Poetry | March 01, 2003
Poetry Feature: Monica Berlin
Featuring the poems:
- About the Nurse in Ob-Gyn
- Updike Arrives in Peoria, the City of Vowels
- The Alphabet
- Rome, Winter 1967
About the Nurse in Ob-Gyn
The lobby is packed with expecting
husbands who pull toddlers
up onto their laps, while I wait, empty.
When my name is called, she walks
me down the long corridor framed
with pictures of babies’
birthdays, diagrams of each
trimester’s developing, weary photographed
mothers, scrawled notes of thanks
pinned to the walls.
Later, this same woman pumps my arm,
fingers my wrist, asks how old
I am now, as if the question itself will edge
forward the hands of my body’s need.
I swear she mumbles old enough, leaning
all of herself toward me—her child-bearing
hips, her healthy stoic frame,
her earrings that scrape along
her clavicle—across the desk to where
I perch. Before I can answer
she wonders aloud whether I’m going
to fill that prescription again. She doesn’t
know I rehearsed this part
with my dose of morning coffee.
Even thought to pour a shot of whiskey
deep in the cup. Some proof of my resolve.
She doesn’t know something keeps
collapsing. Hasn’t she ever
had nightmares of children
she’s never conceived: hands
scrubbed to bone, reaching
through an incubator’s latex
mouth, past feeding tubes
and pulsing monitors to touch
the one-inch feet, the neonatal
glow? She turns her back
while I slip into the paper gown,
while I guide my feet
into the stirrups, tells me
about those women who leave
mugs on the roofs of their cars
and drive away. Never notice.
Would leave a baby seat too, she says,
facing me with the accusation—
the thousand mistakes I’ve never made.
Updike Arrives in Peoria, the City of Vowels
Just as I’m telling my students how,
in 1939, a speech pathologist in Iowa
trained twenty-two orphans to stutter.
My own mouth cannot utter the words
those children were never untaught.
That our tongues naturally miscalculate
fricatives, or the spaces between,
seems wretched enough, to all of us.
For the luncheon with Updike, I send
that shy boy from my morning class.
Hand over a first edition to have signed
in case, overcome by his own twitching,
he isn’t brave enough to speak.
When he returns what filled his arms,
he sputters out that every wall was a door
in the sterile room where he waited.
He thought Updike would appear
from behind one of them.
I haven’t the heart to tell him
no writer is that kind of magician.
Especially not after this day of talk upturns
Updike’s shirt collar. Creases
his throat. Swallows all those years
of practiced consonants that do not repeat.
But this boy already knows what I cannot
seem to teach, even myself: if behind every door,
in any room, the perfect shape of language
were placed on a shelf just above our heads,
always in reach, how each word would stammer
its way out into the night, weighted and sweet.
Even that boy knew
what she didn’t: sometimes
we write in the dark, on the loose
leaf flaps of ourselves,
and when the heated shower
sloughs our story off, we have to
But this is about her—a girl
who cant keep herself
from scribbling, who rids
her apartment and purse of all paper
and, like an addict, lights
every last wood product on fire
in someone else’s backyard
metal drum. Without,
she has no choice and begins
to cover herself with a sort of
watermark pressed into her
body’s parchment. Takes a job
at a library as a shelver,
a mere page, because more
than anything she likes to eye
the stone lions that flank
the entrance steps. There,
the only books she touches
are the ones people check out
or the even lonelier ones that never
check out. When she has no skin
left to write on, she paints
a love story with something
in a water-based can onto
the lions’ bellies. When
rain washes the animals’
tattoos away, I half-pray
she’ll start tearing
onionskin from unread volumes
or scrawling the margins of sacred
first editions, because I wanted her,
like me, to surrender to alphabets.
To languages she didn’t know.
To words she’d never heard. Instead,
she takes a lover—. I have to
put the story down.
Didn’t she see that ink dresses
everything around us-quickly penned
notes on hands or phrases like Forever
Harley across the biker’s chest
or a postcard’s wish I were there
imprinted in memory? How could she not
know that boy I wanted to love
introduced himself, saying I keep words
beneath my clothes?
Rome, Winter 1967
There were secrets to be explained,
some kind of mystery. On the ledge
of their rooftop veranda, my mother
is twenty-five, dressed all in kitten-black
but for the checkered scarf
at her neck, perched-one leg
crossed over the other-at the edge
My father never cared about seeing her
in clothes like this or how she looked
so young. But the older men at the bar,
their teeth sometimes missing,
made her feel welcome. Taught her
to drink Frascati in short chubby glasses.
Called her bella. Told my father
she was bambola. He only knew
enough of the language to nod.
She must’ve understood, having spent
those first years learning to be
newlywed alone in this foreign place:
buying pane on the street,
haggling over slightly bruised
produce at the corner ortolano,
saving each last coin to afford
carta da lettere for long notes
home. When I untuck
the yellowing snapshot again,
first discovered and torn
from the pages of her scrapbook
when I was just a girl, I still can’t
get close enough. On the photo’s back,
in the same hand I recognize
from birthday cards, to-do lists,
envelope corners, she scrawled
Anne in knee socks at 25!? Ira wanted
a little leg. After the divorce,
after his funeral, even now, I turn
it over, trying to decipher
what hadn’t translated. My father,
half-blindness hidden behind his thick
frames, the camera’s lens, stands
too far away. Always.
And before she pressed it
between the leaves of another
letter to the States, where she never
once complained, she thinks to notice
the scenery: how nice and green
everything still is, even in December,
disappearing behind her.
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