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Poetry and Medicine
September 6, 2016

The Silk Robe

Author Affiliations
  • 1Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, State University of New York, Stonybrook

Copyright 2016 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2016;316(9):996. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.3380

… the white baubles and silk stockings of

your actresses excite my genitals.

Samuel Johnson,

on going backstage at the Drury Theater

There’s little excitement under the skin
of these bright halls. Though much of the flesh
is female, it’s doughy from blockage
and muddled with wounds. The corridors’
odor—a confusion of solvents, seepage,
and hundreds of intimate chemicals.
Lit from behind by the bathroom light,
your blue silk robe has no place in this picture.
The scent you wear—Samsara, Gardenia,
Chanel?—is alien. When I walk in
your expression is amazed it’s morning again
and I’ve returned to examine
your perfect chest. Perfect, except for
the swishing and rasping endocarditis.
I notice the flowered barrettes in your hair,
the creamy coolness you must have just
put on, your fingers asking me to sit.
Another two weeks, I explain, of bed rest
and intravenous. In here the drama
belongs to others, patients whose stories
twist into bitterness or blossom into gain
before going home. Nothing about you
fits the scene. Not the gauze clutching your groin
where they snaked a catheter up to your heart.
Not your toenails, painted maroon,
nor the delicate gold chain. There’s not much
danger now—for you. Your cultures are clean.
You’re upright and walking the halls.