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Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Under Gray Toes and Buzzards: Diabetes as Metaphor in Poetry


With one grey toe/Big as a Frisco seal, Otto Plath put his footprint on all facets of his
daughters life. It was his untimely death in 1940 that would decide then eight-year-old Sylvias
destiny, but it was the cause of this unforeseen end his diabetes and the image of the
amputation that accompanied it, that would assert its presence over and over again in her poetry.1
Many who are familiar with Sylvia Plath, the twentieth-century poet who wrote in a confessional
style and took her own life at the age of just thirty, may not realize the extent of her lost fathers
appearance in her work.2 Those who are well-acquainted with one of Plaths most famous
poems, Daddy, may be surprised to learn that one grey toe is a direct reference to the
gangrene that afflicted her fathers foot shortly before his demise.3 The image of the amputated
limb would surface in a number of Plaths other poems as well. But Plath was not the only poet
to employ diabetes and its associated imagery in her work. James Dickey and Allen Ginsberg,
among others, also felt compelled to explore the disease in verse. As would be expected from
poets whose styles differ markedly, they also take varying approaches in their representations of
diabetes. From Plaths failure to explicitly call the disease by name, to Dickeys devotion of an
entire poem to its cause, to Ginsbergs casual listing of it among countless other ailments, it is
clear that one individuals notion of diabetes can differ completely from the next. Not only does
the real-life experience of a disease vary from person to person, but the disease often carries
multiple figurative meanings as well. These extensions of the disease into the world of metaphor
have the ability to affect the sufferers experience, for better or for worse.
As Susan Sontag notes in her well-known 1978 work Illness as Metaphor, connecting a
disease to evil or otherwise less than neutral concepts can make it all the more difficult for its
sufferers to deal with their diagnosis.4 For example, associating certain diseases with specific
personality types e.g., cancer as a disease of the dispassionate and passive, of lifes losers,
with weak wills that allow sickness to encroach and make their owners deserving of such a
punishment can make it even harder for patients to follow the appropriate treatment path.5
When governments use them to characterize their enemies, disease metaphors can have even
more far-reaching, tragic results. One cannot so easily forget that the Nazis referred to the Jewish
people as everything from syphilis, to tuberculosis, to a cancer that had invaded the larger body
of the German people and required immediate removal.6 This is the use of illness as metaphor at
its worst.
The employment of disease metaphors, however, does not have to turn out so horribly.
This seems especially true when these metaphors are applied in poetry. Poetry is highly personal,
and as such, often has much more to say about a subjects significance for the individual than for
society as a whole. Including illness metaphors in poetry does have its risks, such as when they
are used exaggeratedly, exploiting a diseases potential to evoke negative emotions. However,
when used to better communicate the disease experience, these metaphors have the potential to
confer enormous benefits, both for the poems authors and their audience. As Virginia Woolf
1

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963, ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (New York: Harper & Row,
1975), 21.
2
Poetry Foundation, Sylvia Plath, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/sylvia-plath (accessed November 11,
2014).
3
A.V.M. Foster and M.E. Edmonds, The Roots of Ariel: Sylvia Plath and Her Fathers Foot, Diabetic Medicine
12, no. 7 (July 1995): 583.
4
Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978), 7, 47.
5
Ibid, 21, 43-49.
6
Ibid, 82-84.

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

notes in her 1926 essay On Being Ill, poetry may be the only writing form capable of
communicating the experience of illness.7 The condition of being sick, of having the police [of
reason] off duty makes one more attuned to words beyond their surface meaning.8 English in
its formal usage, Woolf asserts, lacks the words to adequately express sickness.9 Without the
language of poetry to help them along, the sufferers are left to their own resources in explaining
their symptoms to their doctors.10
The metaphors and other literary devices commonly employed in verse seem to work
particularly well in describing diseases. Nonetheless, almost forty years ago, Sontag claimed that
cancer is a rare and still scandalous subject for poetry.11 That was during the days when even
the word cancer was deemed too awful for utterance.12 However, today, with other diseases
diabetes among them taking cancers place as the ugliest of them all, cancer has become one
of disease poetrys favorite subjects. Mental health and HIV/AIDS are also popular topics.13
Other diseases have a harder time making their way into art, which frequently demands that its
subjects be worthy of creative expression. Tuberculosis, according to Sontag, became a common
theme in literature and theatre in the nineteenth century because, as a disease of the lungs, it was
associated with the ethereal, with delicate souls.14 Today, having cancer is frequently compared
to a fight or battle, a metaphor which inspires all sorts of heroic imagery. Mental illness, lacking
the concrete nature of so many other diseases, is the perfect subject for poetry, because as Sontag
points out, the more mysterious the disease, the more easily metaphors can be built around it.15
Finally, because HIV and AIDS still have so much controversy and fear surrounding them, the
emotions they incite can be easily translated into poetic form. That is not to say that something as
mundane as a fever cannot make its way into poetry in fact, Sylvia Plath herself wrote a poem
titled Fever 10316 but in the absence of concern or passion for the subject, poetry is not as
intuitive of a response.
Diabetes is unfortunately one topic that has not aroused as much attention as it ought to,
whether in poetry or in the real world. Currently, almost one in ten Americans suffers from the
disease, 17 yet it never inspires the same fundraising efforts or campaigns as, for instance, breast
cancer.18 Although Plath, Dickey, and Ginsberg all wrote poetry on the subject of diabetes, they
were some of the only poets to do so. This paper will look at the different meanings that Plath,
Dickey, and Ginsberg ascribed to diabetes, based primarily on the various ways they chose to
7

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2002), 19.
Ibid, 21-22.
9
Ibid, 6.
10
Ibid, 7.
11
Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 20.
12
Ibid, 6-7.
13
This is based on an informal search of the more than 10,000 poems available in the publisher of Poetry
magazines, the Poetry Foundations, online database (www.poetryfoundation.org/browse/), with poems coming
from across the globe and reaching back as far as the sixteenth century. 67 of these poems contain the word
cancer, 37 the word depression and 25 HIV or AIDS.
14
Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 18, 25.
15
Ibid, 61.
16
Sylvia Plath, Fever 103, in The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 231232. (See Appendix 1 for complete versions of Plaths poems that are mentioned in this paper.)
17
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2014 (Atlanta: CDC,
2014), 1.
18
Sarah Klein, The Diseases We Donate To Arent Always the Diseases the Kill Us, The Huffington Post, August
27, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/27/disease-fundraisers-deaths_n_5724662.html (accessed
December 10, 2014).
8

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

incorporate the disease into their poems and their presumed purpose in doing so. It will also
evaluate these poets on the extent to which their use of diabetes metaphors helps or harms those
who live with the disease. By exploring its symbolic meanings and their implementation in the
real world, this paper aims to better understand the instances in which diabetes has found its
place in poetry, with the ultimate goal of explaining why these instances are so rare.
Sylvia Plath: Daughter of a Gray-Toed Giant
Given the general character of Plaths poems, in which she frequently explores her
innermost traumas, it would only make sense that they would bring the unfortunate
circumstances of her fathers death to the surface. However, because of Plaths frequent use of
metaphor, it is unlikely that those who are unaware of the role that diabetes played in Otto
Plaths death would recognize the disease in his daughters poems. In fact, many scholarly
analyses of Plaths poems, even those that feature clear references to her fathers condition
such as Electra on Azalea Path, which explicitly notes the gangrene [that] ate [him] to the
bone do not mention or perhaps even recognize that Plaths usage of gangrene and other
amputation-related terms is, at least in part, literal.19 According to Plaths husband Ted Hughes, a
talented poet in his own right, it was the image of the amputated limb that terrified Plath more
than any other.20 Although her father had been sick throughout much of her childhood, he died
less than a month after his amputation, an operation that had kept him in the hospital for the
remainder of his days.21 Furthermore, because Otto had refused to see a doctor and was therefore
unaware that he had diabetes until it was too late to do much of anything about it, young Sylvia
hardly experienced any less grotesque markers of the disease, such as her father taking insulin.22
It is no wonder then that the image of her fathers amputated leg is the one Plath retained in her
head for all those twenty-two years by which she survived him. In almost every poem that
features her father (which make up a rather significant number of her poems overall), Plath has
something to say about his acquired deformity. Perhaps this is because, in solidarity with her
fathers physical lameness, Plath is somewhat lame in [her] memory of him, as she describes it
in Little Fugue. In this aptly-titled poem, Plath confides that the fact that her father had one
leg is one of the few things she can recall about him.23 Plath, in this poem as well as in many of
her others, is reducing the memory of the man to a single motif: the amputated limb and the
disease that gave it to him.
Although Plaths references to her father and his amputation are grounded in reality, it is
also important to recognize that her poems have meaning outside their literal context. Plaths
later works (a category into which most of the poems included in this paper fall) are her most
intimate and openly autobiographical, but even given their personal qualities, they still combine
the private with the public.24 In fact, this may be the reason that those who attempt to analyze
Plaths poetry have so much trouble getting at the symbolisms roots: their dual grounding in
Plaths personal life and in the larger world means that one must not be familiar with the former
in order to understand the poems greater implications. Because Plath uses amputation
19

