Friday, February 13, 2004

Next To The Heart, The Spleen Is Probably The Most Literary Organ

Just ask Baudelaire.

I ventured into the local pharmacy to buy a Valentine's card for DK last night after work. I was overcome by spleen: ill temper, pique, low spirits, melancholia. It was fueled by the unnatural and fluorescent-bright onslaught of the color red, and a father yammering in an over-loud, impatient voice to a gaggle of unpleasant children. Who in turn were clamoring for stuff. My eyes and ears were bleeding.

All the way home, our local NPR station had been interrupting the news with its yearly loathsome Valentine's Day fund raiser. That's when they lard their usual chipper "give us cash" tirades with pitches for roses and chocolates, snippets of bad rock and roll tunes about love, and excerpts of dialogue culled from romantic comedies. It's like being force fed upscale treacle.

I would like to replace the Valentine heart with the Valentine spleen.

I confess that I find the word "spleen," (and, by extension, the organ) amusing in a Monty Pythonesque sort of way. This is probably an attitude unbecoming an internist. Nonetheless, here are my translations of and variations on Baudelaire's "Spleen" poems. (They appeared in JAMA a few years ago.)

Splenic Translations And Variations
(after Baudelaire)


January, pissed off at the whole city,
dumps an urn full of icy shadows
onto the pale residents of the local graveyard.
Death splatters far into the foggy outskirts.

My cat scours the cold tiles for a bed.
Her thin, mangy body shakes and shakes.
The soul of an old poet meanders in the gutters
with the sad voice of a shivering ghost.

A bell tolls in self-pity, as a hissing log
accompanies, in falsetto, the snot-nosed pendulum,
and, in a deck reeking of stale perfumes,

the poisonous legacy of a dropsical old hag,
the suave jack of hearts and the queen of spades,
gossip wickedly about their old love affairs.


Mr Jones won’t rest till he can piss
thundering urnsfull, sans hesiter;
thinks no one has a prostate big as his.
He must call me twenty times a day.

Ms Kat’s still cold and tired. She must be Swiss.
Her thyroid’s fine. I wish she’d go away.
Old Mr Poet rambles. Likes to kiss.
Arrested once again ? What can I say.

Plus Mrs Bell feels sorry for herself.
She has a cold. She’s nasal as an elf.
I’m choking on her cheap Woolworth’s perfume.

Increase their diuretics. Seduce your nurse.
It’s only gonorrhea, could be worse.
Death flirts with Love in the packed waiting room.


I have more memories than a thousand year old man.

A huge desk, drawers stuffed with balance sheets,
poems, love letters, subpoenas, romances,
and thick locks of hair rolled up in receipts,
hides fewer secrets than my sad skull.
It’s a pyramid, an immense cavern
that holds more dead than a common grave.
-- I am the cemetary even the moon hates
where, like remorse, long worms drag themselves along
and always attack my most dear dearly departed first.
I am an old boudoir full of threadbare roses.
Here lies a jumble of loud, outdated styles.
And piteous pastels and exsanguinated landscapes
inhale in solitude the fumes of uncorked flasks.
Nothing rivals the length of these limping days
when, under the heavy flakes of years,
boredom, fruit of a dismal indifference,
assumes the proportions of immortality.
-- From now on, life, you’re nothing but
granite menaced on all sides by frightful waves,
nodding off in the depths of a foggy Sahara;
an old sphinx ignored by a indifferent world,
left off the maps, and to whose ferocious hilarity
only the rays of a sinking sun are audience.


Nothing shocks me. Nope. I’ve seen it all.

