Poem of the Week | January 14, 2019
David Bergman “The Man Who Felt No Pain”
This week we present “The Man Who Felt No Pain” a poem by David Bergman. Bergman’s poems appear in our Fall Issue (41.3) “Practical Living.”
David Bergman is the author of Gaiety Transfigured, The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture and The Poetry of Disturbance. His latest book of poetry is Fortunate Light from Midsummer’s Night Press.
The Man Who Felt No Pain
“When I say ‘I am now in pain’ I am
at any rate justified before myself.”
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, ⸹289
In the last few weeks while he could still talk,
before the cancer had stopped his larynx like a decanter,
he would say no if asked if he were in pain.
Only when his sons altered the wording and asked “Do you hurt?”
did he acknowledge any discomfort and so justify,
in their eyes, the first application of morphine,
which he would take in larger and larger doses
even when he no longer could utter a word.
At the funeral his sons spoke of the difference
between pain and hurt, a distinction
they would not have made, which seemed so important
to their father. They chalked it up to his innate
modesty and stoicism hewn by his experiences
of D-Day and Sicily, where he was repeatedly
wounded and captured. They, of course,
didn’t know him then, but they remembered
when he had broken his hip and was asked
to rate his pain on a scale of ten,
ten being the highest, he reluctantly,
very reluctantly, estimated it at three,
a ridiculously low figure, and then
apologized for giving one so high.
For when he looked at pain, stared deep
into its dark, ugly heart, it disappeared.
It was only a psychic phenomenon, after all,
best if left alone and at peace.
But the body, the body could be hurt
by injury, the physical changes made clear
by the crack’s jagged X-ray outline.
Hurt he could admit, but not pain.
Being in pain was different than being
in Tunis or Palermo or Rheims,
places he’d been stationed during the war.
Pain had no place in the body.
Had he known Wittgenstein, a smart guy no doubt,
he would have steered him in the right direction:
in this world of so much misery,
he couldn’t justify claiming pain, especially to himself.
This poem is about my father, who won a Silver Star during World War II for acts of heroism he would not discuss. I regret that one detail in the poem is not true. My father never broke his hip, but I needed to show how he minimized whatever pain he felt. For a long time, the poem included an incident that actually happened and showed his stoicism. When I was a child, my father had a kidney stone. He had my mother drive him to Dr. Isaacson, our GP, who had escaped Nazi Germany. Isaacson gave my father a shot and told him that the only thing to do was to wait for the stone to pass, which it did a few days later. My father retrieved the stone for analysis and later handed it to Dr. Isaacson who rolled it in his hand, looked at my father, and said in his heavily accented English, “Even in your shoooe dis vud hurt.” After that whenever my brother and I would come home crying with a new bump or bruise, my father would carefully look at it and repeat, “Even in your shoooe dis vud hurt,” his mantra of comfort and acceptance. A decade since his death, I palm the stone of grief. “Even in your shooe dis vud hurt,” I tell myself as confirmation that I had not exaggerated the pain of his loss.
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