Wendy Battin

The Women on the Ward

467. I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says
again and again, "I know that that's a tree," pointing to a
tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this,
and I tell him: "This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy."

Wittgenstein, On Certainty

1. Lena

hears voices, as I do
now, in memory hearing her rant
and sputter in the treatment room,
shouting that she is good
that she did not.

They come at her from above,
as all voices come to a child.
She lifts up her fiftyish face
and curses, as they deserve,

tells them the truth of it,
the goddamn unheard truth of it,
that never changes.
Her dead are hard of hearing,

2. The Telling

I saw her fly out of the swing
and through the air, says the mother.
She landed on that rock. But she got up.

Standing and almost conscious, the child totters.
In her head the house blinks off and off,
the backyard shatters. When there is nothing to see, she hears
a tightwire sing in her brain.

She takes a step
into the strobe of sunlight,
walking, she thinks, walking toward
her mother at the kitchen door,
the woman motionless, watching.
The child falls at the foot of the stairs.

The mother shrugs.
I thought she was dead, so I left her there.
And there is something in her voice--
something wry and satisfied,

something shapely and final her daughter bows to,
thinking one day she will know the point of this story,

the telling familiar, repeated to cousins and in-laws,
burnished and cryptic as a fairy tale,
as if the story had happened to some other child.

3. Kelly Jo

Four teeth lost to Snake's, her boyfriend's, backhand,
the gap in front, she palms me a grin
with one eye on me, her cast eye scanning
always over there
on the border of her vision.
"Schizophrenic," antsy
for the nurse on rounds with the meds cart,
My Candy Man, she calls her, chanting
that ain't no woman, even in a girdle , Kelly Jo cruises
the hall that is her corner
this week, next week she's going home.

She wants her CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE, says
this ward is a day at the fair after
the Psych Center where they make you strip
with the male aides watching.
She's aching for her rye, her coke,
'ludes melting her bones to wax
in the good hot sun; wants her
teeth back, wants her Snake,
shy, slips me the poem she made
for Deley down the hall, who cries.
Pretty face, it starts, and smart
They got you anyway

When JJ, on Prolixin, starts his ritual brawl
in the sunroom--
this ward is a day at the fear--
when the aides maneuver, watchful as coyotes,
one out front to take his feints, two
dropping behind to pin him
face down, the carpet burning his cheek,
Kelly Jo finds her burrow behind a vinyl sofa.

She is seeing all that she knows
and whimpers it faster and flatter than speech,
don't let him hurt me, until
the tremors exhaust her. All touch is pain,
so I circle my arms and rock the air around her.
Then she grins again, the Dalmane coming on, her hand
a beat too late to hide her teeth,
the tattooed snake on her shoulder shrugging
the rose in its mouth.

4. Cassie

A shadow world, a world of light:
philosophy that doesn't bruise the clouds
the way the rain does. She sees them
cluster past the grated window,
sky in a grid, Cartesian gray.
Her body dances without her, one foot
tapping in 5/4, a shoulder
jerking in waltz time, the Stelazine
Samba. Hard to hold the brush, harder
to guide it to the orange paint,
to catch the oriole, its tic-tac-toe,
one square at a hop. Undivided
intention, the matter. Unsplit,
the light is colorless.

It is not possible to lie, only
to tell the truth she wants is knotty.
She wants it for herself, the one
that will not disappear
like all the others when she looks away.
The massy paint. The canvas field.
And if the gravity holds,
and if the flat absorbs the random light
and lets the color out, the one
cord of it that binds her here,
that is enough.

5. Susan

--They tell me I'm dying, but I don't believe it.
You know why? Some Fridays
I drive to the mountains--
after the four-lane ends the road
is a spiral staircase, the car
skates up like a plane on a runway,
I always think wings. And then I start thinking
which light I've left burning, or what window's
open. In the woods, in my tent, with the owls
spooking and tree shadows making
that rainy sound,

I keep seeing my house
lit up all night--worse yet, all day,
like a match in the sun.
I feel like I'll never get back.
But here, when the nurses quit fussing,
I sleep. I don't stop to worry
what lights I've left burning,
what light's burning out.


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