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The Man in the Iron Lung

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I scream
The body electric,
This yellow, metal, pulsing cylinder
Whooshing all day, all night
In its repetitive dumb mechanical rhythm.
Rudely, it inserts itself in the map of my body,
Which my midnight mind,
Dream-drenched cartographer of terra incognita,
Draws upon the dark parchment of sleep.
I scream
In my body electric;
A dream snake bites my left leg.
Indignant, I shake the gods by their abrupt shoulders,
Demanding to know how such a vile slitherer
Could enter my serene metal shell.
The snake is punished with death,
The specialty of the gods.
Clamp-jawed still in my leg,
It must be removed;
The dream of the snake
Must be removed,
While I am restored
By Consciousness, that cruelest of gods,
In metal hard reluctance
To my limited, awkward, déclasé
Body electric,
As it whispers promises of health,
Whooshes beautiful lies of invulnerability,
Sighs sibilantly, seraphically, relentlessly:
It is me,
It is me.
                                                                                                March, 1988
Mark O’Brien, "The Man in the Iron Lung" from The Man in the Iron Lung. Copyright © 1997 by Mark O’Brien.  Reprinted by permission of Lemonade Factory Press.
Source: The Man in the Iron Lung (Lemonade Factory Press, 1997)
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The Man in the Iron Lung

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  • Poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, California. He contracted polio when he was six years old; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he used an iron lung to breathe. He earned a BA and an MA from the University of California–Berkeley. An advocate of independent living for disabled people, O’Brien was a frequent contributor to newspapers, writing columns on such topics as sports, religion, and disability issues. In 1997, he cofounded Lemonade Factory, a press that publishes work by people who have disabilities. His books include the memoir How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence (2003) and the poetry collections The Man in the Iron Lung (1997) and Breathing (1998), among others.
    A documentary about O’Brien’s life, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996), won an Academy Award. His column...

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