Perhaps one of my most profound experiences of poetry as a vehicle for connection occurred when I visited a friend in the hospital a few days before she was taken home to die. She was 94 and had been hospitalized after she had fallen and broken her hip and had then contracted pneumonia. I hadn’t seen her in the 2 weeks she’d been in the hospital, and others who’d visited her advised me that I should go see her without delay and that she’d been very withdrawn, and was no longer talking, or eating or drinking.
When I entered her room, I found her very retracted into the far side of the narrow bed, curled into herself. The whole feeling was one of diminishment, of seeing someone from across a field. I sat down and held her hands between mine and told her I was there, and she ventured at some sounds I took to be hello, more like an exhalation, but still with some freight of language discernible. I didn’t know if she could see at this point as her eyesight had even before then been quite compromised. I told her how nice it was to be with her and asked if she’d like to hear a new poem. I could feel her come forward: Of course, she said. This was something we’d done very frequently over the years before. I read her a poem I’d just been writing called “Letter to Gravity”–also about a fall, not her own– and I thought the poem might still be unclear in places, so about halfway through, I paused and asked her if she was feeling okay about the subject, and also reminded her that the poem was an address to gravity in case that thread might have gotten lost. I know, she said, by now, very much in the room, Go on. Her hands now actually seemed warmer in mine. And I don’t doubt that it’s true that there can be this kind of physiological consequence when someone is back within “the holiness of the heart’s affections.”
I finished reading that poem and she asked me to read one line again to clarify a point, so I did and she seemed satisfied with it all, so then I asked her if she wanted to recite a poem together, as she knew many poems “by heart” and reciting poems aloud was something we’d frequently done together. I would say a line and she would the next, and so on. She lifted her head, Which one?” I replied, how about “Buffalo Bill’s” defunct—and she came in right on cue with
who used to
ride a water-smooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
clicking her fingers on “justlikethat,” and then she said with the flourish I’d heard in her so many times:
he was a handsome man”
I came in with,
and what i want to know is
and she finished:
how do you like your blueeyed boy
exaggerating the final words. By then, her presence was palpable; her hand was no longer just draped in mine, but she had actually been gripping my hand in emphasis of some of the stressed words. It seemed as if she’d become more consolidated physically, as if the poem had ushered her back into her body. And also ushered in an animated happiness, in stark contrast to the withdrawal I had sensed when I entered the room. This experience taught me very viscerally how deeply a poem can live within a person, how the language of a poem can serve as a rope bridge along which a person can find her way back to life, even for a moment. She died within a few days, but it was so powerful to feel the resilience the poem brought forth in her, the verve of her intonation. Jesus/ he was a handsome man. Nothing but a few syllables, nothing but the rhythm of that line, but it imbued her with quite an apparent joy within the barren hospital room.