March 28, 2022

Ann Giard-Chase

ENCEPHALON

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
her back. 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.”

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March 27, 2022

Francesca Bell

SANDWICHES

I decide it would be a good idea to write them down,
the first four things you’re likely to forget on your journey
down dementia’s long path, a path that will
eventually be strewn with all your discarded memories
the way the path to the person dead from hypothermia
is strewn with their cast-off articles of clothing
that lie bright and useless on the snow.

But I can’t remember them.
The four things.
Or the article’s title.

I’m pretty sure there are four things, but four is
my lucky number, and maybe I’ve merely glommed
onto what is familiar, the way a person who’s wandered
off-course might walk in whatever wrong direction
most resembles home. I try searching my phone,
where I read the piece, but it turns out I can’t find the way
to my phone’s memory either, and when I Google
four things you may forget and signs of dementia,
several lists of ten items appear, and ten is at least six
too many to keep track of, so I don’t bother
writing any of it down.

For some reason, this reminds me of the story
I told last night at dinner, a story I meant to take note of,
but first, I think, since I’m constructing records,
I should finally make that list
of all the men I’ve slept with. So I do,
but I reach early on one name I simply cannot summon,
the name of the guy who took me
to the snow for a whole day and only brought
one sandwich, which turned out to be just
what sleeping with him was like: a trip to the cold
with only half a sandwich to hold you.

I write Sandwiches where his name should be and go on.

But when I reach the end of the list,
my lifetime total is five under
what I thought I tallied years ago
meaning five additional names
and the men they belong to may
(or may not) have leapt from memory’s cliff.

Frustrated, I turn the page
to write the story I told at last night’s dinner—
a story I might, in fact, have told my family before,
now that I think of it—and find that it, too, has vanished
along with those men I now can neither remember
nor forget, men who may have entered my body without leaving
so much as a trace on my mind.

Perhaps it will return to me later,
the story. Maybe even the men
will wander back across my blinkered
brain, naked, with or without
sandwiches, maybe a little snow falling
outside the window, their penises
memorable this time, overpowering enough
that my mind will finally have
something solid to hold onto.

But I don’t really think so.

I don’t think I’ll find the way
to those memories again.
Or to the article about the four early
losses of dementia, one more list of losses,
too many losses to possibly keep
count of.

There is a name for this precise feeling,
I know there is, this feeling that wells
and wells and almost spills over.
Like a Scot with snow,
I’m a poet with hundreds
of different ways to name sorrow,
but, though I sit for a long time
as dusk seeps in,
I’m only ever able
to put my finger
on one.

from Poets Respond
March 27, 2022

__________

Francesca Bell: “When I read this article about four things a person might first become forgetful about as they begin to develop Alzheimer’s, I thought I ought to keep a little eye on myself. But I promptly forgot the four things I should be watching for. And the name of the article. And where I had read it. Which ended up inspiring a bumpy trip down memory lane and this poem.” (web)

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March 26, 2022

Robert Archambeau

THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

As if in a cold war spy flick, it is a foggy night.
You pull up to the striped and lowered roadblock
and the checkpoint guard, fat in his overcoat,
breathes gin down your neck as he thumbs through your passport.

He stamps it with the black and oily barn-owl crest.

You know what’s through that mountain pass, you’ve been before.
Insomnia speaks a harsh and stuttered language–
in it all your answers sound like questions–
and on her cobbled capital streets all friends are strangers.

You know what you’ll find among the natives:

their milk is black, storms rage in their living-rooms,
bones grow in the tongues of the old, who cannot speak.
The sun burns out his days in exile, pacing a poor and sweaty chamber,
and you, the black-gloved master spy, you light another cigarette.

The guard has waved you through. Your headlights glare like lidless eyes.

from Rattle #21, Summer 2004

__________

Robert Archambeau: “I write poetry because it is what Immanuel Kant would do if he were Jimi Hendrix; because it is what James Brown would do if he were John Stuart Mill. It is midway between music and abstract thinking.” (web)

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March 25, 2022

Richard Westheimer

MY FATHER TRANSFORMED BY DYING

I sat with him alone in the hospice room.
The breathing machine noises made a nap-drowse 
muddle of me and I nearly lost sight of his star receding 
from here to some galaxy far from where he was, 
a place utterly unlike the stern man I knew, 
who was so cool to the touch. He would often 
cite Kant—that it was better to think than feel, 
until he suffered a private revival on learning 
of his cancer, a death sentence in three quick acts.
He asked me to call him “Pop” rather than “Father,” 
his feelings, new, under siege—he, now, less a man 
and more a near naked patient with no room to move 
but away, as he became less “star” and more a small 
part of an unknown galaxy, warm in the night sky.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

__________

Richard Westheimer: “Like most of the poems I write, this one surprised me as it unfolded. I began with three words written at the top of my page: ‘galaxy,’ ‘incongruous,’ and ‘cool.’ What emerged was a reflection about my father, who died almost 25 years ago. A bonus surprise (poetic turn?) came when I shared it with my sisters—neither readers of poetry. Image after image (sometime more from the universe of Truth rather than that of fact) prompted the recounting of long set-aside memories of our father—mostly experiences unique to one or another of us—which we shared for the first time.”

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March 24, 2022

Ekphrastic Challenge, February 2022: Artist’s Choice

 

Diaphona by Sarah-Jane Crowson, collage of a human-like deer standing near jellyfish

Image: “Diaphona” by Sarah-Jane Crowson. “Homemaker” was written by Mary Meriam for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, February 2022, and selected as the Artist’s Choice. (PDF / JPG)

__________

Mary Meriam

HOMEMAKER

Mother of Earth, conceive the art of home,
give birth to jellyfish, the start of home.

