Poet's Choice By Mary Karr

By Mary Karr
Sunday, October 19, 2008

In this election year when the cost of health care looms large for most of us, anybody would profit from reading this sad lyric by Roger Fanning, an only child who nursed both parents to their expensive graves within a single year.

Hospital Sidewalk

In this hospital they itemize the cost

of a person's deathbed down to the last aspirin.

They charge twenty-five dollars for fake lamb's wool

on which, after surgery, patients bleed.

People die with eyes fixed on digital clocks

which flip numbers every minute, dollar signs flying.

So adroit is Fanning's wizardry with the vernacular that this sounds almost ordinary at first glance, like a complaint overheard on the bus. But listen to the artistry here: the first two lines with their hissing "s" sounds (itemiZe, person'S, laSt aSpirin), and the imagery -- "fake lamb's wool" (like the redemption of a false "lamb" or Christ), the eyes fixed on digital clocks, the sleight-of-hand in which numbers morph into dollar signs.

In the second stanza of this gem, Fanning goes from general gripes to a specific hospital where he's paying the bill and is inconsolable:

The sidewalk out front has blades of grass

shooting up through cracks. A ladybug

(not much bigger than a decimal point) could climb

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