THE TELLING, THE LISTENING, Catharine Clark-Sayles. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 52 pages, $18 paperback, http://www.saintjulianpress.com
In The Telling, The Listening, physician poet Catharine Clark-Sayles bleeds out lyrical narrative after lyrical narrative about delivering difficult news to patients, searching for what to say and what to do in a world with no final answers—only stories carried away from countless encounters at the intersection of entropy, medical science, a doctor’s art of being present, and a poet’s art of being present. But those stories—delivered in gripping, musical language—confront readers with a child’s “bloodied rags of flesh…seen through the sniper scope,” a “young man completely healthy until purple blotches / on his face doubled in a week, lungs whited out,” “…the woman dying / in her eighty-ninth year—…there was a boy— / I let him kiss me once, but then he hit me / and held me down….” and doctors that collect patients’ pain and add it to their own, exposing readers to both what Adrienne Rich calls the catastrophe found and the treasure uncovered when one dives into the wreck. And in these waters, there are no shallows. All dives expose deep wounds, whether in patients of war, AIDs, or other malignancies, or in the doctors who treat them.
Poet Clark-Sayles, unlike John in “Swimming with Sharks” has no trouble “writing poems about I don’t know.” The poet tells of morning rounds where doctors must never show weakness:
We are taught that when you swim with sharks,
you must never bleed, that enticing sweat of fear
will bring an attack. Do not roll to show any soft
underbelly of uncertainty if you want
advancement in your field, stay silent and shift
to one side, if pinned give an unrelated fact.
It will take years to learn I don’t know.
Decades for I am sorry.
The book is organized into a sonata form, holding true to the first section as an introduction of themes: telling real people’s stories of illness, death, and dying (e.g. “What We Carry,” “Naming the Monster,” and “She Says Pneumonia, But Not Too Bad”), the physician learning to listen to patients in the midst of their difficulties, not able to offer ultimate answers to life’s most difficult questions (e.g. “Naming the Monster,” “What to Say” and “Reconstruction”), and nature as a solace (e.g. “Hummingbird Feeder in October”):
The nectar in my feeder may encourage
some to stay when they should fly
to southern climates where abundant
blooms will feed them and no freeze will stop
the rapid flutters of a tiny heart.
Put away the bottle or agree to vigilance:
keep the nectar filled and fresh no matter
darkness in the morning, fatigue when it’s late,
rain and cold that keeps me near the fire
when I’m home after too many hours of clinic
caring for infinite needs: the woman alone
as cancer closes in, a mother locked in grief,
a man who struggles to keep sober, the suicidal girl—
no way to cut away pain, no cure in pills;
just nectar-drops of hope, a sweetness of belief,
as I make my hummingbird bargain.
A lesser poet would simply drop some nature poems in-between the heavy ones, thinking only to write “off the subject” as a distraction for both reader and poet. But Clark-Sayles not only brings the narrative back to the business of illness and grief in the final two stanzas, but she selects visceral, fresh images in the early lines of this poem (as she does throughout the collection) that create both a clear perception of the sensorial elements they convey (e.g. “nectar in my feeder [encouraging] / some to stay when they should fly” and “the rapid flutters of a tiny heart”), but that also apply to the bigger picture of what the human patients and their families and their care-givers are going through.
The second movement, titled “Red Silk,” develops themes introduced in section I into an autobiographical collage centered around being physician and soldier at the same time, enacting the tension between those roles with four pages of epithets and stand-alone stanzas that utilize irony (“Even as we die, life calls us to be a child again…”), story (Have you heard the old Irish tale that says that bards / are made by killing a red bull, taking its skin / and sewing a man inside? Left in darkness for three days / he emerges with the gift of poetry. Or he goes mad.”), reportage (“In the Army, a silk camisole under / the camouflage fatigues saved my life”), medical definition (“Persistent allodynia, which is pain resulting from a non-painful / stimulus such as a light touch, is a common characteristic of neuropathic pain…persists long after the initiating even has resolved.), allegory (“I walked back to the fork where Mystic and Scientist parted, / where Good Girl screamed ‘Fuck it’ and Poet sat down to wait.”), quotes (Sometimes too much of a good thing / is wonderful. Mae West”), figure and figurative language (“The masseuse sweeps her hands down my neck to the tender / muscles of my scapula, says ‘You’ve been flying / hard, your wings are tired”’), and even cartoon reference (“I love Road Runner with his sassy ‘beep-beep’ running / off cliffs, moving so fast and with conviction that he keeps going / through air. And Wile E., following just fine until he looks down and believes in the fall so that he does.”
This section ends with the couplet: “It is hard to be depressed when you wear / red silk against your skin.” The physician soldier uses the red silk to fight depression and PTSD, and the poet uses it to provided much-needed relief from, without glossing over, the seemingly endless case-history poems about injury, disease, grief and death.
Section III recapitulates the horrors of Section I, stressing matters even closer at hand: the interiority of stress upon the physician who also can suffer from PTSD and treating people close to the poet or who have gotten close, many times written in formal or in nonce forms with craft elements borrowed from formal poems. Here is the opening sonnet to the section, spoken to the poet’s husband:
I remember Sunday mornings when hospital rounds
started late and I could awaken to the clock of sun
striped across the bedroom wall—early light of May
a rosy stain of color to your face, asleep,
worry lines unfurled into a younger you
for all the early silver to your hair, your lower lip
gentled, waiting for my wake-up kiss.
But I loved to watch you sleeping curled
against my hip, sleepy murmured protest,
blanket-burrowed resistance to the mirrored
dawn-light blinkered in your eyes, pulling you
from sleep to fractious day, I watched the return
of creased discontent as you tucked away
the boy so kissable and I took up my own armor for the day.
Clark-Sayles has become a master of the lyrical narrative poem with this collection, and “Aubade” is a fine example of the poet’s chops in writing narrative and lyric in form. The volta that begins in line 9 with the resistance to waking turns, in line 11, to the return of “discontent” in the patient and the taking up of defenses by the physician. Other notable poems in this final section include, among others, “The Drug Salesman Leaves a Bag of Fortune Cookies in the Break Room,” (first lines of each stanza are fortunes and the remainder of the stanzas are drug statistics and trivia), and “I Deliver Bad News.”
I Deliver Bad News
from the starch of my white armor
across a moat of polished oak.
You balance between an indrawn gasp
and grunt of pain. Myself, I’d as soon
not be here. I could drown
in the terror on your face as you look
into places I don’t want to go.
I’d like to drop the news fast and cold,
close this play on opening night and run.
We might try this out as comedy—
The good news: you are going to die,
but neither of us could wear the baggy pants.
My nervous actor pleads Come on, kids
put on a show, things will work out swell.
Supporting hope against the odds is hard,
harder still to hold the silence,
the pleading of your need.
In The Telling, The Listening Catharine Clark-Sayles does not hold onto her silence, and her telling is a gift to both readers and writers of poetry—a model for clear and transparent narrative, filled with lyricism, mystery, and pathos.
Catharine Clark-Sayles is a physician who recently retired after forty years in practice. She completed her MFA in poetry and narrative medicine at Dominican University of California in 2019. Her first two books of poetry, One Breath and Lifeboat were published by Tebot Bach Press. A chapbook, Brats, was published by Finishing Line Press. She has had work published in many journals and anthologies and has been nominated for a Pushcart. Her fourth book, The Telling, The Listening will be available in October 2023 from Saint Julian Press.
Catharine Clark-Sayles will be a featured reader for the upcoming Sturgeon Moon Poetry Reading. Click HERE for the Facebook reading invitation.