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When she came to visit me, I turned my face to the wall—
though only that morning, I'd bent my head at the bell
and with the host on my tongue, mumbled thanks.

Cranked up, then down in my bed—
I told the nurses jokes,
newly precocious, but too old

at twelve to be anything
but a patient. I slouched in my robe
among the other child-guests of St. Joseph,

the parrot-eyed scald masks,
the waterheads and harelips,
the fat girl with the plastic shunt.

The old crippled nun on her wheeled
platform dispensed her half-witted blessings,
then was gone like the occasional covered gurneys

sliding by my numbered door. Gone
told me I'd go away too—
orderly as dusk in the brick courtyard:

the blank windows curtained one by one.
I could not abide that yearning face
calling me home. Like the Gauls,

in my penciled translations: I saw
Caesar was my home. Through the streets
of the occupied city, his gold mask rose, implacable.

In the fervent improvisational style of the collaborator—
I imagined pain not as pain
but the flickering light embedded

in the headboard, the end
of the snake-wire uncoiling from
the nurses' station. The painkiller winked

in its paper cup, its bleak chirp
meant respect should be paid
for the way I too wielded oblivion,

staring at the wall till six,
gifts unopened in her lap,

the early dark deepening between us.

Carol Muske-Dukes, “Pediatrics” from Applause. Copyright © 1989 by Carol Muske-Dukes. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, http://www.upress.pitt.edu. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Source: An Octave Above Thunder: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)
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  • Carol Muske-Dukes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1945. She earned a BA from Creighton University and an MA at San Francisco State University. Her collections of poetry include Camouflage (1975), Applause (1989), An Octave Above Thunder: New and Selected Poems (1997), Sparrow (2003), which was a National Book Award finalist, and Twin Cities (2011). In addition to poetry, Muske-Dukes has published two collections of essays, including Married to the Ice Pick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood (2002), which humorously and insightfully describes her encounters with Hollywood following her marriage to the actor David Coleman Dukes. She has also written novels, including Life after Death (2001) and Channeling Mark Twain (2007). Known for her sharp portraiture and strong imagery, Muske-Dukes drew on her own experiences teaching in a women’s prison for the bestselling Channeling Mark Twain: in 1972, she created Free Space, a creative writing program at the Women’s...

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