Martha Serpas’s poem “Asperges” is a procession of what seems ordinary: summer rain falling like holy water on the altar of a hospital door, water washing a new-born baby in a nurse’s sink, the surprise of getting “dolloped in the eye and (laughing) away / the shame of believing / in any kind of redemptive wash.” And as we read, we encounter the other “ordinary” images present in a hospital, the realities of death and incurable illness. The baby in the sink is stillborn, and the rain drums on an overworked air conditioner, the “outcast maker of phony cold air.”
Serpas, along with being a poet, is also a hospital chaplain, and this poem brings us directly into her work alongside those who are dying, recovering, and residing in the hospital she visits. These scenes feel familiar to me for reasons beyond Serpas’s images: my husband is a priest and my best friend is a hospice chaplain, and our conversations often center on tending to the needs of the ill. And what feels familiar is the flatness of encountering these images – it seems intuitive to not react with shock to the “den of comforters” in the ICU, or to the woman silent in her hospital bed, her husband close to the Purell, which “kills every body’s soupy human smell, the scent / of blood and grimy dust-mixed rain / on button-down clothes.” It seems intuitive because our first instinct in greeting suffering is to sanitize it, to protect ourselves from it. Even Serpas feels this, despite wearing “the badge that says I have to care.”
In the poem, what brings her out of “caring” is an encounter with the dead baby, and with the boy needing a new lung in the ICU, his questions puncturing the rote responses of his doctor. In the rush of her shift, her visitations with the dying and their companions, she (and we) are brought to face their circumstances, and their bodies, which are wholly present even in their suffering. And while Serpas thinks of Job while watching the nurse wash the dead boy, she also thinks of Mary, and of Christ, whose embrace reminds her that this boy and his mother will have no “track-lit eternal pieta.”
What strikes me as I read this poem is its constant discovery of holy images within the hospital – the pieta, the rain falling like holy water, the boy twisting his Transformers toy into a phoenix. Instead of prescribing these images to us, Serpas seems to just look up and find them unfolding around her. In an interview, Serpas describes the experience of visiting patients as “akin to writing a poem – the whiteness of the environment is like a paper ready for the word.” And the exchange that happens there, as Serpas describes it, is a sort of communion: “we go back and forth writing this text.”
And in “Asperges,” we are invited to back and forth with Serpas and her patients, our sanitized impulses baptized into something more open and ready to see that “the world tilts somewhere for someone,” including us, the rain warm on our own backs, our hearts ready for another word.
–Allison Backous Troy
Sudden summer rain, warm on your back
like asperges slashes,
more of a blessing than anything
to get dolloped in the eye and laugh away
the shame of believing
in any kind of redemptive wash
to get to the glass door before the stroup of sky
spills, to be the chaplain
carrying in the far side of the walls.
Such an inconvenience to bring an umbrella
in through the ER
best to leave these skinny hands free,
too much weather for environmental
services to mop up
between toddlers and their foil balloons.
It’s impossible not to ask how ya doin’?
in the elevator for
the badge says I have to care, and for
three floors I do. Then for three minutes I talk
to a nurse washing a big
baby boy whose green skin sloughs off
like bruised fruit skins. He died before any eye
saw his angry face. And Job wished
for this? To move straight from womb to grave?
Or was it perfect immersion he sought,
to soak between his mother’s arms
suspended in pink-green marble
for weeks his mother either knowing or not
knowing. Theirs could be no
broken, track-lit eternal pietà.
The jaundiced patient sleeps in a white sponge,
drying out, her husband
entranced, two quarters between his fingers.
His solace is a mouth firmly closed and
her wide silver gaze
as blind as her people before her.
Best to leave both hands free for hoisting her head
without spilling the coins
and for fetching Purell, which kills everything:
every body’s soupy human smell, the scent
of blood and grimy dust-mixed rain
on button-down clothes.
A den of comforters in ICU waiting:
Fig Newtons and pajama legs
looped over bright sofa armrests
squirming flannel piles watching a film.
A rote boy twists a Trans Am
into a phoenix, verse by hinged verse.
When the doctor asks for questions, he says
Why can’t you just put in a new
lung? That is, The whole must be preserved
in all its parts. I clock out. At four
am it is still raining.
The cocked hammer of a fat drop hits
a window unit. The gutters rush water.
A thin spout trembles beneath
a waterfall after the world tilts square.
And it tilts square for the baby and brother,
the mother and the man.
For the lost I think it flows straight up.
See how I twist the flume into a firebird,
the drops preened like feathers.
The world tilts somewhere for someone,
best to leave hands free for the safety bar
I don’t go anywhere near.
I just want to hear the water
uncontained, taking its own shape,
sky after sky full of it,
more than a blessing than anything
one drop replacing one drop on the skin
of a big metal drum,
the outcast maker of phony cold air.
Asperges originally appeared in Image 70.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.