POEM LIII: “A MADNESS ON ONE SIDE”

“They were trying to evacuate Manhattan because nobody knew what was going on […] there was just a madness on one side, y’know, and wanting to help people on the other side.”

–Herb Jones, engineer of the Mary Gellatly, talking about his experience on Sept. 11th.

When one side of the brain goes offline,
the other tries to help,
rewiring like a frantic telephone operator
on a smoking switchboard.

The body steers itself in circles like a broken boat
one half drooping, going blind,
the other half pedaling, struggling to see.

I spoke to a woman on a plane once:
garrulous, rhinestoned, self-tanned and taut,
a bartop stomper in cowboy boots and silver jewelry
with a smoker’s laugh you could hear
from the back bathrooms.

She was visiting her grown son for the first time since
her catastrophic stroke.

We spent a whole flight laughing over
the struggle to apply eyeliner
when you’ve had a stroke.

The struggle to make yourself understood
on one of those hellish automated voice recognition systems
when you’ve had a stroke.

The struggle to get a stewardess’s attention
when you’ve had a stroke
and then laughed so hard
that you’ve spilt orange juice on your shirt.

One side of the world attacks the other.
The switchboard lights up
and the helpers rush towards the chaos point
where blood and gases mix
and a greasy contrail of ash and paper
worms its way down the Hudson.

Small comfort,
that we should retain our laughter
our brave exterior of rhinestones and self-tanner.

A sparkling bit of glitter
caught in the murky weeds below a sluggish river
the black box signals its persistence
sends its insistent message
like a heartbeat on a monitor:

I am still here.

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