I am walking through a garden, held between the irregular walls of a building, tall and red-brick and formal, and the garden turns and twists with the building, as if it is a maze, but I am not lost, only adrift in the blossoms of the trees, and the fruit too, impossibly simultaneous, in the smell and the sight of it, and in the realization that I am the gardener. I approach the trees closely, touch my hands to their bark and their leaves, to the raised beds, shored up with stone walls, where they have been planted, and I begin to see that they have been planted badly, too near the building, too near the retaining walls, too near each other, and they have been pruned badly too, left to grow any which way, so there is disease in them, and the fruit is twisted and rotten, and even still, I know I am the gardener.
I wrote this in a hospital waiting room under the influence of Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, and I recognize that it is deeply unfair to anyone working in the medical profession, but we all know that this is what it feels like.
There were skylights above the waiting room, two of them, channeling sunlight onto the patients below, not enough to relieve the dimness of the room but enough to inspire hope for something more, just as the trickle of patients from the waiting area into the hospital proper — truly a trickle, almost unnoticeable if he relaxed his watch even for a moment, to take a sip of coffee perhaps, or to cough into his sleeve — a trickle that did not shorten the line at all, only kept alive a feeble hope that it would shorten eventually, in some distant and unspecified time, and until then the patients would wait, like the invalids at the pool of Bethsaida, waiting for the angel of the Lord to descend and stir the waters, or at the very least for a nurse to call the next name. The skylights admitted so meager a light that small uplights had been installed to illuminate them from below and create the illusion of greater sunlight than there was, lights that were kept lit during the day as a pale enhancement to the sun and then turned off at night, when the room was kept almost dark, lit only by dim potlights along the walls, perhaps encouraging those still waiting to sleep through the hours of delay, or perhaps to suggest that the emergency department was closed for the night so that people would return to their homes with whatever had been ailing them, which seemed the purpose of the whole system, to be honest, to defeat the patients rather than to treat them, to keep them waiting until hunger or exhaustion or some other triviality — the need to work their jobs, for example, or to care for their families — forced them to leave. The luckiest among them were those whose lives were obviously at risk, those in respiratory distress or wounded sufficiently to bleed on the chairs or the floor, which distressed the nurses very much, concerned as they seemed to be that people should remain untreated in as orderly and hygienic a manner as possible. There were whole squads of them working at this sort of thing — filling out forms and assigning triage levels and showing patients where they could sit and answering little buzzers and speaking over intercoms, not to mention sterilizing everything at regular intervals and exhorting the patients to do so as well, before and after they touched anything it seemed, even the sanitizer, and this sort of thing clearly gave them great satisfaction, far more than being forced, by choosing the short straw he suspected, or by losing some form of wager, to work with any actual ailment. It was a real blow to them, he could see, when they had to allow a new patient into the hospital, when someone arrived whose case really could not be delayed without risking all the complications of death and investigation and loss of funding, or when — far worse — someone without a life threatening ailment, with only a broken limb, say, or a wound in some extremity, or a raging fever, if any of these had to be admitted, just to keep up appearances and meet their quotas, well, this was a real blow to their professional pride, a failure of their carefully regulated system, and they would look at each other, these file makers and intercom users and germ sanitizers, passing consolation to one another in their time of trial, while the lucky patient who had been there long enough to have eaten several meals at the vending machine and to have had a night’s sleep sitting up in a chair, all the while staunching a leg wound or vomiting into a paper bag, struggled through the hospital door with the same sense of fortune as a lottery winner or, to return to an earlier metaphor, as the one who is finally first to touch the miraculously stirring waters of Bethsaida.
I have been reflecting a lot about the mark of memory, about how it comes and passes. This poem is part of that reflection.
A Time That No One Reads
The shadow-cool is longer than it was,
cast not just by a wan and sinking sun,
but by the passing of time, by all that time,
since a short shade was planted in memory
of something all but unremembered now,
so there is only shade, its sundial-sweep
through days, its creeping fingers in the grass,
to mark a time that no one ever reads,
that no one could hope to read, not by sight,
only by walking that slow sundial shade,
shadow-cool, always longer than it was.