Lit Week Literature NOC Poetry

NOC Poetry: “Christopher Reeve’s Filipino Nurse”

Years ago, before we knew what shape Secret Identities was going to take, I asked my friend and former professor, the poet Luisa Igloria, to submit a poem about Asian Americans and superheroes. She sent me this beautiful persona poem from the point of view of Dolly Arro, the nurse who cared for Christopher Reeve for so many years until he died in 2004.

Though we ended up not using it in Secret Identities, Luisa eventually published the poem in the online literary magazine SWEET in 2008. I’ve asked Luisa if we could reprint her poem here on The Nerds of Color for Lit Week. The poem is after the jump, and Luisa’s new book, The Saints of Streets, is available now.

CHRISTOPHER REEVE’S FILIPINO NURSE

        “Never turn your wife into your nurse or your mother.”
        — Christopher Reeve, in an interview with Ralph Hamman

1. The Premonition

Did he listen when I handed him his glass
of orange juice and vitamins
the morning of that fateful ride?
“That’s very interesting, Merlinda,
but save your grandmother’s ghost
stories for the kids at bedtime.”
I tried to tell him of my dream,
the death’s head a horse rearing up
on its hind legs. A snake
shedding its spandex, its spine
a bleached carcanet.
A handful of teeth, broken
to rattle like amulets.

2. The Fallen Hero

He calls every attendant “Nurse”.
Twenty-four hours a day we lift
and bathe, dress and feed, rotate, guide
catheters, unburden into bedpans
this man who flew across our screens,
dark cowlick never once moving
despite speeds to make time
turn upon itself, dam waters fall
back from point of breaking—
smile sweet as a charm
or an “S” emblazoned on a field
of blue and gold. And of course
the lucky girl gets the bit, emerges
from where she’s buried under
shitloads of highway runoff.
No rags to riches story, but equally
intriguing: a nothing, a brown speck
set adrift from an unfamiliar
planet or archipelago. It lands
with barely any luggage in the middle
of the night, adopts the wholesome
speech of mid-America and goes to temp
while waiting for the big time
in the Big Manzanas: Gotham,
New York, Amsterdam, Rome, Dubai—
wherever it is, we’ve all been there.  
(That’s shorthand for unarchived work.)
Cosmetics are key: I’ll apply a light
foundation to the pallid, waxy skin,
pencil in the brows that are
no longer even there.
The photographs will want
even a shadow of the myth,
arranged by women’s hands.

3. The Current through Her Arms

The surgeons sliced a tendon
of the fractured neck to better
reattach head to body.
Every now and then he has
a little spasm— he says it happens
when the body tries to send
messages to the brain.    

I thought of coaches on midnight trains,
of the vague destinations of refugees,
the plaintive songs harmonicas breathed
before bodies hurtled out of cars
and into the hazy, unlit margins
of sleeping towns.

One evening, he shook
as he napped in the hermetic silence
riddled only by the hum of digital
instruments. I bent to straighten
his head, wondering if he ever
again dreamed of power, the mind
shining its steady miner’s light ahead
before the explosive thrust
into a core of basalt…

When I stepped away, my fingertips
glowed coral— as if, beneath the surface
of my labors, some molten self
had stirred awake, remembering
its own dreams of flying.