24 March 2020

Modern Heroes with No Poets to Tell of Their Courage

Dedicated to nurses and doctors across the world

Jeff Dolven, Maureen N. McLane, and Geoffrey Nutter

On 13 March, or roughly a century ago, some newspapers published the photograph below of a banner placed outside the Maria Nuova hospital in Florence. The bilingual sign, which according to the news sources was made by four Chinese boys, reads: “Doctors and nurses, modern heroes with no poets to tell of your courage. Thank you from the heart.”

The reports did not specify if the boys had been treated for coronavirus at the hospital, but their humble banner is a moving lament for the absence of poetry commemorating the otherworldly courage we are witnessing in hospitals across the globe. We sent three poets—Jeff Dolven, Maureen N. McLane, and Geoffrey Nutter—the photograph and asked them to respond to the lack noted in the banner. Their beautiful poems below stand alongside the anonymous boys’ equally powerful gesture of appreciation for all nurses and doctors, whose chosen profession asks them to tend to strangers’ wounds at great risk to themselves.

Jeff Dolven

The Worst Returns to Laughter

King Lear 4.1.6                                                        

A laugh is a kind of cough,
or a cough is a kind of laugh.
One can lead to the other,
but back again is hard.

A laugh is a catch in the throat,
a cough, a catch that won’t loosen.
Laughter catches easily.
Coughing follows close.

Késòu. Gichim. Sorfeh.
La tosse. La toux. Der Husten.
A cough by every other name
will stop the voice as well,

stop laughter and stop song
and talking for a time,
and may require that someone else
help with a breathing tube.

Consider who it is
who stands above the bed,
how she must have prepared herself
to suffer the same in turn.

Xiào shēng. Us-eum. Khandeghi.
La risata. Le rire. Das Lachen.
Still hers deserves remembrance as
the original translation.

Maureen N. McLane

Changing Conditions

“medici e infermieri, eroi moderni senza poeti”

nothing inevitable
until inevitable

ministers of touch
thinnest membrane, caritas
body to body

don’t sentimentalize
“do something, people”
by which I mean you
by which I mean me
by which I mean “us”
by which I mean nothing
by which I mean stay home
if you can / can you / what can you
unless you are a doctor or nurse or

but what but what
keyboard symbology
shift 5: percentage
shift 4: dollar sign
option 5: infinity
% $ ∞ % $ ∞ % $ ∞
% $ ∞ % $ ∞

they too need a song
modern heroes
alive to the moment
rushing in, armored or no
heedless of kleos
sing them a song
studium, praxis, touch, instrument
pharmakon pharmakon
the greatest athlete is the one who vaults
toward the wound

the one who runs
and runs and tells the city what news
from afar

Li Wenliang

Mei Zhongming
Jiang Xueqing
“eroi moderni”
& / & / &

the messenger speech
nobody’s interested
until they’re interested
and then they’re interested
only differently

cast out the ruler to save the city?
cure the ruler to save the city?
no ruler: the part of no-part: coming community

this should be an essay
discursive, persuasive, informative
Enlightenment unfinished
O you better believe it
fragments toward a sky
we might one day walk below
provisionally sheltered remembering the promise
of such a sky

So raise high the roof beam, carpenters –
like perfect friends they go into buildings
masked or not, gloved or not, attentive, anxious,
by the road to the contagious hospital

sing them a song under a shared sky

Geoffrey Nutter

There Is No One to Recount

for the doctors and nurses

There is no one to recount
how you were among them, the many
afflictions of the physical
body in the vale, when you
were fighting with
and against the body
in the vale;
this body, moving through
the world, strange as Orion,
tall and shining over
the lake; but this body is
a thing, out in the world
to be crushed, pounded
as with mortar, in the pestle
as a spice, as a speck
in the crucible, as grapes
for wine, as atom, split,
scalded, overspread
and flowering with lesions,
teeth broken, burnt, shot through
with beams of radiation,
chemicals, the tube shoved
down the throat, chest
broken open, blood boiling, heart
broken, cast under the wheel,
mandrake and sarcoma, pox,
boils, sputum, eyes
rolling toward a dull light
independent of each other,
hair falling out, spleen
cut out, thrown away, under
anesthesia, under the knife, under
Bugloss; the Earth, a cruel
mother to her children, neutral;
in your mask, in your greaves,
in a blue gown, you’ve come
a yeoman, with your Love
and exhaustion, among us
setting up the drip, the machine,
hating this body, loving
this body, in this physical
world we share, hard
as a diamond—only
the body, your body,
can fix the body, fight,
leverage through brute
force, hold the strand
slipping from the grasp,
bend the invisible beam,
the ray, magnetism,
force, this body, refractory,
thread the needle—There
is no one to recount how you
were drained, exhausted,
smoking behind the humming
generators, or resting
by the concrete blocks, briefly,
cursing, or praying, afraid
for knowing what awaits,
but going back in.

Jeff Dolven teaches poetry and poetics at Princeton University. He is the author of Senses of Style (The University of Chicago Press, 2018), Scenes of Instruction (The University of Chicago Press, 2007), and, for Cabinet Books, the admittedly hasty Take Care (2017); as well a volume of poems, Speculative Music (Sarabande Books, 2013). He is also an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

Maureen N. McLane teaches poetry and poetics and British romanticism at New York University. She is the author of several books, including What I'm Looking For: Selected Poems (Penguin UK, 2019), Some Say: poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), and a work of experimental criticism and memoir, My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). A volume of her selected poems, More Anon, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. She lives mainly in New York City.

Geoffrey Nutter’s books include A Summer Evening (Center For Literary Publishing, 2001), Water's Leaves & Other Poems (Verse Press, 2006), Christopher Sunset (Wave Books, 2009), The Rose of January (Wave Books, 2013), Cities at Dawn (Wave Books, 2016), and Giant Moth Perishes (forthcoming from Wave Books in 2021). He lives in New York City, where he teaches poetry at New York University and classics at Queens College, and runs the Wallson Glass Poetry Seminars.

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