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Medicine Poem for Holly

April 15, 2010

by Alison Townsend

(For Holly Prado Northup)

All day, as the surgeon
opens your back to repair it —
adjusting each vertebra, unbending
the curvature of pain time
has slowly put there —
I keep a vigil on the couch
with the cats, bending
over my students’ essays
the way you bent over my words
twenty years ago or more,
talking about the importance
of the spine that runs through it all.
So that ever since I have sought
that ladder of notched,
articulated bone, threading
the cord of words through holes
that in a deer’s body
are shaped like hearts,
listening under the surface
of each poem for what connects things,
what backbone holds them up,
both our mothers
dead when we were girls,
what we have had to bend and carry
heavy, lonely, strange, though we
bent and carried anyway,
spine the center, spine the axis,
spine a kind of tree in the body,
column of light we call spunk
or moxie or courage, what I invoke
from half a continent away
as you lie there, being cut open
and then stitched together again,
so that you may stand,
straight and tall as any tree
you choose to call your mother.

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Alison Townsend is the author of two books of poetry, Persephone in America and The Blue Dress, and two limited edition chapbooks. Her poetry and creative nonfiction appear widely, in journals such as Margie, Rattle, Arts & Letters, Fourth Genre and The Southern Review. She has won many awards, including a Pushcart Prize, publication in Best American Poetry, literary fellowships from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Virginia Center for the Arts, the Flume Press Poetry Chapbook Prize and the Crab Orchard/Southern Illinois University Press Open Poetry Competition. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and lives with her husband on four acres of prairie and oak savanna in the farm country outside Madison.

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