Step, and step, and step, and step,
down to the basement, always the basement,
kicking salt-slush off boots against every stair,
the basement overheated, overlit like an incubator,
with skittery sparrows in the lobby, lounging watchful,
then the move to the meeting-room,
pushing chairs into circles, lopsided
as eggs—Who’s first? Who will be first?
Who says their first name first,
a singleminded bio, turkey-buzzard-scenting the first decay
and circling, in grandiose thermal soars, around the same story
with different dates, the same—well, meat of the story.
Except for LaShonda, this time, this week,
(not-me, not mine, not my turn, not this week) who hasn’t
showered for days, dark black skin shining,
black eyes shining; her jaw clenches and un-
as she spits out her not-her words like sunflower seeds,
like ice chips, spits them out fast and loud.
She’s gone off Depakote, or else it’s stopped working,
and she twists on her scarf making a noose of cashmere.
The rest is predictable as snow.
Hasn’t seen doctor, six weeks. Hasn’t been to group.
Food stamps cut. Wants to go back to school. Irritable. To paint. Play piano.
The new girl—Jackie? Janet? Jana? Something with a J—
slips out halfway through, cringing at LaShonda’s ice-glare
ostensibly for a bathroom break, but never comes back.
But there’s nowhere else to go; she’ll have to come back:
no insurance for a therapist: it’s a box with no exit.
LaShonda has no insurance either; is too manic to care
& mouth for mouth we each
try to match her, breathe warm live! into the cold
flat hard breathless icicled shiny mania. If there are three things
you can’t do, pick one and do that. Live first;
food, meds, shelter, therapy, clothing. Swallow
first, you have to swallow. It’ll slow down
your life enough.
This sickness makes all things
an extension of the sick self. Anything
is symptom, is cold hunger: the pigeons a confusion in the park,
your mother’s house, money, a missed appointment, a failure
ever to be certain what it all adds up to, a walk on ice
without slipping, a sleep with no dreams,
a thought so unconnected to any other thought ever, a memory
of every snowman ever built, vertigo
looking out someone’s bedroom window, breath condensing
on the glass and receding, over and over, a daydream
in the bathtub of how much warmer
blood might be than bubblebath. We can’t get warm
except for this. We know all of us know
we have no insurance; ourselves and the imperfect circle
of hardass metal folding chairs
and the us: soft brain-shells that sit in them
with all the same story and only one name
we all know LaShonda’s mania,
the new girl’s excuses and exit:
we know what all we have to give up, to give in, to give to,
to pour salt on shiny snow angels, to steal the cold
that allows such attractive sharp edges of wings:
sickness a once-a-week familyhood; the willingness
to step, to step down again, down again into the basement,
open our mouths like warmed nourishing mush,
like mother and baby blue bird,
eating and feeding each other pre-chewed, predigested.