still inside

The college in Detroit where I taught for twenty years is closing for good this week. As I’ve been reflecting back over my experiences there—twenty years is a long time—one event in particular stands out.

It concerns a sequence of eight poems I wrote, titled “still inside.”

I originally wrote these back in 2007. Every so often when I give poetry readings, I bring these out to read because they’re among my favorites. After all these years, I still find them tremendously moving, and my audiences usually do, too.

The poems are monologues written in the voice of a little girl who suffered, as the poems describe, every kind of bad luck a child can have.

The sequence is based on the situation of an actual little girl. The basic events in the poems are true—a baby was born as a twin, but suffered life-altering hypoxia because the medical staff didn’t know there were two babies and she stayed inside her mother too long. She was born into a world of poverty and disregard.

That much is true. The rest is “truly imagined.”

(As Marianne Moore said, poets should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

My stepdaughter is an attorney specializing in rights of the handicapped, and she’s the one who told me about this girl. The third poem in the sequence mentions an attorney who steps in because the little girl’s regular lawyer wouldn’t release enough money for her proper care; my stepdaughter is the one who intrudes to help the child. (The other attorney said to her, “What are you, an avenging angel?”)

The story of this little girl affected me for a long time, until it moved and saddened me to the point where I felt compelled to give her a voice that the circumstances of her short life had denied her.

I felt I had to bear witness to all she endured.

But I didn’t just want to focus on her sadness. My grandson Jamie was also born with a number of severe handicapping conditions, and everyone who came into contact with him during his own shortened life was profoundly transformed by his loving nature. I wanted to imaginatively imbue the little girl with some of Jamie’s indomitable spirit as a way of counteracting all the misfortunes of her life.

I had always thought these pieces could form the basis of a multi-media project consisting of words, music, art, and dance. I showed them to one of my friends and colleagues, Geoff Stanton, when we were both teaching at the college. Geoff is a phenomenal composer and musician, and he jumped at the chance to compose music for them.

StantonFriends2 copy 2The result was a stunning series of eight songs using the poems as lyrics set to music for two voices, piano, and cello. We presented them as part of one of Geoff’s annual concerts, and I was thrilled with the way they turned out. I’m including the poster for the event, left.

(As I write this, I don’t have a recording of the music available, or else I’d include a sample of that, too.)

As these things go, I haven’t moved my multi-media plans forward. Perhaps at some  point in the future they will come to pass.

Until then, I offer this sequence in the hope the pieces will affect you as much as they continue to affect me.

 

still inside 

by Donald Levin

i

another one

 

no doctor saw my momma

before we came

no exam no test

no money no thought

for another waiting

when it was time

it happened so fast

at the poor people’s hospital

my sister came quick

but after she was born

nobody knew

i was still there

awaiting my turn

quiet as i ever was

they turned away

to bathe and weigh the new one

and while i was waiting

i ran out of air

in the dark channel

of my momma’s narrow body

and it wasn’t till later

when she started screaming

that the nurses and doctors

caressing my sister

ran back

and discovered another one

still inside

and they did what they could

but the story of my life

was written by then

 

ii

absence of air

 

hypoxia

the doctors called it

to explain why my sister was good

and i was the bad one

right from the start

which meant no walking

or talking for me

though i could understood

what people would tell me

if only to hum in reply

and i did try to smile

if i thought it would help

which wasn’t often

though i cried at the seizures

that made me go stiff

and roll my eyes

and afterwards whimper

till i fell asleep

the medicine made me so

dizzy and tired

couldn’t see either

no sight in my eyes

except shapes and shadows

and the flashing lights of seizures

the only things i could see

retarded, they said

which probably i was

since i couldn’t learn

the way my sister did

who was always quick

even when she was born

she was the first

and i was last

 

iii

the house we lived in

 