Plath, Electra on Azalea Path, in Collected Poems,116-117; Eileen M. Aird, Sylvia Plath (New York: Barnes &
Noble Books, 1973), 28-29; Elisabeth Bronfen, Sylvia Plath (Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1998), 78-79; Jahan
Ramazani, Daddy, I Have Had to Kill You: Plath, Rage, and the Modern Elegy, PMLA 108, no. 5 (October
1993): 1144, 1147, doi: 10.2307/462991 (accessed November 26, 2014).
20
Ted Hughes, Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid (New York: Straus, Farrar and Giroux, 2008), 699.
21
Plath, Letters Home, 16, 23-24.
22
Ibid, 22.
23
Plath, Little Fugue, in Collected Poems, 188.
24
Aird, 28, 78.

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

metaphorically most frequently to represent the public themes of loss or oppression, common
to everyone her readers may be blind to the fact that amputation has a private meaning for her
as well. It is where the private and the public overlap that Plath gives diabetes meaning beyond
its objective self.
At first glance, one of Plaths most famous poems, Daddy, written only four months
before she took her own life, has nothing to do with Plaths own father, let alone diabetes. In
Plaths own words, Daddy is about a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she
thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her
mother was very possibly part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse [sic]
each other she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.25 Although Plath
may not have publicly let on that Daddy is, at least in part, based on her father, its use of
amputation imagery makes it clear where its roots lie. For thirty years, Plath has lived in the
shadow of the Ghastly statue with one gray toe/Big as a Frisco seal that is her father.26 His
absence had forced her to live confined, like a foot in his black shoe, the cousin of the black
boot that makes an appearance in Plaths Berck-Plage, where it is the hearse of a dead foot,
one of a dead man.27 This gray toe and this black shoe belong to a man who, even with his
disfigurement, is a still a powerful brute who has the power to bit[e] [her] pretty red heart in
two.28 Despite Otto Plaths own concerns that his amputation would render him less of a man, it
is clear from Plaths Daddy that in his daughters eyes, his missing limb makes him no less
impressive, and perhaps even a bit more intimidating.29 In Daddy, the father with the
gangrenous toe is merged with the image of a Nazi officer, still handsome despite his deformity,
with an Aryan eye, bright blue.30 Daddy has been thoroughly criticized for its usage of
Holocaust imagery, but Plath needed this metaphor to explain just how she felt about her
father.31 The character of the Nazi is terrifying, and yet he has a certain air of stateliness about
him. The Nazi, both ghastly and a statue, is just like Plaths father who, in dying of diabetes
complications, became only slightly more distant and off-putting than the man who had already
been practically untouchable while alive.32
Not only in Daddy but in a number of other poems as well does Plath portray her father
as a statuesque, godlike being whose missing limb does little to destroy her heroic perception of
him.33 In an early poem, Letter to a Purist, Plath proudly proclaims that [t]hat grandiose
colossus [h]as nothing on Otto Plath, even with one foot/Caught (as it were) in the mucktrap/Of skin and bone, another probable reference to his gangrened limb.34 This is only the first
time Plath would compare her father to a colossus, most likely a specific colossus, the Colossus
of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. When an earthquake toppled it almost sixty

25

Ibid, 79.
Plath, Daddy, in Collected Poems, 222.
27
Plath, Berck-Plage, in Collected Poems, 197.
28
Plath, Daddy, in Collected Poems, 223, 224.
29
Plath, Letters Home, 24.
30
Plath, Daddy, in Collected Poems, 224.
31
Aird, 78-81.
32
Due to Ottos then-mysterious illness, which often left him cranky and in severe pain, his wife decided to separate
their home into an upstairs-downstairs, where the children, confined to the homes upper level, could not disturb
nor be disturbed by their father. See Plath, Letters Home, 18.
33
Plath, Letters to a Purist, Full Fathom Five, Electra on Azalea Path, The Beekeepers Daughter, The
Colossus, Little Fugue, Daddy, in Collected Poems, 36-37, 92-93, 116-117, 118, 129-130, 187-188, 222-224.
34
Plath, Letter to a Purist, in Collected Poems, 36-37.
26

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

years after its completion, the statue was broken up and sold for scrap.35 In a latter version of
Letter to a Purist, The Colossus, Plath describes her failed attempts get the statue, a stand in
for her lost father, put together again, pieced, glued, and properly jointed.36 Both literally
and in her memory, Plaths father is a shattered man, but one, that, unlike the original Colossus
of Rhodes, is seen as worthy of repair. In Full Fathom Five, Otto Plath, this time portrayed as a
mythical sea god, has some strange injury at which she [c]annot look much. Perhaps his
disfigurement horrifies the speaker too greatly for her to accept what has become of her idol,
whose death she can also only half-believe.37 Just as in real life the doctor had questioned how
such a brilliant man [as biologist and professor Otto Plath could] be so stupid, the narrator
wonders how such a powerful man, her once protector, from whose kingdom she had been
exiled to no good, could fade away so quickly. 38 By comparing her father to a deity, his
amputation, his diabetes, becomes a real-life Achilles heel. It becomes something that can befall
any man, no matter how great.
In Electra on Azalea Path, a poem about a girls visit to her fathers graveside and the
thoughts about his passing that ensue there, Plath depicts her fathers death as a sort of suicide.
She had convinced herself that, in failing to see a doctor for his then-unknown condition until it
was too late, her father let himself die, killed himself.39 This is the only poem where Plath
explicitly mentions gangrene, a gangrene [that] ate [him] to the bone. She is not convinced, as
her mother said, that he died like any man. Yes, any man can die of gangrene, but few men
use it as the gun to the head, as an instrument of suicide that removes them from the world, and
quickly at that. Worst of all, the speaker sees not just gangrene, but her own love [as] that
[which] did [them] both to death. 40 Plath is surely aware that she did not cause her fathers
diabetes, but because she sees his choice to not treat his diabetes as a willful one, she cannot rule
out her own presence as a force driving his decision to end his life. Just as she had an intense
desire to please her father, perhaps he had an intense desire not to let his daughter down.41 By
avoiding medical treatment, Otto may have reasoned, at least his family would not have to see
him crippled by ineffective surgery for what he believed to be a lung cancer that was killing
him.42
Despite the overall lack of acknowledgement in Plaths poems of the root cause of her
fathers amputation and death, one, The Beekeepers Daughter, seems to allude to diabetess
role in his demise. The bees produce a fruit thats death to taste: honey.43 As a young boy, Otto
Plaths sweet tooth had led to his interest in bees (his main topic of study as a biologist), for they
had allowed him to satisfy his hunger for sweet things with their seemingly endless supply of
honey.44 In Plaths depiction of [t]he queen bee marr[ying] the winter of [her fathers] year
[u]nder the coronal of sugar roses, the choice of the word sugar does not seem accidental.
35
Katherine Nichols, The Cold War Gothic Poetry of Sylvia Plath, in A Companion to American Gothic, ed.
Charles L. Crow (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 335; Encyclopdia Britannica, s.v.
Colossus of Rhodes, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/501620/Colossus-of-Rhodes (accessed
December 11, 2014).
36
Plath, The Colossus, Collected Poems, 129-130.
37
Plath, Full Fathom Five, in Collected Poems, 92-93.
38
Plath, Letters Home, 23.
39
Jeffrey A. Kotler, Divines Madness: Ten Stories of Creative Struggle (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 27.
40
Plath, Electra on Azalea Path in Collected Poems, 116-117.
41
Plath, Letters Home, 19.
42
Ibid, 18.
43
Plath, The Beekeepers Daughter in Collected Poems, 118.
44
Connie Ann Kirk, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 21.

