Back to Issue Forty-Six

Birthday Poem



And I should be thinking about mortality
but all I see is this unlevel doorframe
molding misaligned with the exam room it sits in
through which waiting patients cower
in chairs spaced six feet apart
to prevent the touch of what fills each our lungs
those alveolar, mucus-lined hallways
inside this glass complex of medical wealth
with one wooden doorframe contorted
as if transplanted from another building
or a carpenter’s signature
to remind us here
of the human hand
on the other side of everything we touch
it’s unseemly
and yes, mortality is too, in a new year of life
but pale blue sky falls slant-wise through glass
cloud shadow passes, plane shadow passes
tangerine peels burn orange in the trash
from my brief 15-minute snack break
sugar and acid bead from a pore
but it’s the agricultural worker applied wax
that glistens, an implication of health
streets were barren on my ride to work
how many people dead in my city
and packing plants to the south won’t buy
glass barriers or masks
for workers that box my citrus
while my clinic is full of sick patients
that woman had post-Covid pericarditis
this man woke breathless from sleep
a wrench twisted taut
the blood’s tender passageway
for years he gave Columbia River fishing tours
tourists flew cross-country to see
sleek salmon shine pink in silver waters
those bodies that fight current in gasp and flit
to kill them
and when the bears came
a tourist refused to leave his fish behind
inexperienced, my heart
transplant patient said in the gurney
his ovular atria severely enlarged
where surgeons stitched
the new heart to the old veins
the tourist hoisted caught salmon on his shoulders
and, against all instructions, ran
but he couldn’t outrun the bear
and he lost his fish
his life returned in a medivac copter
my birthday lesson is
sometimes, you return the fish
to the waters it came from
the world is a hand
on the other side of everything we touch
where a patient wears food-service gloves
and hugs her purse to shrink
in the waiting room away from
the omnipresent, near-invisible pale blue
that slants through glass in time’s new vector
while silver bodies swim over distant mountains
and here is the human-made
imperfect, wooden molding
from elsewhere brought here
if the body is a doorway I must pass through
let where it ends be better than where it began

Paul Hlava Ceballos is the author of banana [ ], winner of the PSA Norma Farber First Book Award, the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His collaborative chapbook, Banana [ ] / we pilot the blood, shares pages with Quenton Baker and Christina Sharpe. He has fellowships from CantoMundo, Artist Trust, and the Poets House. He currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.

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