A Flat One


      Old Fritz, on this rotating bed
      For seven wasted months you lay
      Unfit to move, shrunken, gray,
      No good to yourself or anyone
But to be babied–changed and bathed and fed.
            At long last, that's all done.

      Before each meal, twice every night,
      We set pads on your bedsores, shut
      Your catheter tube off, then brought
      The second canvas-and-black-iron
Bedframe and clamped you in between them, tight,
            Scared, so we could turn

      You over. We washed you, covered you,
      Cut up each bite of meat you ate;
      We watched your lean jaws masticate
      As ravenously your useless food
As thieves at hard labor in their chains chew
            Or insects in the wood.

      Such pious sacrifice to give
      You all you could demand of pain:
      Receive this haddock's body slain
      For you, old tyrant; take this blood
Of a tomato, shed that you might live.
            You had that costly food.

      You seem to be all finished, so
      We'll plug your old recalcitrant anus
      And tie up your discouraged penis
      In a great, snow-white bow of gauze.
We wrap you, pin you, and cart you down below,
            Below, below, because

      Your credit has finally run out.
      On our steel table, trussed and carved,
      You'll find this world's hardworking, starved
      Teeth working in your precious skin.
The earth turns, in the end, by turn about
             And opens to take you in.

      Seven months gone down the drain; thank God
      That's through. Throw out the four-by-fours,
      Swabsticks, the thick salve for bedsores,
      Throw out the diaper pads and drug
Containers, pile the bedclothes in a wad,
            And rinse the cider jug

      Half-filled with the last urine. Then
      Empty out the cotton cans,
      Autoclave the bowls and spit pans,
      Unhook the pumps and all the red
Tubes–catheter, suction, oxygen;
            Next, wash the empty bed.

      –All this Dark Age machinery
      On which we had tormented you
      To life. Last, we collect the few
      Belongings: snapshots, some odd bills,
Your mail, and half a pack of Luckies we
            Won't light you after meals.

      Old man, these seven months you've lain
      Determined–not that you would live–
      Just to not die. No one would give
      You one chance you could ever wake
From that first night, much less go well again,
            Much less go home and make

      Your living; how could you hope to find
      A place for yourself in all creation?–
      Pain was your only occupation.
      And pain what should content and will
A man to give it up, nerved you to grind
            Your clenched teeth, breathing, till

      Your skin broke down, your calves went flat
      And your legs lost all sensation. Still,
      You took enough morphine to kill
      A strong man. Finally, nitrogen
Mustard: you could last two months after that;
            It would kill you then.

      Even then you wouldn't quit.
      Old soldier, yet you must have known
      Inside the animal had grown
      Sick of the world, made up its mind
To stop. Your mind ground on its separate
            Way, merciless and blind,

      Into these last weeks when the breath
      Would only come in fits and starts
      That puffed out your sections like the parts
      Of some enormous, damaged bug.
You waited, not for life, not for your death,
            Just for the deadening drug

      That made your life seem bearable.
      You still whispered you would not die.
      Yet the nights I heard you cry
      Like a whipped child; in fierce old age
You whimpered, tears stood on your gun-metal
            Blue cheeks shaking with rage

      And terror. So much pain would fill
      Your room that when I left I'd pray
      That if I came back the next day
      I'd find you gone. You stayed for me–
Nailed to your own rapacious, stiff self-will.
            You've shook loose, finally.

      They say this was a worthwhile job
      Unless they tried it. It is mad
      To throw our good lives after bad;
      Waste time, drugs, and our minds, while strong
Men starve. How many young men did we rob
            To keep you hanging on?

      I can't think we did you much good.
      Well, when you died, none of us wept.
      You killed for us, and so we kept
      You, because we need to earn our pay.
No. We'd still have to help you try. We would
            Have killed for you today.


W.D. Snodgrass, Selected Poems 1957-1987, Soho Press, 1991.