Robert Shuman


(listen to the poem, read by Diane R. Wiener)

Autumn fell on a renegade sun. Sienna skies
burned through the lowering horizon, light thinned
by winter’s press when Wolf limped down village lanes
last week, kill-sleeked fur hung with shards,
hot, hungry breath clouds condensed into metal filings
that fall upon protein sheaths protecting the frail swarms
of electricity shuttling between cortex and sole.
A change for the worse.

I’ll admit it. I was scared, dragged back to the early days
when humbled by illness, I envied the doings of the careless, confident striders among
the well, the healthy Houdinis
unshackled by time who swiveled on bikes with a kid’s ease
counting circles of knee and wheel to race home.
Hedged in, lame I found respite spinning thought
to wrap up motion, keep want contained, and with iron words–
lick wisdom from wounds, we are but moths
dancing innocence on fatal cords of light, caught
in the crossfire– took my invalid stance to steel
against the tremendous velocity of sadness, how it sped
and spread from heart to chest, throat, eye-ponds rippling
as swan wings dip to dark below the surface seal.

I wished to be a caterpillar, vulnerable, but able to hide
in thick larval armor and digest myself until altered,
ready to emerge, imago body covered in hollow scales
reflecting (my god, the color, the form, the light!)
the instinctive jouissance in September of rowdy crowds
of young royals, monarchs and viceroys, mandarin cloaks
splattered with ink, who flock to large bosomed Joe Pye weed,
waft among blossoms as drunks hang at bars,
drink great drafts of pollen, wheel insousciantly among the bees
and tip wings in ritual salute to the migrations so close at hand.

I must find my own route of departure and return,
a personal imaginable bud—cellular ark of creation
in the liquefying pupal universe, a metamorphosis
different from the transfigurations I already undergo,
neurons scarred with sclera, without the dignity
of centaur, minotaur, satyr, sphinx—monsters
with multiple natures not unlike my own.
Yet, butterflies also cast shadows and I say to Wolf, “Come.”

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(listen to the poem, read by Diane R. Wiener)

A peregrine, sacred to Apollo, archer god of plague
and healing, perches in my backyard on a branch
cold stripped bare of autumn flames, unclasps his talons and,
with a king’s ease, lifts to the sky leaving me, cripple man,
below, rapt and tethered to my chair by spastic limbs
that flail on winter’s white skin surely as sly black ice
tricks and trips the feet of you quick walking folk.

As time wastes me and disease sapped powers slip away,
I fear the falcon’s swift stoop. With wary eye and crystal tears,
I wheel up the snow packed ramp to my eyrie and make spells
to keep hooded sadness and savage symptoms at bay from thirty years of weakness,
aches, fevers, fatigue, pain, missed connections between muscle and nerve.

I craft this poem as antidote to the hard nouns of science
and count on one thousand and one tales of transformation
to shield and sustain me as myelin shreds and black holes
tatter my brain. I use myth and metaphor for medicine,
swallow fact and fiction, placebos and pills.

I am Hephaestus, twist footed gimp god, as infant
hurled into the sea by mother, shame ravaged Hera.
On bone thin legs I limp from fire to forge to link fine nets
of shimmering gold. With smithy brawn I hammer swift Achilles’ bronze shield exquisitely thin layered to snap heroes’ spears.
I emboss great cups for Zeus’ own lips to touch and drink
and shape jeweled cane to strut my crooked self.
In gleaming metal mirrors my hobbled beauty glows.

In the moment of telling you of the metamorphosis
of Actaeon, faultlessly astonished at Artemis’ virgin body
untouched by age or illness, wracked by her into quarry
savaged by his own hounds, I am he, kin to monsters
and shape shifters, dreaming in passing of minotaurs and ghosts, utterly changed,
possessed by imagination. Body and mind a labyrinth, being ill, exhaling words, weaving phrases, poetry
my daily bread and blood to fight necessity

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Everyday Athlete

(listen to the poem, read by Diane R. Wiener)

The cliff divers on tour in Boston eighty feet
above the black harbor deep leap up and out
from the museum’s ledge and fall through the sky,
arrows, lean shafts of graceful flesh piercing the sea,
brief feathers of water left behind.

In the garden a black winged eastern tiger swallowtail
dips and dances among the flowers
and dogwood leaves tremble in the blue August breeze.
One chooses to fly in beauty, the other must.

And I, crossing from wheelchair to stair lift,
remember how so long cooped up by illness
my eyes forced freshness upon what seemed
common and old, but yesterday, rolling free
in a new ramped van along the country road
near the rock forever painted “I still love You
Chicken farmer,” we came to a lazy bend
where my elbow at rest on the window
pointed to high hills ranged in the distance
thick with summer greens, and I wept
for the gift of what I forgot I miss.

And now, daydreaming, I mix up my legs,
right foot on the wrong side, left rightly to its right,
and drop two feet
from seat
to floor.

I wait for rescue. I promise be a better diver, to pause
to transfer, to be still to be sure,
a more mindful cripple who often forgets,
for whom eight inches is no less than eighty feet,
and call a perfect dive a day without falls.

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About the Author

Robert Shuman is a 73 year old psychotherapist, poet, author, and painter who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1982. He is now a functional paraplegic and power wheelchair user, after moving from stagger to cane to walker to manual chair. Robert lives with his wife and one set of children and grandchildren; another set lives close by. He resides and continues to work in Marblehead, Massachusetts in the house he grew up in. His publications include the books, Understanding Multiple Sclerosis (Scribners/MacMillan), The Psychology of Chronic Illness (Basic Books), and Dropping Wood, Splitting Water (Gratitude Books).