“It’s called hipaa when no one tells.” But I’ll tell you this, Laura Kolbe’s prose poem “Buried Abecedary for Intensive Care” is a poem of these times. It’s not about Covid, but my God — from line to line I am remembering all that we’ve learned to lose these past two years. You must be a legend of two sports like PeeWee Kirkland to write this, and I’m reminded that a poem does its thing when you leave it regretting, just a little bit, learning something you’d swear you already knew.

By Laura Kolbe

It’s called an awakening trial when the pleasanter drugs stop. It’s called bucking
when the lungs and vent jam wing against each other. It’s called clubbing when
the fingernails thicken to spoons from lack of oxygen. It’s called drug fever when
no one knows why. It’s called elevation when the eyes can see where the feet
should be. It’s called fasting when radiology foretells like a speaking goat on the
blood-blue mountain. It’s called gunk when they suction the trach. It’s called
hipaa when no one tells. It’s called inspiration just before the triggered cough. It’s
called jaw thrust when the head is prepared for the macintosh blade. It’s called
kin when they don’t shy speechless from the gunk. And when they do. It’s called
labored when breath outmoans machines. It’s called manual blood pressure
when you hope the machine lied. It’s called nitroprusside when the body is
flushed like a cinema. It’s called octreotide when the blood untucks the napkin
of the diner. It’s called a pan scan when the body won’t tell. It’s called a query
when insurer and the bank won’t tell. Called resuscitation but it isn’t. Called
shock when it started as resuscitation. Called trendelenburg when the feet are
in the air. Called underventilation when the gas is more like the future planet’s.
Called the vagus nerve when touching the neck makes the rhythm stop. Called
weaning when the fentanyl hangs salivary at the chin of the bed. Called xeroform
when the gauze smells like gin and tonic. Called you when it’s a question of error.
Called zeroing out when they reset the machines for the next body.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created Freedom Reads, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. His 2018 article in The New York Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to working lawyer won a National Magazine Award. He is a 2021 MacArthur fellow. Laura Kolbe is an American poet whose debut collection, “Little Pharma” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

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