By Katie Hartsock
Like a criminal it had its reasons
and eluded understanding
for far too long. Antibiotics, and a dairy
and soy intolerance, made the baby’s stool
so frequent and acidic it burned his flesh
just the same as flames would have burned.
The doctor used words like corrosive and caustic.
Bent over him weeping, I thought we made
a scene somehow left out of the Inferno:
the man whose mid-life crisis knocked him down
to hell’s own gastric juices, and his guide—
a poet from two thousand Roman years
ago, whose tomb Italian teenagers still
get arrested for breaking into, to get it on—
descend a hill tapestried with fire
to a field like a blistered hide, where hiss
the bile ponds and their run-off streams of scum
that excoriate whatever they touch. Now
they see me, wilted over the changing table
at the mouth of my fountainless cave, my grief
a record skipping beneath its needle:
as soon as I get a new diaper on, the child shits
and shrieks again. And clear-complexioned goblins
see to it that my diaper stash and all the stuff
I marshal to protect his skin—Maalox, Calmoseptine,
aloe vera and Vaseline, topped with corn starch—
remain eternally replenished. Dante asks,
“Oh mother, with your birdnest hair and crooked
back, what have you done to earn your place
in these . . .” And then he still talks for a while.
They wait for my reply, the red depths
of my monologue. While they watch me fold
the diaper, the wickedly necessary diaper,
I speak, briefly, about tenderness.
Pythia crossing the Styx
Oil paint, silver leaf, adhesive, on printed paper
From the series 'The Dying Pythia'