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

But it is not only Ottos taste for sweet things that Plath believes did him in. As in Electra on
Azalea Path, Plath suggests that she, who is both [t]he [b]eekeepers [d]aughter and the
queen bee (whose queenship no mother can contest) herself, also carries some of the
responsibility for her fathers demise.45 Plaths recognition in this poem of the role of honey or
sugar, both stand-ins for the high blood glucose that is a marker of diabetes, in Ottos passing
suggest that the grotesque nature of her fathers death had not caused her to forget its root cause
entirely. Ottos gangrenous limb may have been the most salient cause of his death in Plaths
mind, but it is clear from The Beekeepers Daughter that it was not the only one that she
retained.
In Berck-Plage (at 162 lines, Plaths longest poem), Plath makes use of her experience
with her fathers diabetes and amputation in order to relate to more recent happenings in her
life.46 In doing so, she also allows herself to confront the demon from the past that haunts her
most: her fathers death. According to Ted Hughes, the poem combines two main incidents
(aside from Plaths fathers passing): Hughes and Plaths visit to a visit to Berck-Plage, a beach
on the north coast of France where cancer patients and amputees came to get fresh air and
exercise, and, a year later, the death and funeral of their next-door neighbor and friend, Percy
Key.47 Key has died of neither diabetes nor gangrene, but cancer (another disease, that like
gangrene, as Sontag makes clear, eats away at the body, the healthy tissue being replaced by
rot).48 However, it is the juxtaposition of his burial with Berck-Plages amputees that finally
allows her to (symbolically) attend her own fathers funeral, an opportunity she had been denied
by her mother, who had believed that the children would find it too traumatic.49 In the poems
funeral scene, Old blood of caked walls the sun heals,/Old blood of limb stumps, burnt
hearts.50 Keys own funeral surely featured no limb stumps, but recalling the [t]ubular steel
wheelchairs, aluminum crutches of the beach, the green pool [of the sea that] opens its
eyes,/Sick with what is has swallowed-/Limbs, images, shrieks, the bloody stump of the man in
the coffin makes much more sense.51 However, there that could be considered slightly
problematic with Plaths use of amputation imagery in Berck-Plage: she makes amputation a
metaphor for loss and death in general. Although using beach-going amputees and another mans
funeral to confront her own fathers death may help Plath heal, it also presents the danger of her
readers perceiving amputation (a condition that unfortunately affects many people with diabetes,
with sixty-percent of non-traumatic lower-limb amputations occurring in those with the
disease52) as an almost certain death sentence, when it does not have to be.

45

Plath, The Beekeepers Daughter in Collected Poems, 118.


Maeve OBrien, Something in Me Said, Now You Must See This: Reconciliation of Death and the Empty
Benches of Memory in Sylvia Plaths Berck-Plage, Plath Profiles: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Sylvia Plath
Studies 6 (2013): 95.
47
Jack Folsom, Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plaths Berck-Plage, Journal of Modern Literature 17, no. 4 (Spring
1991): 521, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831362 (accessed December 11, 2014); Helen Vendler, Last Looks, Last
Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 55.
48
Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 67.
49
OBrien, 95; Plath, Letters Home,
50
Plath, Berck-Plage, in Collected Poems, 200.
51
Ibid, 197.
52
American Diabetes Association, Statistics About Diabetes, http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/
(accessed December 11, 2014).
46

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

James Dickey: The Diabetes Match?53


Sontags claim that uncertainty is a major driving factor behind a diseases ability to take
on metaphorical meaning finds some supporting evidence in the poetry of James Dickey.
Although whether Dickey actually suffered from diabetes himself is doubtful, he was known for
being something of a hypochondriac, especially as he entered middle age, when his health was in
decline (both due to his drinking problems and the natural effects of aging) and he was
confronted with notions of his own mortality. 54 His 1970 book of poetry, The Eye-Beaters,
Bloody, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, written by a forty-seven-year-old Dickey,
included such poems as the two-part Diabetes and The Cancer Match, in which Dickey
confronts the unstoppable forces that he perceives such diseases to be.55 Dickeys image had
been that of a great hero of the virility cult, great sportsman, gamesman, football player, ex-war
ace, but as the years began to catch up with him, he feared that his health was going
southward.56 It appears to be uncertainty about his health that led Dickey to write Diabetes (as
well as The Cancer Match). Although Diabetes features concrete elements of the diabetes
experience, it also seems to use diabetes to make larger points about mortality, and in particular,
rebellion.57 (With its strict care regimen, diabetes seems to be the perfect disease for commenting
on disobedience.).
Although Dickey may not have had the disease himself, he seems to know enough about
diabetes to describe its symptoms, treatment regimen, and potential complications with some
degree of accuracy. In Diabetes, he notes the typical extreme thirst, the production of excess
urine, the sweetness of my blood, the weight loss. He indicates the doctors demands: needles
moderation/And exercise, Moderation, moderation,/My friend, and exercise. He points out
the potential for diabetes to result in gangrene and kidney/Failure boils blindness infection
skin trouble falling/Teeth coma and death.58 On one level, it may be helpful for people with
diabetes to read this in Dickeys poem. For starters, they might just appreciate the fact that their
disease, their suffering, has been deemed the stuff of poetry. Additionally, although diabetes
sufferers know that they are not alone, recognizing that other people have diabetes and actually
hearing their stories are two different things. Consequently, people with diabetes may benefit
from Dickeys description of his experience. The narrator of Diabetes does not just speak to
himself but also addresses the audience with we and with brother. Dickey wants his
audience not just to overhearbut also to participate in the conversation.59 Finally, because, as
Woolf suggests, poets have a special capacity for imagin[ing] disease,60 those with diabetes
might achieve some catharsis from seeing their feelings expressed in such a vivid form. One

53

Dickey released a poem called The Cancer Match in the same collection of poems as Diabetes appears. (See
James Dickey, The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997, ed. Gordon Van Ness (Columbia,
MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 8.)
54
Henry Hart, James Dickey: The World as a Lie (New York: Picador, 2000), 415; Dickey, One Voice, 77.
55
Dickey, One Voice, 9; Gordon Van Ness, James Dickeys Pantheism: Nature and Philosophy in the Last
Motion, in The Way We Read James Dickey: Critical Approaches for the Twenty-first Century, eds. William B.
Thesing and Theda Wrede (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 141.
56
James Dickey, In Virginia: A Conversation with Carolyn Kizer & James Boatwright, in Night Hurdling: Poems,
Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (Columbia, SC: Bruccoli Clark, 1983), 243.
57
James Dickey, Diabetes, in The Complete Poems of James Dickey, ed. Ward Briggs (Columbia, SC: University
of South Carolina Press, 2013), 428-431.
58
Ibid.
59
Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill, James Dickey (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), 89, 92.
60
Woolf, 18.

