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from Nights of 1990

By Richard McCann

“The sweatings and the fevers stop, the throat that was unsound is sound, the lungs of the consumptive are resumed…”
-Walt Whitman, “The Sleepers”


What I could not accept was how much space
his body was taking with it: for instance, the space where
I was standing, the dazed fluorescence of his hospital room
where each night I watched him sleep. So this
is the spine
, I thought, this articulation
of vertebral tumors, this rope of bulbous knots;
tissue, I thought, as I studied his yellowing skin—
tissue, like something that could tear.
Afterward, I waited in the corridor.
When I came back, he was alive and breathing.
Here, let me rub your back, I said.
Was it true what I’d heard, that the soul resides in breath?
Was it true the body was mere transport? I untied
the white strings that secured his pale blue
hospital gown. The blue gown drifted
from his shoulders. I rubbed his back.
I rubbed his back. Not so hard,
he said. I don’t need to be burnished yet.

Added: Wednesday, June 25, 2014  /  From "Ghost Letters" (Alice James Books,1994). Used by permission.
Richard McCann
Photo by: Joanne Jacobson

Richard McCann is the author, most recently, of Mother of Sorrows, an award-winning collection of linked stories that Michael Cunningham has described as "almost unbearably beautiful." He is also the author of Things Shaped in Passing: More 'Poets for Life' Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. His work has appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic, Ms., Esquire, and Tin House, and in numerous anthologies, including The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 and Best American Essays 2000. For his work, he has received awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. A professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University, McCann serves on the Board of Directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a Member of the Corporation of Yaddo.

Other poems by this author