EMERGENCY ROOM WRESTLING
The Dirty Poet
Words Like Kudzu Press, 2011
Karen Lillis’s history intrigues me. She lived in Austin Texas in her 20s. To pay rent, she wrote for the Austin Chronic. Every other week she completed an art review. 1,500 words got her 1 month’s rent. She also worked in restaurants and went to Emo’s.
Some time after living the good life in Austin Texas, Karen dedicated energies to starting a printing outfit that would publish books and zines hand-assembled by a one-woman micro-press. She called it Words Like Kudzu, after the Japanese ivy that grows and spreads like wildfire.
In 2011, Words Like Kudzu brought a thin book of poetry into the world penned by a New Jersey hospital worker who goes by The Dirty Poet. He makes a living out of respiratory therapy, which is a fancy way of saying keeping people breathing long enough to maybe pull out of here alive and have another chance, but probably not. The book is called EMERGENCY ROOM WRESTLING, as if this kind of poetry were a refereed sport tussled inside a matted gym. In the preface, Karen writes that she believes “the POV of The Dirty Poet’s ER is more timeless than timely, with the cycles of Life and Death hinging on choices made in a split second.”
The day I got EMERGENCY ROOM WRESTLING via snail mail, I went to a local coffeehouse with my girl. She had stuff to do on the computer, and I had a new book I wanted to read.
I started from the beginning like a predictable reader. The cover is black. The word EMERGENCY is actually from a real illuminated hospital sign. The POV of the cover immediately straps me in a horrible place: severely injured on a stretcher swiftly guided into the ER, where, unbeknownst to me, there is a hospital worker known in some circles as The Dirty Poet.
There are no page numbers in this thin book of poems, only titles: it wants to erase time. Everything is in lowercase, which seems to be the style of choice among many poets today. Why the aversion to capital letters, I’ll never know. Yet I do know that I’m wont to go all lowercase myself, especially when writing emails.
But this book isn’t at all lowercase in content. Far from it. The poems in this book stand up and out despite their deadpanned and unadorned delivery. They aren’t afraid to deal with the worst possible case scenario. There is no light in this book. Not really. There is humor, but it’s sardonic. The second poem kicks off with
there was debate whether the crack pipe
had been between her butt cheeks
or all the way up her ass
that was when the police picked her up last night
now she was on a ventilator in room #7 of the trauma ICU
Back in the coffehouse with my girl, a group of people started to convene. One had a guitar, mike, computer, and projector. He started getting the coffeehouse ready for their weekly Open Mike Night. Somehow this gathering of poets got me up on stage with EMERGENCY ROOM WRESTLING. This was my first time I had ever been on a stage with bards. One of them in the crowd bellowed, “New Blood!”
Meanwhile, I had only begun the book. I was nowhere near finished. In fact, I was still learning to understand the depths of where these poems came from. I chortled, my face beet red, my heart flustered, I was out of my element. I was also, in some groovy way, totally into it. These poems were stiff, no pun intended. They were very strong and in your face, never deviating from their voice. These poems advised me to stay true to myself, because you just never know when everything could come to a head and land you in the ER, where everyone, regardless of demographics, is more or less the same.
Of course, I made it clear that this was not my book, these were not my poems. I got them from Karen Lillis to review on TheOpenEnd. I didn’t know how this gathering would receive The Dirty Poet’s words. I didn’t want to ruin their day, or dampen the upbeat mood. Nothing somber had been shared yet, nothing starving for oxygen. I read dead end
i’m going to tell you the saddest story i know
because it happened
he was big and handsome, just 22
an unrestrained passenger in a car crash
he suffered a traumatic brain injury
leaving him wide-eyed and gone in an ICU
yesterday the nurses shoveled him into a chair
mom and dad resumed their vigil
mom shaky and crying, dad boisterous
all their family superhighways
leading to this disastrous dead end
dad took his son’s large, limp hand
and said come on buddy, thumb wrestle
i bet i can beat you
come on buddy, let’s do it
let’s thumb wrestle, let’s go
his thumb hopeful in a hopeless world
“His thumb hopeful in a hopeless world,” my voice an instrument of The Dirty Poet, I looked up from the thin book and heard a few choked claps, but, for the most part, the crowd was wide-eyed and quiet. I walked to my table and met my girl’s gaze and sat down and put my head down to catch some air.
Time passed, more bards took the stage and read their poems. After The Dirty Poet’s contribution by proxy, fittingly, the next poem had to do with going to the doctor’s office for an eerie routine check-up, and the one after that was a song to melatonin, and the one after that was a eulogy to a recently deceased poet from a small Texas town. But then the poems started to branch out and touch new topics.
In the middle of diversity, I read a second poem from The Dirty Poet, this one was sexual and possibly humorous. Before I began, someone asked me what I thought of the book so far. I said, “I’m going to recommend it to my friend in Houston, who is an anaesthesiologist.” Some people laughed. One bard, the same one who said, “New Blood!” said, “That sounds about right.”
I nodded my head and cleared my throat straight into the mike. Mucous boomed. I should have turned to the side to do this, but I was still nervous and had poor stage manners. I read toothless
trached, leering, making kissy faces
at the cute young speech therapist
he’s a harmless old lech
no threat, just a joke
he’s cute like a naughty kitty
and i’m standing by
ten years, a stroke and a bad shave
from being there in bed with him
toothless in every way
i’ll be just as irrelevant to that chick
as i am not today
People made sounds at the word ‘lech’. I liked saying ‘lech’ into the mike. It was fun and somehow playful. I also liked the way it paired with ‘trached’. But all that’s not important. What is important is that I read a second poem, one I thought would be funny, and it didn’t have that impact on the audience at all. This poem, like the first, was infused with a bleakness that rarefied the air in the room. I wondered why?
It seems to me like when people do something long enough it’s very likely they will become innured to what’s really happening. It’s a matter of survival, of coping with reality. I’m sure there’s evidence that people who are exposed to intense trauma on a regular basis adaptively produce chemicals that make light of the matter at hand. Most people deal with trauma several times in a lifetime, sometimes less. The Dirty Poet has seen more grit and violence and death and soulessness than a thousand people combined, probably even more. This shouldn’t be required of any human being. It makes The Dirty Poet an angel of disaster, fated to watch people take their leave. It also desynthesizes him to situations that aren’t for the faint of heart. That’s why he can speak about these worst case scenarios with a straight face.
The irony here is that I’m reading a book written by a respiratory therapist, and I’m out of air, unable to catch a breath, each succeeding poem pushes me down deeper, keeps me down longer, I tap the hand that keeps me down, I pinch its vein, I blow bubbles that shout STOP! I CAN’T BREATHE on the surface STOP! But The Dirty Poet turns a deaf ear on me. This is what he lives through on a daily basis, this is his life, for the most part. Why should he have to be the only one who knows what it’s like to have a night of
juggling bodies, crises, bloody tracheas
wall-to-wall patients gasping for air
These poems not only put us in The Dirty Poet’s shoes, but they also keep us on that stretcher, injured and desperate for something to give. But it rarely does.
It rarely does.
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