Letters from an Institution

By Michael Ryan b. 1946 Michael Ryan
The ward beds float like ghost ships   
in the darkness, the nightlight
above my bed I pretend is a lighthouse   
with a little man inside who wears   
a sailor cap and tells good old stories   
of the sea. The little man is me.   
Perhaps I have a dog called Old Salt   
who laps my hand and runs endlessly   
down the circular stairs.
Perhaps he bites like sin.
I dream of ships smashing the reefs,   
their bottoms gutting out,
the crews’ disembodied voices screaming   
Help us help us help somebody please   
and there is no one there at all   
not even me. I wake up nervous,
Old Salt gnawing my flesh. I wake up nervous,   
canvas bedstraps cutting my groin.   
The night nurse, making the rounds,   
says I bellow in sleep like a foghorn.


Nothing moves at night   
except small animals   
kept caged downstairs   
for experiments, going   
bullshit, and the Creole   
janitor’s broom whisking   
closer by inches.
In the ward, we all
have room for errors and elbows
to flail at excitement.
We’re right above the morgue;
the iceboxes make our floor   
cold. The animals seem to know
when someone, bored with holding
on, gives out: they beat   
their heads and teeth   
against the chicken wire   
doors, scream and claw   
The janitor also knows.   
He props his heavy broom   
against his belt, makes   
a sign over himself
learned from a Cajun,   
leaves us shaking
in our bedstraps
to drag the still
warm and nervous body   
down from Isolation.


I have a garden in my brain
shaped like a maze
I lose myself
in, it seems. They only look for me   
sometimes. I don’t like my dreams.

The nurses quarrel over where I am   
hiding. I hear from inside   
a bush. One is crisp
and cuts; one pinches. I’d like to push   
them each somewhere.

They both think it’s funny
here. The laughter sounds like diesels.   
I won’t come out because I’m lazy.   
You start to like the needles.
You start to want to crazy.

Michael Ryan, “Letters from an Institution” from New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

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Poet Michael Ryan b. 1946

Subjects Health & Illness, Living

 Michael  Ryan


Poet and memoirist Michael Ryan was born in St Louis, Missouri. He studied at the University of Notre Dame and Claremont Graduate School, and earned an MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa. Ryan’s first volume, Threats Instead of Trees (1974), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. His second collection, In Winter (1981), was selected by Louise Glück for the National Poetry Series. God Hunger (1989) won the Lenore . . .

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SUBJECT Health & Illness, Living

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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