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December 12, 2014

night I thirsted like a prince/Then like a king/Then like an empire like a world/On fire, for
example, does much more for the senses than a simple I was thirsty ever could.61
Because Diabetes is at least partially based on Dickeys fear of disability and death,
and, according to Dickey biographer Henry Hart, Dickeys avoidance of confronting his own
alcohol abuse, he sometimes overdramatizes some elements of the experience of living with
diabetes to make a point.62 Some of the metaphors he employs, for example, reach the point of
ridiculousness. Using gangrene in white as a metaphor for sugar almost trivializes the effort
that people with diabetes must put into managing their diets.63 In all fairness, Dickeys equation
of eating sugar with guaranteed gangrene does make some sense given the fact that, in Dickeys
day, people with diabetes were instructed to avoid sugar entirely.64 However, it also promotes
feelings of hopelessness and being out of control that often already accompany the disease.
Dickey makes it seem that, despite their efforts to take care of themselves, they will ultimately
fail. Is the battle even worth it? he seems to ask. The world of the man with diabetes is only a
livable death (emphasis added).65 Dickey believed that death itself is all right so long as it
protects one from his ultimate fear of being incapacitated by some long, lingering, humiliating
disease.66 With Dickey perceiving diabetes to be one such disease, it is no wonder that, latter
on in the poem, he implores the buzzards to take him, a faltering creature who, in his state of
livable death, has already caught their attention.67
By the end of Diabetes, Dickey gives up, calling [his] birds by taking a long drink
of beer, which, like the gangrene in white, was considered another forbidden fruit for those
suffering from diabetes.68 Now, just as in Plaths Electra on Azalea Path, diabetes becomes a
sort of suicide.69 Dickeys chief terror [wa]s that they[d] discover ways to keep [him] alive
beyond [his] time70 so his character euthanizes himself before his brain [can] be sweetened/to
death. It is better, he reasons, [t]o know when to die. 71 The narrator chooses not to comply
with the doctors demands because, as Dickey had learned in his experience with alcoholism,
physicians can manage a condition, but they not make it worthwhile to live with it.72 The narrator
of Diabetes realizes that my blood is clear/For a time/But something is gone from me.73
The diabetes care regimen takes too much out of his life, to the point that he decides it is just not
worth it any longer. He no longer feels like he used to, but the buzzards will be the salvation of
our sense/Of glorious movement.74 Unfortunately, by including this ultimate noncompliance in
his poem, Dickey may make those with diabetes feel as if they ought to disobey their doctors, as
if there is nothing they can do about their disease, because a horrible death is inevitable.
Therefore, although Dickeys Diabetes shows that diabetes is a valid topic for poetry, it also
61

Dickey, Diabetes, in Complete Poems, 428.


Calhoun and Hill, 281; Hart, 415-416, 444.
63
Dickey, Diabetes, in Complete Poems, 429.
64
American Diabetes Association, Sugar and Desserts, http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-ieat/understanding-carbohydrates/sugar-and-desserts.html (accessed December 12, 2014).
65
Dickey, Diabetes, in Complete Poems, 429.
66
Calhoun and Hill, 281.
67
Dickey, Diabetes, in Complete Poems, 429, 431.
68
Hart, 415.
69
Calhoun and Hill, 90-91.
70
Dickey, In Louisiana: A Conversation with William Heyen and Peter Marchant, in Night Hurdling, 280.
71
Dickey, Diabetes, in Complete Poems, 431
72
Hart, 415.
73
Dickey, One Voice, 23.
74
Dickey, Diabetes, in Complete Poems, 430
62

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December 12, 2014

makes one wonder whether or not it should be. His poem may help doctors better understand
what their patients are going through, but by equating people with diabetes to vultures prey, he
may also be promoting despondency among them.
Allen Ginsberg: Going with the Beat of Diabetes
Allen Ginsberg was no stranger to using illness as metaphor. In fact, if Sontag had read
his 1986 poem You Dont Know It, with his claim that [i]n Poland police state double agent
cancer grew large as Catholic/Church Frankenstein, she probably would have criticized him for
his use of the word cancer to describe an instance of spreading corruption from the past.75 It is
interesting that, despite the personal experience that Ginsberg had with cancer by the time that he
wrote those words (his father having died of it in 1976), he seemed to have no qualms about
using the disease to refer to a foreign evil.76 Perhaps, unlike Sontag, Ginsberg did not believe
that employing a disease metaphor would make it all the more difficult for those suffering from
the disease to cope.77 Or maybe, like many people probably do, he did not think twice about the
implications. Ginsberg would ultimately die of cancer (of the liver) himself in 1997, learning of
his diagnosis only a week before his demise.78 But it was his diabetes (likely first diagnosed in
the early 1990s79), as well as his other physical limitations, that would make it into a number of
his poems. However, unlike Ginsbergs use of cancer in You Dont Know It, on almost every
occasion that he refers to diabetes in his poems, he does not do so metaphorically. That is
because there is almost nothing that Ginsberg and his fellow Beats a group of writers known
for their works on topics that had until that point been considered unliterary80 do not see
worthy of poetry (e.g., bodily functions frequently make their way into Ginsbergs poems, which
have titles anywhere from Excrement and Bowel Song to This Kind of Hepatitis Can Cause
Ya.81). Nonetheless, for better or for worse, it does not seem that Ginsberg found diabetes to be
worthy of metaphor.
In Ginsbergs first poem to mention diabetes, The Charnel Ground, (written in August
1992) diabetes is just one of the many afflictions, both physical and otherwise, that plague the
residents of Ginsbergs 12th Street apartment in the East Village, the neighborhood in New York
City, known for its artistic residents, that became the center of Beat activity.82 Jenny crashed her
car, the inhabitant of/Apt.24/[had] put his boyfriend in Bellevue, [t]he Russian landladys
husbanddisappeared again/[or rather] died, and [t]he Hispanic lady/waited all week
[for her] welfare check. [T]he artistic Buddhist composer/on sixth floor lay spaced out feet
swollen with water, dying slowly of/AIDS over a year, th old hippie flower girl fell
75

Allen Ginsberg, You Dont Know It, in Collected Poems: 1947-1997 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers,
2006), 943.
76
Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, ed. Bill Morgan
(Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2008), 179.
77
Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 7, 47.
78
Stokes Howell, Allen Ginsberg, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 1997,
http://www.tricycle.com/feature/allen-Ginsberg (accessed December 11, 2014).
79
Ginsbergs first poem to mention diabetes, at least by name, appears to be The Charnel Ground, written on
August 19, 1992. (See Ginsberg, The Charnel Ground, in Collected Poems, 1038-1041.
80
Poetry Foundation, Allen Ginsberg, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/allen-ginsberg (accessed December
11, 2014).
81
Tony Trigilio, Legendary Beat Poet: Allen Ginsberg, in Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism Through the Lives
of Practitioners, ed. Todd Lewis (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2014), 121.
82
Tim Lawrence, Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (Durham,
NC: Duke University), 337; William T. Lawlor, ed., Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact (Santa Barbara, CA:
ABC-CLIO, 2005), 258.

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December 12, 2014

drunk/[and] smashed her jaw, Mary had a cane and was heavy-legged with heart/failure,
the and poet highschool teacher fell dead mysterious heat dysrhythmia,/konked over. 83
Meanwhile, diabetic/sidewalk homeless were dumpster diving, and Ginsberg was on [his]
way uptown to get a CAT scan liver biopsy, visit the/cardiologist,/account for high blood
pressure, kidneystones, diabetes, misty eyes &/dysesthesia---/feeling lack in feet soles, inside
ankles, small of back, phallus head,/anus (emphasis added).84 Caught up in their own lives,
none of the residents have time to pay attention to the [n]ews [that] comes on the radio, they
bomb Baghdad and the Garden of Eden/again?/A million starve in Sudan, mountains of eats
stacked on docks, local/gangs & U.N.s trembling bureaucrat officers sweat near the equator
arguing over/wheat piles shoved by bulldozers---Swedish doctors ran out of medicine.85
Diabetes is just one minute detail among many, but like all the other seemingly minor concerns
in the poem, it is enough to distract Ginsberg from his surroundings, both those in his immediate
vicinity and in the greater world. The word diabetes is easily lost in the lengthy poem, but not
in Ginsbergs mind. It may be just another feature of life, but it is a feature of his life.
Only a month after The Charnel Ground, Ginsberg would write Autumn Leaves. In this
poem, with a title seeming to allude to the autumn of his life, Ginsberg notes that [a]t 66 [he
is] just learning how to take care of [his] body. Check[ing his] bloodsugar is just one of the
many things he know he must do so, as he jokes, that he can stay happy not yet/to be a
corpse.86 Likewise, Tuesday Morn is an almost too realistic (not everyone wants that much
information!) portrait of Ginsbergs daily routine. This time around, diabetes gets lost even amid
the small fragment of life that is Ginsbergs schedule, rather than among the slightly more
encompassing experiences of his fellow apartment dwellers, as it does in the The Charnel
Ground. Among the myriad pills he must take, the tidying around the house he must do, the
contacts he must make, and the personal hygiene steps he must fulfill, there are also the diabetesspecific elements of his regimen: the pricking of his finger that releases a drop, Exac-Tech
blood sugar teststrip results noted morn & eve/98 today, a little low, swab pinkie with alcohol
pad.87 Taking up slightly more than one line in a sixty-three-line poem, Ginsberg, who has to
also deal with his lack of blood to kidney, heart stress by lung liquid, and high blood
pressure, yet again makes it clear that there is nothing remarkable about diabetes. It is what it is,
and there is really no need for him to use it to mean anything else.
Richard III, written at 4:03 on the morning of February 7, 1997 (almost exactly two
months prior to Ginsbergs death), yet again in true Ginsberg fashion, makes poetry out of an
otherwise stereotypically non-poetic experience. Up at 4 a.m./reading Shakespeare, (which
explains the poems title), no outside sensations to distract him, Ginsberg cannot help but notice
all the things wrong with his body. Practically all of his organs from his heart, to his liver, to
his gut, to his lungs do not function properly. To top it all off, there are also the problems of
Ginsbergs diabetes, with [s]ugar coating [his] nerves, leg/muscles lacking blood.88 A poem
written a month later (and therefore only a month before Ginsbergs death), Hepatitis Body
Itch is very similar to Richard III in its casual listing off of a number of things (but by no
means everything) that is wrong with his body at the moment. But Hepatitis Body Itch is
83

Ginsberg, The Charnel Ground in Collected Poems, 1038-1039.


