Five Points, Vol. 4 No. 2Winter 2000
From Paul Bowles, “It really only makes sense to have ideas if you can put them down somehow so that they can be received and understood by somebody else.”
Past the signs that say Stop! Go Back!
We Are Friendly Indians! past the tables
of garnet and red rock, of turquoise and silver,
past horses thin as paper, profiled
against a treeless horizon, I come
to where all the roads converge, I stand
at each of a dozen jumping-off places
with my fellow cripples, my fellow Americans
peering into our national abyss.
Outings for wheelchair postulants
Are regular affairs here on the brink
of this improbable upheaved landscape;
the clinic for chronic pain my therapists
back East referred me to is,
by Western measurements, just down the road.
The group is quiet. Wind music lobs
endless songs to would-be suicides
from the river bottom’s Loreleis,
a redemptive eight-hour hike below us,
but no one’s leapt this week. Some travel
both ways on the bony backs of mules,
slaves forever on this tortuous trail.
Despite the crowds, despite the kitsch,
this mesa, this elevated plain
has always been on my life list.
Life-list, a compound noun in my
directory. The fact is, I’m alive.
The fact is, no conjecture can resolve
why I survived this broken neck
known in the trade as the hangman’s fracture,
this punctured lung, eleven broken ribs,
a bruised liver, and more. Enslaved
three months in axial traction, in what they call
a halo though stooped. I’m up. I’m vertical.
How to define chronic pain?
raying out from my spinal cord
like the arms of an octopus, squeezing,
insidious as the tropic anaconda….
The experts are fond of saying
spinal cord injuries are like
snowflakes; no two are ever the same
but while you’re lying on the table, unfrocked
—no one tells you this—the twists and pummels,
The stretches and presses are identical.
One size of therapy fits all
Who practices for disaster? Who
anticipates that the prized horse will bolt,
that you will die/should have/didn’t?
That a year will pass before
you can walk the line they ask a drunk to
or balance on one foot. Who knew
the dumb left hand could be retrained
to cut meat, brush teeth, and yet the day I signed
my name in loose spaghetti loops beneath
the intended line, I wept. We joked
I’d buy a stamp pad, roll my thumb,
some day receive outrageous sums
from Sotheby’s for my auctioned print,
brave banter we all but choked
on, but better than the cant that says
be grateful you’re alive, thank God.
Implicit in it, you’ve had it too good.
What would the friendly Indians trade
to break loose from the white man who
reduced them to servitude?
What would the suicidal barter for
deliverance from the Sisyphean boulder
they daily roll uphill?
What would I trade to regain
my life the way it was?
From pillar to abyss
the answer echoes still:
The word is everything.