momma bought with the money

they gave her for me

at first a lawyer handled the money

but wouldn’t give us enough

till another one made him

we never could have had

such a big house

there was supposed to be

a ramp and special bath

but momma never had it made

used the money for sofas

i was not allowed to sit on

so i couldn’t ruin them

by drooling which

i couldn’t stop

and she bought the other children

clothes there were two more

after me and my sister

so i stayed inside

for most of the time

and when a nurse came

to care for me

which wasn’t often

i was clean and dry

but when nobody came

i had to wait for gramma

who watched me when momma was out

but she didn’t always remember

so i stayed in my diaper

till it got so heavy with wet

she couldn’t lift me

or turn me over

when she finally remembered

so i had to stay still

inside my room

in pants that were heavy and wet

till someone remembered

and came to take care of me

but i was patient because

i was already such trouble

my momma told me

 

iv

school

 

when the bus came to take me

every morning

they would strap me inside

in my wheelchair

so i wouldn’t bounce

on the trip to school

with the driver and an aide

who cleared my throat

if i needed it

and when i got to school

my teachers were so happy

to see me

when they rolled me off the bus

they’d take my coat

and change my pants

and my teacher who is very tall

held my hands to say hello

and later they all sang

good morning to you

good morning to you

and sang about

my bright shining face

which i had because

i was so happy to see them too

every morning i also saw

my friend zach

who was in my class

and who liked me too

our teacher wheeled us together

so we could sit and hold hands

even though we couldn’t see

we felt each other’s hands

which were both crooked

because our muscles were so tight

but the touch of our fingers

twisted together

kept us warm

till it was time to go to music

which i also loved

 

v

momma always wanted

 

to be where she wasn’t

before we bought our house

we lived in different places

and she always wanted to be

someplace where we weren’t

when we moved to the city

from the town we were born in

she wanted to go back

to our old home town

and when she went back

at night to meet friends

she wanted to be back

inside our new big house

and when she was with us there

she yearned for jamaica

where she came from

she said she never was happy

since she left jamaica

if she had stayed there

she said her life would be

completely different

she must have been right

because i never remember

seeing her smile

or hearing her laugh

except when her friends were around

and i thought she must have

lots of friends

in jamaica

to miss it so much

 

vi

on valentines day

 

one year i got to eat chocolate

which i never had before

i never ate by my mouth

always got formula

through the button in my tummy

when i tasted the chocolate

i couldn’t breathe

gramma called an ambulance

momma wasn’t home

and gramma had to stay

with the other children

so I went by myself

to the hospital

they said i couldn’t breathe

because i was allergic to

peanuts in the chocolate

they gave me medicine

which i was also allergic to

the doctor gave me something else

that worked this time

and i could breathe again

so he sent me home

but i couldn’t breathe again

at home my throat closed

so i had to go back

in the ambulance

the doctor wanted to put

something in my throat

a little hole

an always open o

so i could keep breathing

but he couldn’t do it

without momma’s permission

and nobody knew where she was

so the doctor called the lawyers

in charge of my money

they must have said sure

go ahead then the doctor said

well you know

this will be permanent

it’ll mean round the clock care

from now on

it will mean a nursing facility

it will be pretty expensive

i just wanted you to know

he listened

and hung up

and told the nurses

who were holding my hand

her trust won’t fund the care she’d need

let’s try something else

he sent me home

with a machine

to suction my throat

and now when the mucous

collects in my throat

i get suctioned

if anybody’s there to do it

the lawyers must have said

they would pay for it

but somebody has to remember

to suction me

which doesn’t always happen

and i wind up coughing

until i can spit out the mucous

and sometimes i can

but sometimes i can’t

and i just have to lay there

and cough and cough

 

vii

sailing

 

my momma didn’t want

nursing care for me

didn’t want people around

telling her how to take care

of her daughter

but once when a nurse came

her name was nancy

she took care of me for a while

brought a big boat

and hung it from the ceiling

i couldn’t see it

except as a blur

but she described it

it was different colored ribbons

like a rainbow

with sails so big

when the breeze blew in

when the windows were open

in the warm weather

nancy said the boat would float

back and forth like a real boat

sailing on the waves

of the ocean

and after the company

nancy worked for took her away

to care for another child like me

who they said needed her

more than i did

she left my boat

hanging in my room

and when i laid in bed at night

waiting to be turned over

i would think about the boat

waving in the breeze

and pretend i was the captain

sailing around the world

on my boat of colored ribbons

and everywhere i went

people would wave

and clap as i sailed by

 

viii

still, inside

 

