she’s been working as an intern on a medical team.
She’s lived through
an earthquake, amoebas, parasites, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, nausea,

fever, power outages, 30-degree 
nights, no central heat. I wonder whether, sick as she is and unable 
to tolerate her full dose

of lithium, her mind will start to fog and she won’t get on the flight
home. I remember
how two years ago, as she began to escalate into 

mania, she sent
long, rambling, group emails to her professors and copied Dana
and me: “Let me be

perfectly CLEAR. I am having a rough time managing schoolwork,
social time, consumption
(eating and drinking), breathing, sleeping … In fact, I have gotten

to the point where I seem
to be doing NONE of these things well. So I have decided to pause
and think. (And sleep!!!!!!!)

Precisely because I do not enjoy panic. (Well, that is a typical
lie. I meant to say
that I enjoy panic but I must resist most of the time if I want

to remain sane
and be able to actively use my mind.) Any changes? Tell me,
Waldo, tell me.”

With my stuttering hand I hang on the highest branch the glass 
ornament that Eleanor 
free-blew when she visited a glassblower’s studio with her classmates 

on a field trip. Somehow 
it has survived twelve Christmases. It catches whatever light 
sifts through our window.

Once molten, the cold glass sphere still holds the deep breath Eleanor exhaled
when she was ten.
Two years ago I found her huddled under a blanket in her apartment. 

“The vagus nerve,” she told me,
“is the longest nerve in the whole body. It runs up and down
my spine and opens up

when you have sex. Djibril and I have been fucking like bunnies
for four years.
I had sex too early. I should have waited to find out about

my vagus nerve.
I was giving all my love to Djibril. I have so much love to give,
Daddy. But Djibril

wouldn’t give his love back. I tried to give my love to my friends
and to my schoolwork
when I came here. Always I was giving, but not taking. Now

I need to learn
how to take. I need to become an infant again. I want to be
a newborn.”

Psychosis has its own poetry and fractured wisdom. I eavesdropped 
while her roommate
tried to explain it a day later on his cell phone to a mutual friend of theirs—

“Her mind
kind of moves faster than the speed of light. It’s amazing but … getting lost
in your mind

is the loneliest thing. I think she was concentrating all of her energies
in one place, namely
Djibril. All this is very hard to articulate, and I keep saying it

differently and finding
new revelations as I go along. Let me tell you about the aesthetics
of the breakdown. 

I’m not sure it was exactly a moment. There was a build-up.
Basically, her friends
arrived from Mexico, maybe they brought back memories

for her of being
in Mexico with Djibril. She had been working and making money then.
Everything was going

well for her. Anyway, she began furiously cleaning things. We have
a mice problem,
but it bothered her more than it would a normal person. 

We go to yoga
together, and I was working on breathing
with her. So she

was having trouble sleeping, and her eating was off. She got
on her breath. I was in my room, doing some homework,

and she came down
from her room, wrapped only in a blanket. She was completely
naked underneath.

She said, ‘I can’t go to sleep. I haven’t been eating in a week
and a half. I think
I’m going to die.’ ‘Well, let’s get you something to eat,’ I said.

‘I can’t chew.
Can you get me a mango lassi?’ So I ordered her one 
from an Indian restaurant

around the corner. But she wouldn’t touch it. She was having trouble
breathing. I held her
and we tried to breathe together. It was hard for her to get

a breath.”
Nothing will stop this essential tremor. It shakes Eleanor 
and me. We are held

in someone’s large trembling hand. Christmas is the manic
season. I plug in
the lights, and the tree is electrified red, blue, pink, green, yellow,

orange. Daughter,
forgive me. You are not some flammable tree I have hung and hogtied 
with eighty breakable 

glass balls. Forgive my dumb anxiety. You will walk across the tarmac
and climb up the skeletal 
metal stairs into a two-prop plane, strap on your seatbelt. I will meet you 

at the new Indianapolis airport
tomorrow night. I will help you carry your carry-on bags.
You will be tanned

from a fierce tropic sun I have never known. You will talk slowly
in English
after having spoken so much Spanish. You will tell me of the volcanoes

you live under—one extinct,
the other smoking. How they are tall strangers, who have become some 
of your many friends. I will kiss

you on both cheeks, my beautiful prodigal, my returned one,
and we will hold
each other still for a long time, my hands clasping your thin

shoulder blades 
under your poncho, while suitcases go around and around on the carousel,
waiting to be claimed.

from Rattle #48, Summer 2015


Donald Platt: “I would hazard that I write poems because I’m a PK (preacher’s kid) and one of my earliest memories is of lying on a pew in Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City and feeling the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, and the old hymns wash over me. Another root of my writing is the experience of growing up with my younger brother who has Down syndrome. While the more common and unenlightened practice in the early ’60s was to institutionalize those with such disabilities, my parents decided that Michael should live at home. But they never discussed my brother’s disability with me. It was an insoluble given. In reaction, I’ve been living my life trying to articulate what isn’t spoken around me, which is perhaps one of the many definitions of what poetry is and does.” (website)

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