I’m reading Whitman’s Specimen Days as the city empties out all around me and Memorial Day looms, the big green book splayed open like a Bible on my kitchen island as I hover over it, and my archaic landline, suddenly alive in its cradle, jars me away from old white-beard and his fevered soldiers. I’m holding the phone in the main room, looking back now at Whitman left open in the kitchen, my doctor’s voice on the other end, like it’s farther away than this city—he says, I don’t have good news—I think, Not now and remember that morning, how I’d had to lower my jeans under a blanket in the room kept cold for CT scans, computerized tomography, my body on the moving slab drawn slowly into the giant donut that powered up to an ominous hum and sent its light inside of my abdomen, searching for the source of the strange ache that had nudged me for weeks. He says, I’m dancing around here, trying to avoid certain words… And I start to fill in the blanks. Just be straight with me, I say. I think it’s cancer is his answer.And I hear about the growths visible on the film he sees, one in my colon, more scattered across the lobes of my liver. I imagine them looking like showers and storm fronts on a Doppler radar. More words emerge: prognosis, treatment, time. He says, I don’t know enough. It’s too soon. I feel the days ahead as if they’re gathering weight. Is someone with you?, he asks, and there will be soon enough, but when I hang up, I’m alone in a very new and sudden quietude. This is a holiday, everyone venturing away to enjoy the gift of one more day, one I’ll have as well, and I think of a place, palm-lined, or at least warm, perhaps a beach, somewhere I’d rather be, where I can shed my clothes, take my body out into tropical light, to the edge of the water, into a breeze. I want it to carry me into forgetfulness. A decade ago, I posed nude for Bill, a painter friend, stepped out of jeans and T-shirt, taking direction to sit backwards on a chair, chin atop arms atop the curved crown of the chair’s back, face hidden, light across my shoulders, thighs, arms, and my bowed head with its brown and precise brush cut. Months later I saw the finished canvas at a gallery on Union Square, and stood before it with a vague thrill of strangeness, seeing my pose, anonymous and faceless and yet me, just one of many men, each of us rendered like some spare Southwestern retablo of a saint. Bill had added, in a late flourish, a tattoo on my leg, an image of a carved log, a sprig of new leaf rising from it, something, shaman-like and resonant of blessing. I think of that portrait now, on someone’s wall, or in storage among Bill’s collected works, a separate body of mine, going its own way into a life I might have had. I imagine a time, in some bed in some room, when, like one of Whitman’s young soldiers, caught within a failing body, I will look up and maybe see the old whitened father himself, the poet at my bedside, his face bright with the love of comrades. I would have no other God but this, forgive him for his duty of having to move from ward to ward, visiting upon me just a small interval, enough for a smile, a caress of his old hand upon my own thin and uncertain one, perhaps a brush of his capacious beard upon my yellowing face, his whisper, as soft as a breeze, just up against my ear, not a kiss, but a quiet and tender question: Tell me your name, son.
Jim Nawrocki’s poetry has appeared in the anthologies, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed and Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years. It has also appeared in Poetry, Kyoto Journal, The James White Review, America, Arroyo Literary Review, the website poetrydaily.com, and a variety of other magazines and journals. He is a contributing writer to the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide and lives in San Francisco.