By Paula Tatarunis Paula Tatarunis
All day they stream past, petitioners
for understanding, accolade, critique.
I read them all, a vast anthology
of jumbled genres on a common theme:
affliction. So I parse, interpret, scan.
I graph dysrhythmias, dysmetrias;
I eavesdrop on caesuras for unsaid
murmurs, gallops, rubs, snaps, flutters, clicks.
The perils of misreading harrow me—
beware the treacheries of metaphor!—
the elephant that squats upon a chest
is not a burning heart or waterbrash.

Just take the imagists. Their heads explode.
St Elmo's fire flashdances on their limbs.
They float, they swim. Knives twist within their flesh.
They're ball-and-chained by lead, filled with concrete.
Butterflies inhabit them. Their pipes
are wrong, and clogged. Their systems freeze and crash.
Invaded, they resist; defenses fail.
What they need, they think, is you to flush
it out of them, whatever it is, doc.

The formalists present minutiae,
in alphabetical enjambed iambs—
pentameter's ten digits, five lub-dubs—
from acne, backpain, catarrh, dandruff, eye-
strain, flatfoot, gas pains, hangnail, itchiness,
the jitters, kinks, lethargies, migraines, nose-
bleeds, obstipation, panics, queasy retch-
ings, styes and tremors, ulcers, vertigo,
to wandering womb, xerosis, yaws and zits.

Free versers, on the other hand, wax Walt
Whitmanic: their barbaric yawps celebrate and sing
incantatory songs of themselves, songs
of the breath as it wheezes and rales through them,
the short breath and long breath, the breath that is moist or dry,
songs of the blood, the thick- and thinness of it, its heat, its turbulence,
songs of the gut, its rippling coils, the dark burden of its secret indulgences,
songs of the muscled limb, inflamed with toil or the languid thrash of love.

Didacticists, of course, will always add
their theories of omission or commission:
slept in a draft, got their feet wet, caught a chill,
forgot their overshoes and oversoul,
ate too little roughage, too much ham,
should have pumped less iron or pumped more,
Mea culpa, meus morbus they intone,
certain you'll absolve them back to health.

Narrativists enshrine a fleeting pain
within an epic of chronology
I woke at six—I'm a morning person—
brushed my teeth, ate oatmeal with a pat
of low-fat margarine, the kind that has
the dancing turkey on the tub, on sale
for .99 at Johnnie's, by the time
you tune back in it's afternoon, the pain
has come and gone; they're vacuuming the rug,
the doorbell rings, the kettle's whistling,
you try to interrupt—where did you say
that pain was?—loquacity steamrolls on
through supper, TV, bedtime, dreams, alarm
clock going off at six. Try Tylenol,
you say, your fingers crossed. Call if it's worse.

Then there's the avant garde. The cutting edge.
The text Munchausens off the sizzling page.
Hypoglossalalia muscles in,
between John Cagey silences, the din
and Sturm of wild unsound, unsense.
O, there are stranger dysphasias, Wernicke,
than are dreamt of in your neurologies,
mutant L=A=N=G=U=A=G=Es that cacophone
far off the beaten geographic tongue,
where elephants explode and overshoes
fibrillate with longing—El Dorado,
Shangri-la, Eden, Heaven, Hell—you name it,
it's yours. And that's, of course, the joke. You nod.
You say, "I understand." You really don't.

Source: Poetry (May 1999).


This poem originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of Poetry magazine

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May 1999
 Paula  Tatarunis


Physician and poet Paula Tatarunis makes her home in Newton, Massachusetts. Her work often layers medical knowledge, natural landscapes, and allusions to history and religion.

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, School & Learning, Activities, Poetry & Poets, Humor & Satire

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Mixed, Allusion, Imagery

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