“The Boundaries” by Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus


… and I must save them,
High fires will help
—John Berryman

Rebecca the angelic Greek had tributary scars coursing up and down her arms.
Sharon with the waist length hair redder than a fire truck and skin Kabuki-pale
would light a cigarette, take one drag or two, then extinguish it against her breast.
Holly was a sweetheart, her sketchbooks filled with self-portraits in the nude.
Pastels with thighs spread wishbone-wide to point where the damage had transpired.
Terror, does it emanate from outside or within? Fine question, Sarah, but why
now do I think of Berryman falling toward his end? All these students traumatized
by violence and neglect. Liz explained, after years of being groped and probed,
she’d watch her hands in dreams turn gangrene—her fingers fall off one by one.
How many others have sat squirming in that leather chair, sinking, as they mumbled,
When the ground gave way, I crumbled. But tell me, Mr. Bones, what true words
might I utter to the chronically bereft? What about her fantasy, it’s better after
death? Maureen watched her stepfather drag her mother like a pulltoy by the hair.
The guy was really crazy when he drank. A trichotillomaniac in reverse. Even worse,
when he picked me up from school, instead of driving home, he’d detour to the woods,
demanding that I show him how I eat an ice-cream cone, but to do it on his dick.
When I was bleeding, Jennifer made clear, my mother’s boyfriend wouldn’t want
to fuck. He’d spit into my face and scream, What a dirty little bitch! Then take
revenge on my pet rabbits, slit one throat and order me to cook it for his supper.
What now might I say to offer comfort? Men are more despicable than ogres.
Given only a diploma and the language tool, I started to uncover all these girls alive
beneath the rubble. Carrie described how her step-brother would crawl into her bed
at night, purring like a kitty-cat. He’d lick me head-to-toe, cleaner than a milk bowl,
then leave his glue-white puddle on my breast. A doctor resolute in mind. I wouldn’t
touch you ever, except in dreams and only with my eyes for I too want to heal and live
again. Spirit-loss, possession by ghost, symptoms in a diagnostic book. What Henry
aptly labeled, the horror of unlove. Lord knows, how many times I found you crouching
in the scum, huddled at the bottom of a well. It’s madness, insists the doctor in his notes,
to descend without a lantern or a threat—taking nothing with us but the will. Though
Jeanette said it better near the end of one sad session, Some walls are made of love.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010


Peter Marcus: “Working with trauma, especially early trauma as I did some years ago, takes heart, much heart. Delving repeatedly into the ravages of loss, of betrayal and (of Berryman’s word) ‘unlove’ are unfortunately germane to this work. Sometime during my therapist years, I was re-reading The Dream Songs: The beautiful madness of Henry’s character as expressed through Berryman’s wonderful syntax. Moreover, the only way I have ever found adequately to write about mental illness or psychotherapy is to indict the protagonist/therapist in poems, so to avoid the superficial and inaccurate dichotomy of doctor as well and patient unwell. I’m never confident as to whether my psychology poems succeed in this regard.”

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