Passing the Ghost of John Berryman en route to the 4th floor of Martin Army Hospital
By: Adam Bender
what floor I’m
going to based on
my sweaty, anxious appearance of
a wild-eyed candy man lost in a world
of sweets and sours and all of the eyes in
the elevator stare when I press four, so I take the stairs
no longer my
body’s. They shake like
without zills, I can’t stop them,
just like the thoughts, images, words, and
that continual hum-hum-humming inside my mind
like a design-flawed train propelled by a drunken conductor
who said fuck the last stop we’re off the goddamned rails anyhow
are lonely, forgotten,
and wanting to be warmed by
connection and it’s only the lunatics that
don’t use elevators these days, but the stairs don’t mind
because they are unjudging and don’t care what floor of the
hospital I came from or which one I’m going to and sometimes when
I’m going up the stairs I pass a fellow haunted ghost coming down, memory-pale
with medicatedly-still hands and we silently share knowing nods while smiling mimicked normalcy
Adam Bender is a graduate of Auburn University where he currently serves as an assistant editor for The Southern Humanities Review and is actively seeking enrollment into an MFA program. After spending 21 years in the US Army, he retired in Alabama where he resides with his wife of 24 years and an eighty-five-pound lapdog. Most importantly, he is the proud grandfather of a 15-month-old firebrand named Paislee Lynn Bender and believes that the active ingredient in Magic Erasers is in fact, magic.
"Veteran suicide has been at an all-time high for the last few years which spurred the Department of Defense to make mental health a priority in its service branches. For this endeavor to be successful, a cultural shift was needed where seeking help was no longer regarded as a weakness or detrimental to one’s career. For the most part, the endeavor has been successful, but there is still some reluctance to seek help based on the desire to not appear “weak.” I was one such soldier, though now retired, and this poem encapsulates one of my experiences of visiting a Mental Health Outpatient Clinic. In the poem I had hoped to demonstrate a recognizable need for help, the shame we can feel in doing so, and the unspoken camaraderie between those of us who choose to confront our demons.
As to the form of the poem, I wanted it to resemble stairs that would lead the eye, but it also helps to compartmentalize the internal and external conflicts taking place. The left side of the page (stanzas one and three) is most of the external action, while the right side holds the internal. Punctuation is used sparingly to control the pacing of the poem with only a few complete stops to allow the speaker a momentary respite to “catch his breath” before continuing.
The title was important to me. It serves as a key to really understanding the poem. John Berryman’s Dream Songs is one of the most prolific works I have ever read and his struggles with mental health are well documented. Like some of Berryman’s work, this poem is a confessional and I wanted to show my respect to his work for giving me the courage and inspiration to write it. In some of the previous drafts, the “haunted ghost” coming down the stairs was not mentioned, and I toyed with the notion of allowing the tone of the poem to act as the ghost. In the end I decided against it because I did not want a ghost in the title without a ghost appearing in the lines. It is one of the few poems I have written where the lines were created after the title instead of vice versa."