The first image in this book is of “a 400 pound naked man” with “necrotizing fasciitis—flesh-eating bacteria—/of the crotch” and of the poet-narrator “helping three nurses reinsert his rectal trumpet.” There is horror, to be sure, in a scrotum, devoured by some invisible force, but what haunts about this brief, rough, solid poem is the patient’s denial, that he acted “like most men—ignore it, hoping it would go away,” which says as much about the sociology and economics of medical care as publisher Karen Lillis’s passionate preface on the medical-pharmaceutical complex. Whoever the Dirty Poet is, he has worked as an emergency room attendant for several decades, and he has scenes to relive and stories to tell, which is what he does in this slim but gut-wrenching, extremely impressive volume.
A line in the dedication note says “hospitals exist; misery is real.” Respect for and allegiance to the reality of human suffering characterizes Emergency Room Wrestling, thick as it is with blunt trauma and victims of assorted accidents, the tears of parents and the sting of catheters and addicts bucking against their restraints or ripping loose from their various life-preserving tubes. A man spits one of his own teeth at a nurse. A bloodied kid, when “asked what happened … looked up at us and wildly offered / i just got my ASS kicked.” A man believes “the i-phone in his chest / told him to take an x-acto knife” and sever his penis, “plus one testicle for interest.”
Another man, upon admittance, “was so wasted he asked was anyone else in the car? / only your dead wife, dude / no one told him this / but he saw it on the news that night.”
Gallows humor abounds, as it must, a survival mechanism in a world crowded with botched suicides, where nurses and attendants are desperately “juggling bodies, crises, bloody tracheas / wall-to-wall patients gasping for air.” But these poems are also marked by stripped-down, functional language—the language of work, work wherein every second matters and where everything is at stake. “i hustle to the trauma bay,” reads a representative line, “blasted like that, the man’s gonna die / but maybe not.” So much depends on that slim hope, which, in turn, depends less on the “voodoo” the surgeons perform than the basic, repetitive, maintenance and preparatory tasks, the messy, often explosively liquid tasks. “but i’m sweating with this guy i extubated and can’t reintubate / he absolutely could use oxygen about now,” read another line, capturing the pace. There is tragedy in these pages—extreme sadness, loss, horror—but for those who work elbow-deep in it, there is also always somewhere else to be, someone else with vitals to check or bedpans to change. The emotional drama of the patients and their family is at the sidelines here, as in one stunning piece describing the step-by-step measures taken on the slim odds of keeping one man around:
i stick in a nasal trumpet
i stick in an oral airway
i stick a suction catheter up his nose
triggering a vast bubble of yellow bile out his mouth
step back! i shout
the room screams
What impresses me the most about the Dirty Poet is he is that, with minimal language, he allows the humanity of everyone involved to be present, palpable, even while the main concern here—the most engaging perspective—isn’t that of the grieving or freaking or hand-wringing relatives, nor the walking or wheeled-around wounded, but the man and women whose job it is to pick up that patient who has “fallen out of bed” and who looks “like a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich / smeared with shit and blood.” The coexistence of gallows humor and empathy, and the ability to convey this confluence on the page—this is what gives Emergency Room Wrestling real wings. So when the narrator speaks of needing “a couple of beers to cut the grease in my soul,” we know well what he means, and may even feel likewise…knowing, too, that it can’t ever be enough. “hospitals exist; misery is real”: and here are poems that bear necessary and affecting witness to that reality.