In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked our community to answer three important questions. Below is poet Kenneth Rosen’s response to the question:
What poem do you recite to yourself when you’re waiting for test results in a doctor’s waiting room?
I don’t know this poem by heart, “The Dog” by Gerald Stern, but I have very strong impression of it. Like a weave of sad, chiding music that never leaves my head, or of aromas from my constantly urging, never complaining grandmother’s kitchen–that galley where she chopped onions and carrots and tore apart chickens for a pot, wearing my grandfather’s discarded shoes with pieces of their black leather sides cut away, her feet so painfully swollen with arthritis–an impression I’ve renewed and re-strengthened by re-reading the poem for years without its mysterious and vital majesty. Yes, majesty, ever failing me, especially the apostrophe at the end (which is in boldface), which interrupts itself with a rhetorical, magisterial, self-defeating but honest, almost biblical injunction.
Part of which I do in fact know by heart, repeat to myself at a doctor’s office when I watch a tiny old woman with a walker, who’s had to travel for over a hour and a half by public transportation on the day following a snowstorm, turned away because she was five minutes more than ten minutes late for her appointment, my wife and I also late but admitted, not to see a doctor, but a desultory and brisk, dismissive physician’s assistant. Because of my rapid-fire jokes, belligerent arrogance, contemptuous condescension, she who was not as easily cowed as the waiting room staff, who weighed me and took my blood pressure, none of which I’d requested. She tapped my cheek with her latex covered forefinger, gazed at my eyelid for five seconds and said, “You’ll have to see a specialist for this, an ophthalmologist!” And then explained, as if I understood perfectly, “Whenever it’s the face…” and billed me afterwards for her two minutes over $150.
Stern’s remonstrance, which I recite to myself, not as an appeal, but to avoid the doctor’s office equivalent of road rage and to remind myself that like Adolph Eichmann, she was merely following what she understood to be her orders, “Let there be pity, give me your pity./How could there be enough?”
I realized, after writing all this, waiting for my wife to come downstairs for breakfast, that the poem is a psalm, that King David the psalmist was fallen, that I with my rage, my regrets, my powers and powerlessness, am also fallen, like the times in which we have always lived.
By Gerald Stern
What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don’t know,
and I don’t know why I lay beside the sewer
so that the lover of dead things could come back
with is pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.
I was there for a good two hours whistling
dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying
hearts with my whimpering cries before I died
by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.
There is a look we have with the hair of the chin
curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly
stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell—and sight—is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once again and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley. I hope he doesn’t use
his shoe for fear of touching me; I know,
or used to know, the grasses down there; I think
I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog’s way
doesn’t overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other, thing to take its place. Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember,
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough? I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrot’s,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth—
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.