Ibid, 1039-1040.
85
Ibid, 1040.
86
Ginsberg, Autumn Leaves in Collected Poems, 1046.
87
Ginsberg, Tuesday Morn in Collected Poems, 1074.
88
Ginsberg, Richard III in Collected Poems, 1129.
84

10

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December 12, 2014

much more pessimistic than its predecessor. Perhaps Ginsberg had figured out by then that the
shit factory this corpse that he lived in would not be able to support life for much long, that his
High Blood/Sugar and a thousand other ailments would soon kill him.89 And unfortunately, he
would be right.
Only one of Ginsbergs poems that mentions diabetes seems to differ markedly from his
others. It is in Cmon Pigs of Western Civilization Eat More Grease that Ginsberg uses
diabetes to help him make a statement, and in doing so, finds a purpose for metaphorizing it.
Ginsbergs use of poetry from social commentary was well-known,90 and it is in this poem that
he criticizes the overindulgence in unhealthy food by many in the United States and Europe.
Ginsberg notes that the excess fat, sugar, and salt can lead to angina, heart attack, hypertension,
high cholesterol, cancer, stroke, and the enlargement of the liver and spleen, and he dares the
inhabitants of Western Civilization (likely the readers themselves) to Drop dead faster! The
pigs are slowly killing themselves in a world where diabetes is a monument[ ] to
carnivorous/civilizations. 91 Of course, there is definitely some truth to Ginsbergs claim that
unhealthy eating leads to disease and death. More specifically, overeating causes weight gain,
and being overweight or obese is highly linked to the development of type 2 diabetes.92 Referring
to diabetes as a monument[ ] to carnivorous/civilizations may not be the most flattering
depiction, but if it helps get the job done, if it convinces more people that something needs to be
done about the obesity epidemic, then at least it counts for something.
_____________________
In answer to the question of why diabetes hardly ever figures into poetry, the works of
Plath, Dickey, and Ginsberg seem to point to one main conclusion: it is neither pretty nor
mysterious enough. As already noted in the introduction to this paper, Sontag claims that
tuberculosis was able to make its way into creative works because of its association with beauty
and grace.93 Tuberculosis, in this sense, is worthy of art. Cancer, a so-called ugly disease, is
not, but it is the perfect material for metaphor. That is because, as Sontag asserts, it is mystery
that drives metaphor, and cancer, especially at the time when Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor,
was one of the most mysterious of them all.94 (By the late 1980s, when Sontag wrote her follow
up to Illness as Metaphor, called AIDS and Its Metaphors, AIDS had become the most
mysterious of the diseases, and like cancer, became a prime source for metaphor.)95 Poetry sits at
this crossroads of art and metaphor, because most poetry cannot get by without employing at
least some figurative language. What this means is a disease does not have to be both beautiful
and mysterious to appear in poetry, but the few exceptions to the rule aside, it must have at least
one of these features. Diabetes typically fails both tests, but in the case of Plath and Dickey, it
passes the former. Although diabetes usually does not hold much mystery (unlike cancer, both its
causes and course are clearer), it does for these two poets. It robbed a very young Plath of a
father, in a very sudden, shocking way, and for this reason, diabetes will always be slightly
89

Ginsberg, Hepatitis Body Itch in Collected Poems, 1139.


Eric Zassenhaus, Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, eds. Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn Herr, s.v.
Ginsberg, Allen.
91
Ginsberg, Cmon Pigs of Western Civilization Eat More Grease, in Collected Poems, 1071-1072.
92
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC), Causes of Diabetes, National Institute of Diabetes and
Digestive Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/causes/#type2 (accessed December 12,
2014).
93
Sontag, Illness and Metaphor, 18, 25.
94
Ibid, 20.
95
Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989), 16.
90

11

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December 12, 2014

incomprehensible to her. Dickey, who seemed not to have the disease at all, could not have
understood diabetes to the same degree as someone who actually has the disease, so it was
always slightly mysterious to him as well. For Ginsberg, who unlike Plath or Dickey, definitely
had the disease, diabetes is neither beautiful nor mysterious, so it might at first be hard to
understand why he mentions it in a number of his poems. But the fact is, he only mentions it. As
a part of the Beat generation, whose members were inclined to write about anything and
everything, Ginsbergs poems break the typical mold. Diabetes makes its way into Plath and
Dickeys poems because their experience with the disease is not typical, and it finds itself in
Ginsbergs poems because his filter for what makes good poetry is very porous. By looking at
Plath, Dickey, and Ginsberg as exceptions, the reason why diabetes is currently so rare in poetry
becomes clearer. Only when diabetes is made more attractive (because it can only become less
mysterious) will it become a more viable source of inspiration for poetry.

12

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014


Appendix 1
The Poems of Sylvia Plath

The Beekeepers Daughter


A garden of mouthings. Purple, scarlet-speckled, black,
The great corollas dilate, peeling back their silks.
Their musk encroaches, circle after circle,
A well of scents almost too dense to breathe in.
Hieratical in your frock coat, maestro of the bees,
You move among the many-breasted hives,
My heart under your foot, sister of a stone.
Trumpet-throats open to the beaks of birds.
The Golden Rain Tree drips its powders down.
In these little boudoirs streaked with orange and red
The anthers nod their heads, potent as kings
To father dynasties. The air is rich.
Here is a queenship no mother can contest-A fruit that's death to taste: dark flesh, dark parings.
In burrows narrow as a finger, solitary bees
Keep house among the grasses. Kneeling down,
I set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye
Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.
Father, bridegroom, in this Easter egg
Under the coronal of sugar roses
The queen bee marries the winter of your year.
_____________________
Berck-Plage
(1)
This is the sea, then, this great abeyance.
How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation.
Electrifyingly-colored sherbets, scooped from the freeze;
By pale girls, travel the air in scorched hands.
Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?
I have two legs, and I move smilingly.
A sandy damper kills the vibrations;
It stretches for miles, the shrunk voices
Waving and crutchless, half their old size.
The lines of the eye, scalded by these bald surfaces,
13

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Boomerang like anchored elastics, hurting the owner.


