You had a fever. You had a real ailment.
You had eaten a baddie.
You lay helpless and a little bit crazy
With the fever. You cried for America
And its medicine cupboard. You tossed
On the immovable Spanish galleon of a bed
In the shuttered Spanish house
That the sunstruck outside glare peered into
As into a tomb. ‘Help me,’ you whispered, ‘help me.’

You rambled. You dreamed you were clambering
Into the well-hatch and, waking, you wanted
To clamber into the well-hatch—the all-clear
Short cut to the cool of the water,
The cool of the dark shaft, the best place
To find oblivion from your burning tangle
And the foreign bug. You cried for certain
You were going to die.
I bustled about.
I was nursemaid. I fancied myself at that.
I liked the crisis of the vital role.
I felt things had become real. Suddenly mother,
As a familiar voice, woke in me.
She arrived with the certain knowledge. Imade a huge soup.
Carrots, tomatoes, peppers and onions,
A rainbow stir of steaming elixir. You
Had to become a sluice, a conduit
Of pure vitamin C. I promised you,
This had saved Voltaire from the plague.
I had to saturate you and flush you
With this simmer of essences.
I spooned it
Into your helpless, baby-bird gape, gently,
Masterfully, patiently, hour by hour.
I wiped your tear-ruined face, your exhausted face,
All loose with woe and abandon.
I spooned more and you gulped it like life,
Sobbing ‘I’m going to die.’
As I paused
Between your mouthfuls, I stared at the readings
On your dials. Your cry jammed so hard
Over into the red of catastrophe
Left no space for worse. And I thought
How sick is she? Is she exaggerating?
And I recoiled, just a little,
Just for balance, just for symmetry,
Into sceptical patience, a little.
If it can be borne, why make so much of it?
“Come on, now,” I soothed. “Don’t be so scared.
It’s only a bug, don’t let it run away with you.”

What I was really saying was: “Stop crying wolf.”
Other thoughts, chilly, familiar thoughts,
Came across the tightrope: “Stop crying wolf,
Or else I shall not know, I shall not hear
When things get really bad.”
It seemed easy
Watching such thoughts come up in such good time.
Plenty of time to think: “She is crying
As if the most impossible of all
Horrible things had happened—
Had already happened, was going on
Still happening, with the whole world
Too late to help.” Then the blank thought
Of the anaesthesia that helps creatures
Under the polar ice, and the callous
That eases overwhelmed doctors. A twisting thought
Of the overload of dilemma, the white-out,
That brings baffled planarian worms to a standstill
Where they curl up and die.

You were overloaded. I said nothing.
I said nothing. The stone man made soup.
The burning woman drank it.

(from Birthday Letters, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This Issue

March 5, 1998