Louise Glück

A Slip of Paper

Today I went to the doctor—
the doctor said I was dying,
not in those words, but when I said it
she didn’t deny it—

What have you done to your body, her silence says.
We gave it to you and look what you did to it,
how you abused it.
I’m not talking only of cigarettes, she says,
but also of poor diet, of drink.

She’s a young woman; the stiff white coat disguises her body.
Her hair’s pulled back, the little female wisps
suppressed by a dark band. She’s not at ease here,

behind her desk, with her diploma over her head,
reading a list of numbers in columns,
some flagged for her attention.
Her spine’s straight also, showing no feeling.

No one taught me how to care for my body.
You grow up watched by your mother or grandmother.
Once you’re free of them, your wife takes over, but she’s nervous,
she doesn’t go too far. So this body I have,
that the doctor blames me for—it’s always been supervised by women,
and let me tell you, they left a lot out.

The doctor looks at me—
between us, a stack of books and folders.
Except for us, the clinic’s empty.

There’s a trap-door here, and through that door,
the country of the dead. And the living push you through,
they want you there first, ahead of them.

The doctor knows this. She has her books,
I have my cigarettes. Finally
she writes something on a slip of paper.
This will help your blood pressure, she says.

And I pocket it, a sign to go.
And once I’m outside, I tear it up, like a ticket to the other world.

She was crazy to come here,
a place where she knows no one.
She’s alone; she has no wedding ring.
She goes home alone, to her place outside the village.
And she has her one glass of wine a day,
her dinner that isn’t a dinner.

And she takes off that white coat:
between that coat and her body,
there’s just a thin layer of cotton.
And at some point, that comes off too.

To get born, your body makes a pact with death,
and from that moment, all it tries to do is cheat—

You get into bed alone. Maybe you sleep, maybe you never wake up.
But for a long time you hear every sound.
It’s a night like any summer night; the dark never comes.