though everyone did

the best they could

i was not to live long

scoliosis twisted my spine

like a cane’s bent handle

in my fifth year

and as it curved around itself

my organs compressed

till one day

my lungs couldn’t move

enough air

and all my spit pooled

in the back of my throat

and i inhaled it

and got pneumonia

a speck of mucous

was all it took

hidden like a grain of sand

in my chest

the bright red ring of sickness

pearled around it

and because i couldn’t rise

or blow it away

the infection overwhelmed me

and the fever

made my seizures so bad

i couldn’t breathe at all

and before anyone knew

to call the ambulance

i died

but at my funeral

everyone came to say goodbye

momma my sister my gramma

the rest of the family

the lawyers and doctors and nurses

who took care of me

and i could feel them all

standing crying

over my coffin

as i lay still

inside

 

©2019 Donald Levin

 

Three Favors

I’ve been reading a lot of online postings lately about people dealing with their grief over loved ones—brothers, sons, parents, spouses—who have died. I suppose I’m sensitive to the subject at this time because the anniversary of the death of one of my loved ones, my grandson Jamie (the model for Toby in my mystery series), came around a week and a half ago.

Jamie was twenty-five when he died, and we all loved him dearly; his brother Alex used to say Jamie was the glue that held the family together. He was in a year-long vegetative state that preceded his death, and that somewhat prepared us for losing him. But we still weren’t ready for the 2:30 a.m. phone call from his mom telling us he was gone.

Who is ever prepared for that call?

Even now, eight years on, his loss is still hard to manage. I find myself talking to him almost every day, narrating my life, telling him how much I miss him. When I find feathers on my walks, I like to think Jamie left them as reminders that he is still around in some form.

IMG_0749

Wishful thinking, I know; dead is dead.

So when I’ve been reading about how people are trying to come to terms with their grief over loved ones who have died, I empathize with their losses deeply.

But there’s another kind of grief—the grief that comes in the wake of losing someone you should have been close to, but weren’t. Sometimes what you grieve for then is not the loss of the person from your life, but the loss of the possibility that any closeness could ever happen.

While that could describe my entire family of origin, I think of it particularly in terms of my brother Cal.

His name was Charles, but everybody called him Cal because of his initials: Charles Allan Levin. He died in 1984; he was only 41 years old. He was older than I by six years, and for a variety of reasons we weren’t close as brothers. Or even as strangers, for that matter.

IMG_0387
My brother, 1960

Not only were we completely different personalities. Much of the problem in our adult years came from his long-term drug use, which wreaked a seemingly endless havoc on the family, as these things will do.

It’s conventional to say people died after a “long battle” with drug abuse, but that’s not quite true in his case. He didn’t so much fight against the drugs as embrace them like a lover. Yet even as I write it, I know that’s not exactly accurate either.

He died in a YMCA in Honolulu after failing to complete a lavish drug-treatment program in Hawaii that he conned my father into paying for. My father told everyone (including me) that Cal died from emphysema, but on the death certificate I saw the actual cause of death was amphetamine poisoning.

The only surprise was that his usual drugs of choice were barbiturates and pain-killers.

My last contact with him was several years before he died, when he called to ask me for money because our father (his usual touch) was out of town. I refused, and he hung up on me.

As you might expect, my anger at him and what he did to the family was profound and corrosive. It lasted for a long time, both before and after his death. He sucked up all the oxygen in the family for years; he and my parents formed a demented triad of mutually-assured destruction that left me on the outside looking in on my own family.

As I grew older, however, and gained some distance on it all, and began to deal with my own issues created by our family which was, if not broken, then really really bent, my attitude toward my brother began to change.

I started to get some insight into why he turned to drugs, and why he had such a hard time giving them up, or even admitting he couldn’t live without them. I started to see that, far from being the reason for the upset in the family, his drug use was a reaction to existing family problems, which of course only worsened because of his addiction.

I came to realize that the pain affecting me from my family pre-dated his antics, and also affected him. I understood we each tried to deal with that pain in different—albeit equally ineffective—ways.

When I started writing poetry, I found myself writing some about my brother. One in particular helped me come to a sort of accomodation, if not forgiveness, with him, in part through a recognition finally of both what he had lost and of the similarities between us. I think this poem captures those insights.