Is it any wonder he puts on dark glasses?
Is it any wonder he affects a black cassock?
Here he comes now, among the mackerel gatherers
Who wall up their backs against him.
They are handling the black and green lozenges like the perts of a body.
The sea, that crystallized these,
Creeps away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress.
(2)
This black boot has no mercy for anybody.
Why should it, it is the hearse of a dead foot,
The high, dead, toeless foot of this priest
Who plumbs the well of his book,
The bent print bulging before him like scenery.
Obscene bikinis hide in the dunes,
Breasts and hips a confectioner's sugar
Of little crystals, titillating the light,
While a green pool opens its eye,
Sick with what it has swallowed Limbs, images, shrieks. Behind the concrete bunkers
Two lovers unstick themselves.
O white sea-crockery,
What cupped sighs, what salt in the throat....
And the onlooker, trembling,
Drawn like a long material
Through a still virulence,
And a weed, hairy as privates.
(3)
On the balconies of the hotel, things are glittering.
Things, things Tubular steel wheelchairs, aluminium crutches.
14

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Such salt-sweetness. Why should I walk


Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles?
I am not a nurse, white and attendant,
I am not a smile.
These children are after something, with hooks and cries,
And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.
This is the side of a man: his red ribs,
The nerves bursting like trees, and this is the surgeon:
One mirrory eye A facet of knowledge.
On a striped mattress in one room
An old man is vanishing.
There is no help in his weeping wife.
Where are the eye-stones, yellow and valuable,
And the tongue, sapphire of ash.
(4)
A wedding-cake face in a paper frill.
How superior he is now.
It is like possessing a saint.
The nurses in their wing-caps are no longer so beautiful;
They are browning, like touched gardenias.
The bed is rolled from the wall.
This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.
Is he wearing pyjamas or an evening suit
Under the glued sheet from which his powdery beak
Rises so whitely unbuffeted?
They propped his jaw with a book until it stiffened
And folded his hands, that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye.
Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
The pillow cases are sweetening.
It is a blessing, it is a blessing:
15

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

The long coffin of soap-coloured oak,


The curious bearers and the raw date
Engraving itself in silver with marvellous calm.
(5)
The grey sky lowers, the hills like a green sea
Run fold upon fold far off, concealing their hollows,
The hollows in which rock the thoughts of the wife Blunt, practical boats
Full of dresses and hats and china and married daughters.
In the parlour of the stone house
One curtain is flickering from the open window,
Flickering and pouring, a pitiful candle.
This is the tongue of the dead man: remember, remember.
How far he is now, his actions
Around him like livingroom furniture, like a d?cor.
As the pallors gather The pallors of hands and neighbourly faces,
The elate pallors of flying iris.
They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
The empty benches of memory look over stones,
Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.
(6)
The natural fatness of these lime leaves! Pollarded green balls, the trees march to church.
The voice of the priest, in thin air,
Meets the corpse at the gate,
Addressing it, while the hills roll the notes of the dead bell;
A glitter of wheat and crude earth.
What is the name of that colour? Old blood of caked walls the sun heals,

16

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts.


The widow with her black pocketbook and three daughters,
Necessary among the flowers,
Enfolds her face like fine linen,
Not to be spread again.
While a sky, wormy with put-by smiles,
Passes cloud after cloud.
And the bride flowers expend a freshness,
And the soul is a bride
In a still place, and the groom is red and forgetful, he is featureless.
(7)
Behind the glass of this car
The world purrs, shut-off and gentle.
And I am dark-suited and still, a member of the party,
Gliding up in low gear behind the cart.
And the priest is a vessel,
A tarred fabric, sorry and dull,
Following the coffin on its flowery cart like a beautiful woman,
A crest of breasts, eyelids and lips
Storming the hilltop.
Then, from the barred yard, the children
Smell the melt of shoe-blacking,
Their faces turning, wordless and slow,
Their eyes opening
On a wonderful thing Six round black hats in the grass and a lozenge of wood,
And a naked mouth, red and awkward.
For a minute the sky pours into the hole like plasma.
There is no hope, it is given up.
_____________________
The Colossus

17

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

I shall never get you put together entirely,


Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It's worse than a barnyard.
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull-plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.
_____________________
Daddy
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time-18

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,


Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--

19

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Not God but a swastika


So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
And they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.
If I've killed one man, I've killed two-The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
_____________________
Electra on Azalea Path
The day you died I went into the dirt,
Into the lightless hibernayculum
20

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Where bees, striped black and gold, sleep out the blizzard
Like hieratic stones, and the ground is hard.
It was good for twenty years, that wintering-As if you had never existed, as if I came,
God-fathered, into the world from my mother's belly:
Her wide bed wore the stain of divinity.
I had nothing to do with guilt or anything
When I wormed back under my mother's heart.
Small as a doll in my dress of innocence,
I lay dreaming your epic, image by image.
Nobody died or withered on that stage.
Everything took place in a durable whiteness.
The day I woke, I woke on Churchyard Hill.
I found your name. I found your bones and all
Enlisted in a cramped necropolis,
Your speckled stone askew by an iron fence.
In this charity ward, this poorhouse, where the dead
Crowd foot to foot, head to head, no flower
Breaks the soil. This is Azalea Path.
A field of burdock opens to the south.
Six feet of yellow gravel cover you.
The artificial red sage does not stir
In the basket of plastic evergreens they put
At the headstone next to yours, nor does it rot,
Although the rains dissolve a bloody dye:
The ersatz petals drip, and they drip red.
Another kind of redness bothers me:
The day your slack sail drank my sister's breath
The flat sea purpled like that evil cloth
My mother unrolled at your last homecoming.
I borrow the stilts of an old tragedy.
The truth is, one late October, at my birth-cry,
A scorpion stung its head, an ill-starred thing;
My mother dreamed you face down in the sea.
The stony actors poise and pause for breath.
I brought my love to bear, and then you died.
It was the gangrene ate you to the bone
My mother said; you died like any man.
How shall I age into that state of mind?
I am the ghost of an infamous suicide,
My own blue razor rusting in my throat.
O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
21

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Your gate, father--your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.


It was my love that did us both to death.
_____________________
Fever 103
Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerebus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell
Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora's scarves, I'm in a fright
One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,
But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
The weak
Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,
Devilish leopard!
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss.
Three days. Three nights.
22

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Lemon water, chicken


Water, water make me retch.
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern ---My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise ---The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Virgin
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him.
Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) ---To Paradise.
_____________________
Full Fathom Five
Old man, you surface seldom.
Then you come in with the tide's coming
When seas wash cold, foamCapped: white hair, white beard, far-flung,
A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves
Crest and troff. Miles long
Extend the radial sheaves
Of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins
Knotted, caught, survives
The old myth of origins
23

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Unimaginable. You float near


As keeled ice-mountains
Of the north, to be steered clear
Of, not fathomed. All obscurity
Starts with a danger:
Your dangers are many. I
Cannot look much but your form suffers
Some strange injury
And seems to die: so vapors
Ravel to clearness on the dawn sea.
The muddy rumors
Of your burial move me
To half-believe: your reappearance
Proves rumors shallow,
For the archaic trenched lines
Of your grained face shed time in runnels:
Ages beat like rains
On the unbeaten channels
Of the ocean. Such sage humor and
Durance are whirlpools
To make away with the groundWork of the earth and the sky's ridgepole.
Waist down, you may wind
One labyrinthine tangle
To root deep among knuckles, shinbones,
Skulls. Inscrutable,
Below shoulders not once
Seen by any man who kept his head,
You defy questions;
You defy other godhood.
I walk dry on your kingdom's border
Exiled to no good.
Your shelled bed I remember.
Father, this thick air is murderous.
I would breathe water.
24

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014


_____________________

Letter to a Purist
That grandiose colossus who
Stood astride
The envious assaults of sea
(Essaying, wave by wave,
Tide by tide,
To undo him, perpetually),
Has nothing on you,
O my love,
O my great idiot, who
With one foot
Caught (as it were) in the muck-trap
Of skin and bone,
Dithers with the other way out
In preposterous provinces of the madcap
Cloud-cuckoo,
Agawp at the impeccable moon.
_____________________
Little Fugue
The yew's black fingers wag:
Cold clouds go over.
So the deaf and dumb
Signal the blind, and are ignored.
I like black statements.
The featurelessness of that cloud, now!
White as an eye all over!
The eye of the blind pianist
At my table on the ship.
He felt for his food.
His fingers had the noses of weasels.
I couldn't stop looking.
He could hear Beethoven:
Black yew, white cloud,
The horrific complications.
Finger-traps--a tumult of keys.
Empty and silly as plates,
So the blind smile.
I envy big noises,
The yew hedge of the Grosse Fuge.
25

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Deafness is something else.


Such a dark funnel, my father!
I see your voice
Black and leafy, as in my childhood.
A yew hedge of orders,
Gothic and barbarous, pure German.
Dead men cry from it.
I am guilty of nothing.
The yew my Christ, then.
Is it not as tortured?
And you, during the Great War
In the California delicatessen
Lopping off the sausages!
They colour my sleep,
Red, mottled, like cut necks.
There was a silence!
Great silence of another order.
I was seven, I knew nothing.
The world occurred.
You had one leg, and a Prussian mind.
Now similar clouds
Are spreading their vacuous sheets.
Do you say nothing?
I am lame in the memory.
I remember a blue eye,
A briefcase of tangerines.
This was a man, then!
Death opened, like a black tree, blackly.
I survive the while,
Arranging my morning.
These are my fingers, this my baby.
The clouds are a marriage of dress, of that pallor.

