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Letters from an Institution

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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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Letters from an Institution

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