Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Distinguished Entries 2001

Betty Davis Miller: The Catheterized Heart

The Catheterized Heart

Contemplate the little betrayals of veins, the treacheries of arteries,
their willful disruption, how easily the physical body slides
into dysfunction, then decay that must be repaired if the body is to live.
Think of the ride in the wheelchair from the doctor's office,
your purse and book in your lap. Think of the efficiency of it all—
the roster of names, from which your record is pulled onto the computer,
after the onset of pain in the left side of the chest, between breast
and collar bone, clavicle playing on your clavichord with the soft pressure
of brass wedges striking horizontal strings and the resonating pain
that reminds you of the ephemeral quality of the casing wherein you take
your habitation. Finally, recall the screen that shows the catheterized heart.

Suppose yourself to be the body of the world on the table under the cameras
surrounded by a green clad surgical team, while life with its double play
of birth and death goes on in the hospital. This way the world lies within
easy reach of transvenous pacing wires in case of refractory ventricular arrhythmia.
Oxygen is there, clean air and rhyming resuscitation drugs,
epinephrine, atropine, isoproterenol, lidocaine, euphonic names for help. These miracle
medicines open up the total systemic resistence,
ease the flow of oxygen carrying blood. (You know this because
once home, you reach to the top shelf, and peruse the heavy health books,
learn that pressures should be monitored continuously
and the needle kept in the chamber of the heart as briefly as possible.)

When you suppose yourself to be the body of the world,
Then you are the eyes and ears, the spirit, the wordy mouth.
You find yourself loving the sounds of heartbeat. You fall in love
with medical terms— vena cava which drains the blood from the
upper body and lower body and empties it into the right atrium of the heart.
The words, atrium of the heart, fill you with gladness
as you picture the center room in a Roman house
where Vena meets Cava and the air bearing oxygen floods in,
or an entrance to a church in France before the chamber
where the rood screen stands and the alter waits, and you murmur,
because you like the euphony, Coeur d'Alene or Coeur de Lion.

Auricle, little ear of circulation, hearing the murmurs if the mitral valve,
which is after all corruptible, venal, susceptible to bribery, giving a kickback
of blood with every transaction, calibrate the terms of resistence between miter—
(the liturgical headdress of a Christian bishop) and miter—
(the ceremonial headdress of a Jewish high priest), both circling around God.
Call yourself Sister of the bleeding heart emptying into the arteries of
transcontinental rivers, feeding the hungry, warming the hands and feet
and cunning brains of laid-out patients. Cry out, "Go ahead,
stick the needle in my heart. I don't care. I have been drugged
with valium and benadryl and other stupefying substances, but I know this:
"the needle should be kept in the chamber as briefly as possible."

If the body of the world lies on the table under the cameras and lights
surrounded by the green clad surgical team, and if, in every meaning
of metaphor, you are the body, the blood, the skin, the living organ
that protects against intrusion; if your heart is being catheterized, then
you will know where the obstructions are, where the walls narrow,
whether the Chinese vein receives its proper oxygenation, whether
the African artery needs a balloon, or the Pakistanis and the Hindi
have developed an auto-immune disease, whether to give Eliot's etherized
patient nitroglycerin under the tongue, and you will have every right to cry,
as the catheter slips into the percutaneos femoral artery and slithers its snaky
way into the heart, "Don't give way! A world without a heart is no good at all."

In some respects, the body of the world, is a modern day specimen
of much repaired technology. Though used, punctured, stitched together,
its movable parts operate. The car salesman will kick its tires and swear
the alternator has just been tested, that the fuel lines are clear, will open
the trunk displaying cargo room for well-packed luggage. And only you,
the vehicle, will know how desperately you want it to run, how many
passengers need a ride, the sights there are still to see— the Alhambra,
the pyramids, the Taj Mahal. Only you will appreciate smaller journeys to come,
another walk in the sand, another laugh, another good meal. You are the body
of the world, embracing worldly delight with all the eagerness of a lover,
and the discipline of an actor when the script is rewritten and the player replaced.

Now, you are back writing verse, wanting each poem to be a life—
(its birth, its growing, its understanding, its pleasures and its closure.)
When you were the body of the world on the table, you dreamed
the alphabet, dreamed everything that can be said in 26 symbols,
recited the continents, the realms, the rivers: A B C D: Arabia,
Bermuda, China, Dominican Republic, you stopped at E for eternity,
lingered over J for joy, and L for love, lovely, lace and lattice, lone and later.
You remembered India, and Mississippi, and if in your fuzzy state you
faltered, you came back and checked it later in the dictionary, in the atlas,
in the encyclopedia. You went all the way to Z, looked at zareba, Zambia
and zebra, read their definitions, guessed at hidden meanings, mapped locations.

At Z, the end, nearing the end, you thought of Zeus, the god we no longer know,
zinnia, the lowly flower of many colors whose leaves turn rusty and brown
at summer's end, and zodiac, the orderly scheme that represents the passage
of principle planets, the moon and the sun, and its last definition a complete circuit.
But when you came to zone, you stopped. The zone of the heart is enclosed in the body
and the body is perhaps after all a state of metaphysics, less physical than we think
making and doing and loving. Your beating heart mirroring as a hologram does,
the larger body, with its making and doing and loving and alas, its alphabet of loss
and pain, a heart through which a wire had been run and rivers invaded. You are left
with the cautionary words of the Merck Manual. "Pressures should be monitored
continuously and the needle should be kept in the chamber as briefly as possible."