My drawings screw the seeds to root and grow
to green, the frame of every part of home.

Didn’t she sex the trees from outer space?
Wasn’t blue-black my counterpart of home?

The miles I travel hard until my head
is antlered, both the doe and hart of home.

I have this reaching after flight, this dress
that doesn’t fit, fast birds, my heart of home.

Dismiss my poverty and build for me
a golden house to hang the art of home.

She steers the moon, the clouds that lift and roll
the chariot of time, the chart of home.

Marvel of whales, of mythic story-telling,
of seas that never drift apart, of home.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
February 2022, Artist’s Choice

__________

Comment from the artist, Sarah-Jane Crowson: “I thought that this was such a beautiful ghazal, and that the ghazal form worked so well with the collage form of the artwork. I loved how within each image I can read ideas from the original picture, but I also love how these are taken in a new direction, creating new narratives or possible narratives—the poet’s creative response changing the ideas in the picture, transforming these into something different. I thought that the choice of form also aligned really well with collage as a medium—both, perhaps, thread together images that draw strength from each other whilst being in some ways dislocated. I also really appreciated the technical skill of the poem—how the quafia and radif worked so beautifully together, and the iambic patterning of the poem held it all together.”

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March 23, 2022

Zella Rivas

PURGATORIO

It goes like this:

Two girls sit in a room and talk about God. 
I’m one of the girls. You’re the other. 

We don’t love each other and we don’t have a door.

All we have are bruises and bleeding noses and broken ribs because
maybe we fought at the beginning a bit too much, but, in hindsight, 
you shouldn’t have called me a coward
and I shouldn’t have called you all bravado. 

At least you stopped calling me a coward.
At least my lip stopped bleeding an hour ago. 

You think you look tough, I think you look like I punched you
because that’s what happened. 

Anyway, that was the beginning. Now we’re talking about God. 

Praying tastes like blood, I tell you. 
No, you say, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t breathe while you do it
and it won’t taste like anything. 
It’s supposed to be something. 
Yeah. Not blood. So stop biting your lips
or stop breathing. Your choice, sweetheart. 
I feel like there’s a third option but I don’t say that. 
I wouldn’t know what it is. 

Besides, you called me sweetheart. That isn’t allowed. 

* * *

It goes like this: 

Two girls sit in a room with no door. 
Both of the girls are you this time. 

You don’t call each other sweetheart, 
because you call each other darling. 
You love yourself, 
so you love each other. 

There’s a lot more fighting this time. 

Neither of you win. 

* * *

It goes like this:

Two girls sit in a room and talk. 
I’m one of the girls. You’re the other. 

We’re the same girl. 

We don’t love each other because
we sort of hate each other
and we don’t have a door. 

We still have bruises and bleeding noses and broken ribs because
we fought, in the beginning, and we’re probably going to fight again
because you still think I’m a coward
and I still think you’re all bravado. 

We have an understanding. We always have. 
We don’t get along but we need each other 
like the paring knife needs the fruit. 
I don’t have any bravado and you don’t have any fear. 
Except I do, and you do, because we’re the same girl. Remember? 

We’re talking because that’s better than looking at one another. 
It gets worse at night, I tell you, 
but my clock is stuck at midnight. 
You don’t offer to fix it because I didn’t ask and, besides, 
You’ve never been very good at fixing anything. 
Let’s talk about something else, you say,
but I ignore you because 
I’ve never been very good at listening to you. 
It gets worse at night, I tell you, 
but I don’t know what anything other than midnight looks like. 

You don’t say it was never good in the day either, 
you don’t say midnight and midday look the same on a clock, 
you don’t say nothing ever matters because nothing ever changes, 
you don’t say we’re not getting anywhere, sweetheart,
you don’t say I need us to start getting somewhere and 
I hate you for not letting us. 

You want to say those things because 
you’ve never been good at fixing things
but you’ve always been good at breaking them. 
You don’t say them because you’re all bravado. 
I don’t make you because I’m a coward. 

You don’t have to because we’re the same girl. 

We’re in a room with no door
and the clock is broken 
and when we fight next time 
I hope you win. 

I hope you win, 
but I’m not going to let you.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

__________

Zella Rivas: “The poem is inspired by my experiences growing up and living with mental illness that is incurable and has never not been part of me. It is a difficult experience to describe, but poetry allows us to share experiences of the most inexplicable and human sort even as it allows us the room to further understand ourselves, and it does so with beauty. Poetry is, to me, a beautiful and essential medium through which to participate in this world.” (web)

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March 22, 2022

Susan Browne

YOU WONDER IF YOU CAN WRITE SOMETHING

that has hope in it.
Today, you read, there’s a big rush to buy
bomb shelters.
Normal people are buying them,
not just millionaires.
There is some hope in that:
thinking life will go on after.
If you go shopping today
it won’t be for a bomb shelter
but a beautiful anything
you can find: a soft pair of socks,
a necklace that catches the light
although nothing will get your mind off
of the mass grave in Ukraine,
the jaw-bones & eye sockets,
the pregnant women running
from the destroyed maternity hospital.
Your friend said she doesn’t read the news
because what can she do, what can any of us do
to stop the butchers
because we have to be butchers
to stop them, a hopeless logic.
You could put a pear in your pocket
& pretend you have a horse to slowly feed it to.
You could build a ramshackle hut
for the dandelions before the spring wind
blows through.

from Poets Respond
March 22, 2022

__________

Susan Browne: “I wrote this poem after reading the story in the New York Times about Europeans buying bomb shelters, iodine pills, and survival guides.” (web)

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