All humours, blood, bile, lymph and melanchol.
Every complaint from scurf to fallen womb,
lies pickled in my brain as in a tomb
between commodes and wooden legs and phlegm.
The almost-dead are plucking at my hem
as I pass among them on my morning rounds.
-- Others snooze inside the charnel grounds
of memory, that moonless helminths’ hill
strewn with all the latest useless pills.
I am a sickroom full of bloody noses.
The body seems to sigh, then decomposes.
A Norman Rockwell print sags on my wall:
young Johnnie huffing isopropanol.
What’s longer than a clinic afternoon ?
Patients blizzard through consulting rooms;
boredom, bastard son of apathy,
pins me, wriggling, to mortality.

-- Adieu, compassion ! I pronounce you dead,
a chunk of rock besieged by overfed
dyspepsiacs and ever-hungry ghosts.
I’m an old sawbones, despised by HMOs,
AMA-reject, whose midnight guffaws fall
flat, face down, in the empty clinic hall.


I am like the king of a rainy country,
rich, but impotent, young and nevertheless ancient,
who, contemptuous of his brown-nosing tutors,
bores himself with his dogs and his other beasts.
Nothing amuses him, neither gamebird nor falcon,
not even the subjects dying beneath his balcony.
The poet laureate’s most grotesque ditty
doesn’t animate the features of this cruel invalid.
His fleur-de-lised bed has become his tomb,
and even the courtesans, to whom every prince is fair,
can no longer find lingerie exotic enough
to pull a leer from this young skeleton.
The wise man who fashioned him from gold
never could refine out all the impurities,
and not even an old-fashioned Roman blood bath, the sort
about which all potentates, in their dotage, reminisce,
could rewarm that dazed cadaver
in whom, instead of blood, the green water of Lethe flows.


I’m like the god with features bright as gold
(well-paid, powerless, infantile and old)
who scorns his white-coat colleagues’ obsequies,
preferring to consort with poetries.
Nothing amuses him, not gout or flu,
not wards of patients requiring a Code Blue.
The wildest case report, replete with gore
and exotic bacteria: quelle bore.
His diploma’ed office has become a tomb.
Cartoon nurses couldn’t pierce his gloom
with white starched bosoms, adulating sighs,
and nylon skirts ascending sleek, white thighs.
Mentors plucked him squalling from pre-med.
He should have stuck with English Lit instead.
No brilliant diagnosis or great case
can animate his masked and stony face --
Leptospirosis cannot wake the dead.
(He quaffs from River Lethe, takes to bed.)


When the cast iron sky weighs like a lid
on a mind in the thrall of boredom,
and when, from the whole surrounding horizon,
a black day lifts, sadder than any night;

when the world has become a damp dungeon
in which hope, like a bat, flits to and fro
brushing the walls with its timid wings
and knocking its head on rotten ceilings;

when the rain, splaying its long trails,
imitates the bars of a vast prison,
and a silent populace of squalid spiders
comes to root its filaments deep into our brain,

the clocks leap with a sudden fury
and launch a frightening clamor skyward,
wandering, exiled spirits
apply themselves afresh to their relentless whining

-- and long hearses, to neither drumbeat nor dirge,
file slowly through me: Hope,
vanquished, weeps, and atrocious anguish, that despot,
hangs its black drape over my bent neck.


Ennui is small and has a child-proof lid.
Its skull collapses on each new-born thought.
Its belt’s cinched far beyond the tightest fit.
Its life’s in acronymn on microdot.

Its world’s a hospital, all curtains drawn.
They barely flutter with departing breath.
Its ceilings spatter red when Doctor John
nicks the carotid. Oops. That’s one for Death.

Ennui is where a million IV lines
surround you like a clutch of prison bars,
and EEG wires’ spidery designs
burn into your brain. You’re seeing stars ?

But, listen -- a whole wardfull of afflicted
has risen up and seized the doctors’ lounge.
Summon Psych ! They have to be evicted !
A blast of Thorazine will knock them down !

That’s better. Now secure the coffin lids.
I mean tuck them in. Tee hee. A slip.
And when we’ve pinned them down on our fine grids,
we’ll twirl our black, silk scarves, and then we’ll nip.

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