26

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014


Appendix 2
The Poems of James Dickey

The Cancer Match


Lord, youve sent both
And may have come yourself. I will sit down, bearing up under
The death of light very well, and we will all
Have a drink. Two or three, maybe.
I see now the delights
Of being let come home
From the hospital.
Night!
I dont have all the time.
In the world, but I have all night.
I have space for me and my house,
And I have cancer and whiskey
In a lovely relation.
They are squared off, here on my ground. They are fighting,
Or are they dancing? I have been told and told
More to give,
But they have no idea
What hope is, or how it comes. You take these two things:
This bourbon and this thing growing. Why,
They are like boys! They bow
To each other
Like judo masters,
One of them jumping for joy, and I watch them struggle
All around the room, inside and out
Of the house, as they battle
Near the mailbox
And superbly
For the street-lights! Internally, I rise like my old self
To watch: and remember, ladies and gentlemen
We are looking at this match
From the standpoint
Of tonight
Alone. Swarm over him, my joy, my laughter, my Basic Life
Force! Let your bright sword-arm stream
Into that turgid hulk, the worst
Of me, growing:
27

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Get im, O Self


Like a beloved son! One more time! Tonight we are going
Good better and better we are going
To win, and not only win but win
Big, win big
_____________________
Diabetes
I. Sugar
One night I thirsted like a prince
Then like a king
Then like an empire like a world
On fire. I rose and flowed away and fell
Once more to sleep. In an hour I was back
In the kingdom staggering, my belly going round with selfmade night-water, wondering what
The hell. Months of having a tongue
Of flame convinced me: I had better not go
On this way. The doctor was young
And nice. He said, I must tell you,
My friend, that it is needles moderation
And exercise. You dont want to look forward
To gangrene and kidney
Failure boils blindness infection skin trouble falling
Teeth coma and death.
O.K.
In sleep my mouth went dry.
With my answer and it burned the sands
Of time with new fury. Sleep could give me no water
But my own. Gangrene in white
Was in my wifes hand at breakfast
Heaped like a mountain. Moderation, moderation,
My friend, and exercise. Each time the barbell
Rose each time a foot fell
Jogging, it counted itself
One death two death three death and resurrection
For a little while. Not bad! I always knew it would have to be somewhere around
The house: the real
Symbol of Time I could eat
And live with, coming true when I opened my mouth:
True in the coffee and the childs birthday
Cake helping sickness be firetongued, sleepless and waterlogged but not bad, sweet sand
28

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014


Of time, my friend, an everyday
A livable death at last.
II. Under Buzzards

for Robert Penn Warren


Heavy summer. Heavy. Companion, if we climb our mortal bodies
High with great effort, we shall find ourselves
Flying with the life
Of the birds of death. We have come up
Under buzzards they face us
Slowly slowly circling and was we watch them they turn us
Around, and you and I spin
Slowly, slowly rounding
Out the hill. We are level
Exactly on this moment; exactly on the same birdplane with those deaths. They are the salvation of our sense
Of glorious movement. Brother, it is right for us to face
Them every which way, and come to ourselves and come
From every direction
There is. Whirl and stand fast!
Whence cometh death, O Lord?
On the downwind, riding fire,
Of Hogback Ridge.
But listen: what is dead here?
They are not falling but waiting but waiting
Riding, and they may know
The rotten, nervous sweetness of my blood.
Somewhere riding the updraft
Of a far forest fire, they sensed the city sugar
The doctors found in time.
My eyes are green as lettuce with my diet,
My weight is down,
One pocket nailed with needles and injections, the other dragging
With sugar cubes to balance me in life
And hold my blood
Level, level. Tell me, black riders, does this do any good?
Tell me what I need to know about my time
In the world. O out of the fiery
Furnace of pine-woods, in the sap-smoke and crownfire of needles,
Say when Ill die. When will the sugar rise boiling
Against me, and my brain be sweetened
29

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014


to death?
In heavy summer, like this day.
All right! Physicians, witness! I will shoot my viens
Full of insulin. Let the needle burn
In. From your terrible heads
The flight-blood drains and you are falling back
Back to the body-raising
Fire.
Heavy summer. Heavy. My blood is clear
For a time. Is it too clear? Heat waves are rising
Without birds. But something is gone from me,
Friend. This is too sensible. Really it is better
To stream with the death-wish of birds.
You know, I had just as soon crush
This doomed syringe
Between two mountain rocks, and bury this needle in needles
Of trees. Companion, open that beer.
How the body works how hard it works
For its medical books is not
Everything: everything is how
Much glory is in it: heavy summer is right

For a long drink of beer. Red sugar of my eyeballs


Feel them turn blindly
In the fire rising turning turning
Back to Hogback Ridge, and it is all
Delicious, brother: my body is turning is flashing unbalanced
Sweetness everywhere, and I am calling my birds.

30

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014


Appendix 3
The Poems of Allen Ginsberg

Autumn Leaves
At 66, just learning how to take care of my body
Wake cheerful 8 a.m. & write in a notebook
rising from my bed side naked leaving a naked boy asleep by the wall
mix miso mushroom leeks & winter squash breakfast,
Check bloodsugar, clean teeth exactly, brush, toothpick, floss, mouthwash
oil my feet, put on white shirt white pants white sox
sit solitary by the sink
a moment before brushing my hair, happy not yet
to be a corpse.
_____________________
The Charnel Ground
Upstairs Jenny crashed her car & became a living corpse, Jake sold grass,
the white-bearded potbelly leprechaun silent climbed their
staircase
Ex-janitor John from Poland averted his eyes, cheeks flushed with
vodka, wine who knew what
as he left his groundfloor flat, refusing to speak to the inhabitant of
Apt. 24
who'd put his boyfriend in Bellevue, calling the police, while the artistic
Buddhist composer
on sixth floor lay spaced out feet swollen with water, dying slowly of
AIDS over a year--The Chinese teacher cleaned & cooked in Apt. 23 for the homosexual
poet who pined for his gymnast
thighs & buttocks--- Downstairs th' old hippie flower girl fell drunk
over the banister, smashed her jaw--her son despite moderate fame cheated rocknroll money, twenty
thousand people in stadiums
cheering his tattooed skinhead murderous Hare Krishna vegetarian
drum lyrics--Mary born in the building rested on her cane, heavy legged with heart
failure on the second landing, no more able
to vacation in Caracas & Dublin--- The Russian landlady's husband
from concentration camp disappeared again---nobody mentioned he'd died--tenants took over her building for hot water, she couldn't add rent & pay
taxes, wore a long coat hot days
alone & thin on the street carrying groceries to her crooked apartment
silent--One poet highschool teacher fell dead mysterious heart dysrhythmia,
31

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

konked over
in his mother's Brooklyn apartment, his first baby girl a year old, wife
stoical a few days--their growling noisy little dog had to go, the baby cried--Meanwhile the upstairs apartment meth head shot cocaine & yowled up
and down
East 12th Street, kicked out of Christine's Eatery till police cornered
him, 'top a hot iron steamhole
near Stuyvesant Town Avenue A telephone booth calling his deaf
mother---sirens speed the way to Bellevue--past whispering grass crack salesmen jittering in circles on East 10th
Street's
southwest corner where art yuppies come out of the overpriced Japanese
Sushi Bar---& they poured salt into potato soup heart failure
vats at KK's Polish restaurant
---Garbage piled up, nonbiodegradable plastic bags emptied by diabetic
sidewalk homeless
looking for returnable bottles recycled dolls radios half-eaten
hamburgers---thrown-away Danish--On 13th Street the notary public sat in his dingy storefront, driver's
lessons & tax returns prepared on old metal desks--Sunnysides crisped in butter, fries & sugary donuts passed over
the luncheonette counter next door--The Hispanic lady yelled at the rude African-American behind the Post
Office window
"I waited all week my welfare check you sent me notice I was here
yesterday
I want to see the supervisor bitch do't insult me refusing to look in---"
Closed eyes of Puerto Rican wino lips cracked skin red stretched out
on the pavement, naphtha backdoor open for the Korean family dry
cleaners at the 14th Street corner--Con Ed workmen drilled all year to bust electric pipes 6 feet deep in
brown dirt
so cars bottlenecked wait minutes to pass the M14 bus stopped midroad, heavy dressed senior citizens step down in red rubble
with Reduced Fare Program cards got from grey city Aging Department
offices downtown up the second flight by elevators don't
work--News comes on the radio, they bombed Baghdad and the Garden of Eden
again?
A million starve in Sudan, mountains of eats stacked on docks, local
gangs & U.N.'s trembling bureaucratic officers sweat near the
equator arguing over
wheat piles shoved by bulldozers---Swedish doctors ran out of
medicine--- The Pakistani taxi driver
says Salman Rushdie must die, insulting the Prophet in fictions--32

