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Poetry and Medicine
September 23/30, 1998


Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1998;280(12):1034T. doi:10.1001/jama.280.12.1034

My brother became a government clerk
the day he left school, while I escaped
to the college of animal surgery
and a life in the country. He hated his job
and yearned for a piece of land—a garden
for radishes and cabbage, a patch
of gooseberry bushes. He'd sit at his desk
and conjure up maps, though the rest of him
married a rich widow, who managed to die
without wasting much time. The next day
my brother set out to buy an estate.
Before the mortgage had cooled, he bought
twenty gooseberry bushes and planted them.
When I went to visit him, he couldn't recall
that our grandfather was a peasant—he played
at nobility. He had a fat red dog
who looked like a pig, and my brother, too,
had gained weight. Though he hadn't studied herbs,
he made a production of handing out cures
when "his" peasants were sick. In the evening
we sat with glasses of tea, eating from a plate
of gooseberries, the first from my brother's bushes.
I reflected on how satisfied he was—his dream
no longer a dream, but actually present,
here, embodied. And I wanted to curse
his arrogant happiness—look at the poverty
around us, the cruel brutality, the scheming
of brother against brother, man against woman,
look at the lies, at the way we deceive ourselves
every morning we wake up and tend to our own
narrow concerns. There ought to be behind the door
of each contented man a man with a hammer,
ready to tap him. But before I could crack
my brother's shell, I realized that I, too,
am happy. But how can it be? I spend my life
tending to dumb, moist needs of calves and pigs—
a long night under the stars, a friendly smoke
with a farmer—what right have I to be happy?
Yes, I open my pores for a moment and feel
how sad the world is, and I savor the pain
as if it were caviar. Sometimes I put my hand
in others' wombs as if to rotate their calves—
but I fail to help in their labor. I listen
all night to their anguish. In the morning
I go about business. Surely, my friend,
we must be held accountable for happiness.

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