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Poetry and Medicine
March 2, 2011

Our Word for It

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to jamapoems@jama-archives.org.

JAMA. 2011;305(9):864. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.170

How is it that I still can't help
but love? I’ve seen the wires of
our drives on screens in lecture halls,
learned the circulating humors,
know how like the vole's my
vasopressin levels tell me stay or
stray, and I have watched the mated
ducks return, that pair
again, to the same murky
stream, bound as if by love
between those bird brains. Under
the feather sheen of their nine-iron heads,
it's instinct, bred without words,
that binds them. So I confess,
my love, so called, is just as thoughtless
as the iridescence of the male
mallard's neck, or what propels
the cold turtle to haul its shell
onto the sun-struck log (Does that little
lizard head love the sun?), or the bowing
of the tall shore grass in the wind—none
of this chosen.
      When I was new,
as words would have it, I loved
the god my mother—rather, latched
on to live, breathing by her
need to nurture this fresh-hatched
part of her. She couldn't
help it either (the oxytocin
flowed—she was about as free
as seabed kelp to cross the tidal
current—she was held to me . . . ).
Then the years, older, silent
enzymatic gears shifting
desire, by the implacable code,
onto the wide embodied world,
which brings us here, knowing better,
you and I with our word for it,
our bodies made with it,
helpless not to know it as love.

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