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

"No that wasn't my opinion, just a character talking like in a poem no


Judgement--"Not till the sun rejects you do I," so give you a quarter by the Catholic
church 14th St. you stand half drunk
waving a plastic glass, flush-faced, live with your mother a wounded
look on your lips, eyes squinting,
receding lower jaw sometimes you dry out in Bellevue, most days
cadging dollars for sweet wine
by the corner where Plump Blindman shifts from foot to foot showing
his white cane, rattling coins in a white paper cup some weeks
where girding the subway entrance construction saw-horses painted
orange
guard steps underground--- And across the street the NYCE bank
machine cubicle door sign reads
Not in Operation as taxis bump on potholes asphalt mounded at the
crossroad when red lights change green
& I'm on my way uptown to get a CAT scan liver biopsy, visit the
cardiologist,
account for high blood pressure, kidneystones, diabtes, misty eyes &
dysesthesia--feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus head,
anus--Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye--High school youth the inside skin of my thighs was silken smooth tho
nobody touched me there back then--Across town the velvet poet takes Darvon N, Valium nightly, sleeps all
day kicking methadone
between brick walls sixth floor in a room cluttered with collages & gold
dot paper scraps covered
with words: "The whole point seems to be the idea of giving away the
giver."
_____________________
Cmon Pigs of Western Civilization Eat More Grease
Eat Eat more marbled Sirloin more Pork 'n
gravy!
Lard up the dressing, fry chicken in
boiling oil
Carry it dribbling to gray climes, snowed with
salt,
Little lambs covered with mint roast in rack
surrounded by roast potatoes wet with
buttersauce.
Buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva
buttered beef, glistening mountains
of french fries
33

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Stroganoffs in white hot sour cream, chops


soaked in olive oil
surrounded by olives, salty feta cheese, followed
by Roquefort & Bleu & Stilton
thirsty
for wine, beer Cocacola Fanta Champagne
Pepsi retsina arak whiskey vodka
Agh! Watch out heart attack, pop more
angina pills
order a plate of Bratwurst, fried frankfurters,
couple billion Wimpys', MacDonald burger
to the moon & burp!
Salt on those fries! Boil onions
& breaded mushrooms even zucchini
in deep hot Crisco pans
Turkeys die only once,
look nice, next to tall white glasses
sugarmilk & icecream vanilla balls
Strawberrry for sweeter color milkshakes
with hot dogs
Forget greenbeans, everyday a few carrots,
a mini big spoonful of salty rice'll
do, make the plate pretty;
throw in some vinegar pickles, briney sauerkraut
check yr. cholesterol, swallow a pill
and order a sugar Cream donut, pack 2 under
the size 44 belt
Pass out in the vomitorium come back cough
up strands of sandwich still chewing
pastrami at Katz's delicatessen
Back to central Europe & gobble Kielbasa
in Lodz
swallow salami in Munich with beer,Liverwurst
on pumpernickel in Berlin, greasy cheese in
a 3 star Hotel near Syntagma, on white
bread thick-buttered
Set an example for developing nations, salt,
sugar, animal fat, coffee tobacco Schnapps
Drop dead faster! make room for
Chinese guestworkers with alien soybean
curds green cabbage & rice!
Africans Latins with rice beans & calabash can
stay thin & crowd in apartments for working
class foodfreaks
Not like western cuisine rich in protein
34

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

cancer heart attack hypertension sweat


bloated liver & spleen megaly
Diabetes & stroke monuments to carnivorous
civilizations
presently murdering Belfast
Bosnia Cypress Ngorno Karabach Georgia
mailing love letter bombs in
Vienna or setting houses afire
in East Germany have another coffee,
here's a cigar.
And this is a plate of black forest chocolate cake,
you deserve it.
_____________________
Hepatitis Body Itch
Hepatitis
Body itch
nausea
hemorrhage
tender Hemorrhoids
High Blood
Sugar, low
leaden limbs
lassitude
bed rest
shit factory
this corpse
cancer
_____________________
Richard III
Toenail-thickening age on me,
Sugar coating my nerves, leg
muscles lacking blood, weak kneed
Heart insufficient, a thickd valve-wall,
Short of breath, six pounds
overweight with water--logged liver, gut & lungs---up at 4 a.m.
reading Shakespeare.
_____________________
Tuesday Morn
Waking with aching back at base of spin, walked stiffly to kitchen
toilet to pee
more limber returned to unmade bed, sat to write, dreamlike yesterdays
recorded--35

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

From pill dispenser 60 mg Lasix, water pills brings blood to kidney to


relieve heart stressed by lung liquid
one white Lanoxin something further steadies the hart, one brown
Vasotec for high blood pressure
a round blue potassium pill set aside for breakfast
Next another quaff of water for sleep-dried tongue
& check stove water boiling Tibetan medical powders
Quarter tsp. directly in mouth with hot water, morn & night
Next make the bed---pull out mattress, lift up sheets ballooing in air
to settle all four corners,
lay on the orange-diamonded Mexican wool blanket & 3 pillows--push mattress back in place
brush teeth---then prick finger
a drop, Exac- Tech blood sugar teststrip results noted morn & eve
98 today, a little low, swab pinkie with alcohol pad, another sip medicinal tea--replace reading glasses with bifocals, brush teeth at front-room sink
& looking out window, church door passers-by four floors
Below
while noon bells ring, clock ticking on the kitchen wall above the toilet
cabinet---pull chain
worked this morning, flushed a wobbly porcelain throne---needa get
Mike the Super fix pipesBack to front room, brush teeth, bowels begin to stir relief, electric
shave,
brush out gray dust from razor head, wash face, clear throats pale yellow
phlegm, blow nose
in paper towel, stick pinkie end with white cream Borofax drop in
each nostril, wipe mustache, put on teashirt
Vitalis on short hair around bald head, brush back small beard---&
ready for breakfast
in box shorts alone at home, pee again, gray sky out window
Sparrow on courtyard dirt, bare Heaven Trees---yesterdays Times
Half read on the table where
red tulip blossoms dry in a glass jar---Time to crap & finish Exquisite
Corpse---not much came down--flush, climb ladder and fix the water ball, wash ass change shorts and
choose fresh sox--At last its time to eat, clear & safe in the morning---1 P.M.
Salt-free cornflakes from the icebox, brown rice, shredded wheat in a
Chinese bowl
filled thereafter with Rice Dream milk---banana that!
Chew and wonder what to read, answer phone, yes, Peters flown to
Colorado, Hunckes rent is due to patron Hiro--Finish cereal reading yesterdays Times How Mental Patients Sleep
Out of Doors
36

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

Last time, I was walking in the rain, he said, his hands and lips
Quivering slightly from the medication he takes.
Slip a multivitamin pill in my mouth, grab a dish, fruit stewed two
nites ago--Ring Ring the telephone---the office, Bob Rosenthal, Debbie for Jewel
Heart Benefit,
Ysrael Lubavitcher fairy returned from his Paris year
Edith not home, Aunt Honey leaving for Australia next week
she had stroke & splenectomy 1942, long story--David Rome preparing arts program Halifax during Sawangs Shambhala
Confirmation
---Finally 3 P.M. I get dressed go to office couple hours--Phone Robert Frank? Yup, hes out, call early evening. Im free.

37

Miriam Goldstein

December 12, 2014

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