A version of this poem appeared in the April 2004 issue of Saucyvox.

Three Favors

1

It is 1966 and I’m struggling

to figure out the chords for “Desolation Row”

needle-dropping on my turntable

when my brother calls from next door where

he and the neighbor are watching a movie

and the 16mm projector jammed.

“Can you try to get it going?”

A simple problem to diagnose:

the worn sprockets on the well-watched film

have twisted over one of the feeders.

 

The curl in the plastic needs to be freed

and the film rethreaded. I start

the old machine and in the square of light

thrown on the screen in the neighbor’s bedroom

appear grainy black and white images

of a truly epic blow job

in extreme close-up, a woman’s lips

and sinuous tongue slaver up and down

a monster phallus glistening with spit

for longer than I would have thought possible.

 

My first stag flick makes me gape in wonder

at the animal rawness of it

as though it is a documentary

about an encounter between two apes

and the camera morbidly scientific

instead of pornographic—exactly

the opposite of erotic, with

a sound track filled with soggy sucking

and a man’s hammy moaning

tinny on the project’s tiny speaker.

 

When another actor enters the scene

and begins to take his own clothes off

I judge I have seen enough and leave them

to their whoops and fun. “The world’s longest

blow job,” the neighbor chortles. I return

to the silence of my own room

where I take up my guitar again

and rest an ear on the curve of its shoulder

to let the hard vibrating wood

ring the bones of my head like a bell.

 

2

The second time, 1971,

we stay in the Southfield apartment

where our parents moved when they fled Detroit.

My brother needs a ride to a job

to meet a friend, this contractor,

he tells me, and he can’t drive himself

since he wrapped his Mustang around a tree.

I am in another room, this time reading

(I’m in my hard-boiled mystery phase)

when his spare and stricken figure heaves

 

into the doorway. “Can you give me a ride?”

he asks, his scarred right arm hanging limp

at his side, casualty of a scalding bathtub

he had fallen into once while stoned.

This is the time when he makes phone calls

day and night cadging prescriptions for pills

from shady physicians. He tells them

he is a cancer patient from out of town

grappling with terrible pain. He makes

his voice quake in pretend agony.

 

He directs me to a cracked and potholed street

on the east side of Detroit where we roll

to a stop outside a house with black paint

hiding living room windows and high grass

gone to seed in the lawn. He steps from the car

uncertainly and hobbles stiff-legged

up the walk. Rings the doorbell and waits.

It occurs to me this is not about a job.

No light escapes from the front door

that cracks to allow him entrance.

 

A minute later he is out, walking fast.

“We’re done,” he says, and drops into the car.

“Take off.” I smell his sour sweat and his voice shakes,

this time for real. In his lap he cups

something small, like an animal he shelters

and gives me a sidelong glance that says more

than I want to know about fear and shame.

For the rest of the day he wanders around

the apartment with a spoon in his pocket

and I stay in my room and read about Sam Spade.

 

3

‘Seventy-seven, in another room,

grading essays for my classes at Wayne State

when my brother phones, which he never does.

Our father is away for the weekend. “Can I borrow

fifty bucks?” he asks. “I swear I’ll pay you back.”

I don’t even remember why he said

he wanted the cash, but I thought I knew.

He must have been desperate indeed

to try me. But I am through granting favors.

I blame him for every unhappiness

 

visited on our family, for all the problems of my own.

“Don’t lay that on me,” he spits, and hangs up.

It is the last time I speak with my brother.

Years later he is dead, found in a room

at the Y in downtown Honolulu.

Today, older than he would live to be

I imagine bars of tropical sunlight

peeking through his window blinds, striping

his decomposing body, his mouth twisted

in lines deep as cracks in asphalt, hair wild

 

as stalks of unmown grass as he sprawls,

melting after seven undiscovered days,

across his narrow bed, forlorn as a poor woodsman

in a dismal tale who has squandered his three wishes

and died alone, without family, friends, job,

or money, having lost, along with his

precious time in the sun, his last lucky chance

that some indifferent lips might try,

tirelessly, to coax him, childless and self-

abandoned, back into despondent life.