The Work of Keeping Us Alive: Emergency Room Wrestling by The Dirty Poet

12 Sep

I’ve always loved poems about work. The practical essence of survival couched in the sublime essence of poetry seems to me to be a heady, headlong crash in the best, most jarring, wake-yourself-up-from-your-stupor kind of way. And when that work is important beyond measure – when indeed it is the work of keeping us alive – that poetry feels not only jarringly beautiful, but also necessary and true and right.

In his debut poetry collection, Emergency Room Wrestling, the Dirty Poet  brilliantly captures the drudgery, the job-ness of emergency room work while at the same time feeding us the fear, empathy, hope, exhilaration, and dark humor that make it possible for those who deal so often in death and sickness to get through the day. That humor is front-and-center in “rectum?”, in which we get a doctor quoting Henny Youngman while preparing to harvest a dying patient’s organs. It’s there again in “Wrong,” but this time to demonstrate that humor doesn’t mean that things are okay – and to show how wide the gulf between patient and caregiver can be:

people love it when you joke with them
they’re all scared of dying
and figure you wouldn’t joke with someone dying
how wrong they are

So much of the poetry on display in this collection gets its bang from juxtapositions: life with death, humor with sadness, fantasy with reality. In “worst case scenario,” the poet describes working through a particular horrifying patient case while at the same time fantasizing about the two hot radiologists working with him. The contrast between desire and death is startling and powerful:

they gave a fresh coat of paint to this house of horror
I had a spire of desire for six hours

even as I stared at my legless worst case scenario
a long, sick, delicious morning

Yet despite all this horror, all the pathos and sadness and trauma, the collection ends on a note of a kind of hope: the idea that we all straddle some thin line between life and not-life, and that maybe somewhere in our heads, in our loved ones hearts, we can always get back again. Even if just for a moment. That somewhere in time we will always be young and healthy and strong and happy. As The Dirty Poet writes, “i believe it/why not?”

Emergency Room Wrestling is available from Words Like Kudzu Press.

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