Mike McManus

One Night in a Naval Hospital

"Maybe you should take a walk,"
a soft voice calls from some place
lost in the click, click of I.V. machines,
and the lunar glow of heart monitors.
My first reaction is Big Jim who inhabits
the bed beside me, his skin turned brown with
late cirrhosis, talks in and out of heavy
medication, but his tongue that licked
every ungodly whore from Hong Kong
to Subic bay, is silent thought left
in air after the finish of a long book.
Then I think of a sea-breeze lifted
over the roil of surf to move inland
where painted girls sing down the alleys
and avenues of San Diego. But the curtains
of this room hang defeated like men
standing in soup lines whose only motion
is a passive cough to clear the phlegm
lodged in throats too weak to pass the word:
Hope. Something is strange in this garden,
where flowers continue to whither beneath
bright suns, and no amount of rain poured
into the soil extends the root's life for one
more season. I cannot tell the farmer from the field.
Dark things push into my skin,
day circles night and back again,
doctors greet me with rehearsed smiles.
Their weak arms cannot lift
these stones of pain that keep me pressed
in bed.  The calendar on the wall
tells three days I have been covered
with a quarry's daughter. This left leg,
once a friend, is now raised high
in traction above my head like a monument
nearing completion, it reminds me of Indian
mounds in Louisiana, those green knuckles
pushed up from the earth where men
measure height, diameter, make notes
on fragments found. Later, they discuss
their findings, formulate theories, 
but in the end remain uncertain of origin,
such meanings are left with a sun.
Pain does not wash off, and the snake
beneath my skin will not crawl away
to its brothers in a dark den. The tail
begins at the ankle, the body coils up the calf,
stops before the knee, all the bright diamonds
of its scales are buried inside my veins.
My eyes will never see its tongue sing,
but I feel the sunk fangs spreading ruin
like a muse who suddenly betrayed,
sets fire to her favorite poet.
To die without meaning is not a terrible thing,
but I am young and not ready for extinction,
give death a glass of wine and wish it on its way,
I car only for a snake and the black scorpion
who sits inside my lung with its curled lance raised
in power. Its sting is madness. Two weeks
ago I ran 10 miles on Mission Beach,
now I fill with sawdust. Diaphanous breath
is a lunatic laughing in a cave. She slowly emerges
when I call her, hair is filled with twigs and bird-droppings,
her eyes are wild like a stormy coast,
but I love her flights into an unfenced country.
"Maybe you should take a walk,"
again, from among the asylum I hear a soft voice,
though now it's more pronounced, more flesh
than fluid membrane. It carries a weight I can't explain.
Perhaps I am drunk on morphine,
perhaps a doctor is hiding in the closet playing games.
Big Jim still sleeps like a tired muscle,
I fear he will never move again.
Outside, gulls carry funeral songs west
to the ocean, a helicopter beats a drum
and is gone, moments of after-silence
pulse to name where the bullet flies.
Here, the cost of waiting is measured
by memories tiny as a crack in ice.
They seep back to form moist lines
in sand no herd of horses can erase.
"Maybe you should take a walk."
What voice watches to validate this cruelty?
I steer a path to clear from bed, but I
cannot not move. Instead, old streams
race back to meet me, mountain laurel bleeds
green waves from hill to hill. A farmer waves
from a stone porch, his hands hard relics
to a time when patron saints endured.
I am above my body, no pain infuses with danger
the life I know.  All stones are lifted and freedom
to walk rests where the eagle cannot reach.
I have read of these things: the being of non-being.
When Big Jim stirs, it's time to let loose the rope,
my body embraces me to rage us back to pain,
scorpion and snake laugh at my silly walk.
If morphine is blamed will I bring justice to its end?


Damp granite walls muffle
rain and wind, a vision of sky
filters in through a single,
opaque window.
Two metal vases hold
plastic flowers, dated inscriptions
decorate our concrete beds.
Side by side
we ache in its belly,
looking for an exit to end
this eternity, our bones.......
One of us must relearn flesh,
muscle, tendon, teach
them back to our 
body, grow mortal wings
beneath these ragged clothes,
fly from this marble fast,
retrace our fate, pale prisoners
heavy with the truth of it,
who suddenly released,
carry it back in time,
back to the light,
the living.