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Psych Ward

March 22, 2010

by Dorianne Laux

It was yellow linoleum, the kind that curls up at the corner,
so if you’re sleepy and still in your hospital robe and slippers
or watching (while walking) the TV hung from an iron armature,
chains hanging down in loose smiles over the common room,
you might trip. We stepped over the lifted, glue-battered lip
each time we went for the corner shot nearest the wall, an ass
bumped up against the back of the couch, brushing a banded
or bandaged wrist aside with a thigh. The trick was to hold
the cue at a 45 degree angle to the table and not nick the felt.

And so what could we do between med times but play pool
on the table with one short leg and a bald patch, someone
fresh from an ice bath holding up a wall, head wrapped
in a towel, mumbling when one ball kissed another
which scooted over to kiss a third which plugged
the 8 ball in? We were not friends. We were zombies
who passed the salt if we felt like it, if we weren’t too busy
shoveling the muddy pudding into our mouths. You didn’t
look across the table and think “That’s my sister” or see
the boy sitting in his own shit and offer a hand. You stayed
as far away from each other as was humanly possible
in that place, that impossible place.

You nodded politely to the man with snot tangled in his beard,
to the woman with eyes like burned out bulbs who blubbered
all night, having full-blown conversations with her family—
you could tell their voices apart in the dark. Someone always got
“agitated”, stomping around the perimeter of the day room,
pounding a fist into a thigh, and though they made us cut
our gray meat with plastic knives and doled out matches
one at a time, the nurses somehow trusted us with those
lethal weapons, nitrocellulose balls and rock-maple sticks.

And we never once hurled one at a fellow crazy, cracking open
the hell-bowl of a skull, never shoved a rod into a bile-filled gut.
When they let us play pool we felt normal: the smoke, the faux
gilt rack, the soft click when the powdered tip hit the cue ball’s
spotted white eye, the wagering with cigarettes, the swaggering,
spitting and lying, quietly admiring the smooth bank shot
that cleanly anticipated the table’s wobbly tilt.


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Dorianne Laux (website) spent a short time in her teens at a mental hospital in San Diego, California called Mesa Vista. She learned to play pool on the table with one short leg and consequently cannot play pool on a regulation table. Otherwise, she’d be quite a shark. She also published her first poem in the Mesa Vista newsletter put out by the teenaged patients. Author of four books of poetry, the latest of which is Facts about the Moon, she’s a Professor at North Carolina State State where she teaches poetry to young people.

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  1. March 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Powerful, full of exact perfection details: “agitated’, muddy pudding, that impossible place. A sobering poem that gets me in the gut.

  2. Maureen Jivani
    March 22, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Captured briliantly and brilliantly captured!

  3. Cindy Stewart-Rinier
    March 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    The language itself is agitated, barely containing itself. “The trick was to hold” and “not nick the felt” and “the table’s wobbly tilt.” Brilliant does seem like the word.

  4. jessiecarty
    April 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    the power of the word thigh being repeated really stood out for me but that may be because i was working on a poem titled Thunder Thighs today…

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