Like death, which follows all, they grow more common,
The ill, gestating pain within their bodies,
Turned in upon it, marking down its savor
With an alacrity for shades of difference
That no one else can sense or listen to,
But merely watch as crooked fingers press,
Impatient, trying not to be unkind,
Until, at last, all trails off with a sound
Defying speech with its unfinished ending.

We see them tend each symptom like a world
Whose axis is pure pain; the library
Is full of invalids who scour pages
Of glossy magazines in search of remedies;
And others slump on stationary bikes
At the Y, tan and muscle-bound young men
Flexing obliviously about them, while
Their hollowed eyes stare up at televisions
Where smiling doctors chat of all they know.

The weight of weakness hangs from every hour
And all the future’s qualified by phrases
Suggesting that, if it should really come,
It will be on the far side of a passage
Through a cold room, where one sits gowned in paper.
But then—strange thing—for those who do get better
(And almost all will, for a little while)
They leave behind not only all their studies
But even memory of what they’ve suffered.

Perhaps that’s why Montaigne seems so unusual:
His willing resolution to turn inward
And notate with a delicate finesse
The disposition of each bodily organ,
And the effects of tasting fish or flesh,
The tour about his tongue of some old vintage,
Indifferent to the stone lodged in his groin,
Burning, its pressure building, unrelieved,
And unrelieving—ever—till the end.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 26
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