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Alberta Clipper 5/19/15: “The Land of Atrophy” by David Citino

Were you that kid who checked out the Guinness Book of World Records just to see all of the gross stuff people have done? I was definitely that kid! But though the middle-school appeal is less impressive than the most questionable activities, the Guinness Book of World Records also celebrates people’s great accomplishments.  For example, Balamurali Ambati, an Indian-American student, graduated from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, New York on May 19, 1995, at age seventeen, to become the youngest doctor in history. Dr. Ambati is currently a Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Adjunct Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, and Director of Corneal Research at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

It was a bright, sunny day of 72 degrees in New York City when Dr. Ambati was graduating from medical school, and it was 75 in the sunlight when Prairie Schooner was publishing the Summer 1995 issue ((though only 39 in the early morning hours!). A poem by David Citino titled “The Land of Atrophy” looks at one man’s struggle with his doctor’s diagnosis of cerebral atrophy and concern for finding a way to the grave news with her mother without her blaming herself.  Citino’s piece—where “atrophy” ought not be confused with “a trophy”—neatly stitches together the disparate arts of poetry and medicine.—Dani Kerr

David Citino
The Land of Atrophy

I sit before this keyboard
debating whether to tell my mother
in my dutiful-child letter,
along with granddaughterly triumphs

and devilishly clever meals
I’ve devised for wife and kids—
news to make her beam (so I
can see her beaming as she reads)—

the sentence from the MRI report
the doctor intoned over the phone,
a bone-cold, unthinkable thing:
“There is evidence of cerebral atrophy.”

Twenty-five years an adult; still
I worry. She’d take it personally,
remembering a day she worked
too hard, at or drank some thing

her Louisiana landlady-witch said
would twist the baby’s mind,
a night she loved my father
hard enough to hurt my head.

I could be inventing reasons
more cogent for yes or no
in this debate were my brain
not ceding territory, the M.S.

causing atrophy, meaning what—
my college Greek so far gone—
a lack of food? It is a hunger,
this damn darkness, lesions

like weeds: I’d been promised
a field of light to last a life.
I decided to decide about Mother
next week. I try to find a poem,

conjuring that remote country
of passion and panic I think I own.
Stars come out to stay.
A thing learned never leaves.

A mother is a young woman always,
starlight in her hair styled
from films that never fade,
seams straight on new hose

as she steps into clouds of steam
from a train just arrived
in New Orleans from Cleveland,
the handsome second lieutenant

surprising her from the side
with a breathless embrace,
a fist of perfect fleshy roses.
Wartime, but no one screams.

Such fervent caring, pairings.
There is no distance between
the alluring fictions our memories
can be and brutal truths,

between a poem of starry trains
and a letter of uninjuring love,
bone and the heart’s flesh,
a mind and all it can feel.

Prairie Schooner Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 1995)

The Alberta Clipper is a biweekly gust of history—brushing the dust off of a poem from our archives and situating it in the current events and local Nebraskan weather reports of days gone by. Explore the Alberta Clipper archives here.