ALS

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Waters
Third Place, January 2017
Judged by Sara Clancy


His left arm hangs at his side
like the pendulum
of an unwound clock.
The right is getting weaker.
He’s breathing just fine,
but gets short of breath
because he knows the prognosis.
He takes a Xanax.
Legs turning to pillars of salt,
his wife worries he’ll fall again.
She tried to lift him above
his protests. He’s as much dead
weight as the left arm he moves
like a ventriloquist’s dummy,
or cuddles like a dead pet
he can’t part with.
I take him a wide velcro belt
that has a strap
for the upper arm and one
for the forearm. Otherwise,
it will flop around like furniture
on a ship in rough seas.
She wants to keep him home
as long as possible, her pain
as numbing as his disease.
I can only offer him meds,
a handshake to the remaining
semi-workable arm as I’m leaving,
and the hope I’ll come again
next week. His heart and mind
untouched by the glacier
moving through his body,
one day, buried alive.


So interesting how this poem deftly intersperses familiar images with the matter of fact language of medicine and decline. The effect is both compelling and horrifying; a pillar of salt, a ventriloquist dummy to describe a limb that can no longer move, the disease itself, a moving glacier. As I read and reread these poems, I kept returning to this one, clearly seeing this man locked into the progression of his illness with his Xanax, his worried wife and his arm velcroed in place. --Sara Clancy

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