At the Home of the Destitute Dying, Calcutta

  • Image by Arlie Zolynas
  • Inside, we meet a young physician,
  • an American from Minnesota, a year
  • out of medical school.
  • When he first came to Mother Teresa’s
  • he always wore his surgical mask,
  • always treated his patients
  • with the latest techniques, tried out
  • the latest drugs, kept a scientist’s
  • detachment, washed
  • his hands carefully.
  • Now his healing treatments are simpler,
  • more basic. He bathes sores,
  • massages thin limbs, holds a cup of water
  • to dry lips — more nurse than doctor.
  • For many it’s too late.
  • Carried in unconscious from the terrible streets,
  • some wake briefly
  • to the only clean place they’ll ever know.
  • Many times, the doctor can only
  • hold a hand or smooth a brow
  • as they shudder out of this life.
  • Unmasked, finally, by so much suffering,
  • the doctor’s face is as clear and open
  • as one of those northern Minnesota mornings.
  • In the presence of such a face, in the presence
  • of the goddess Kali’s dance of death,
  • we feel our own masks loosening, cracking.

Al Zolynas spent his boyhood in Australia before coming to the United States when he was 15. He taught literature and writing at Alliant International University (formerly USIU) for many years. An experienced Zen practitioner, he has recently begun teaching Zen meditation in Escondido and occasionally gives talks on Zen practice at Zen Center San Diego. This poem is from The Same Air, published by Intercultural Studies Forum, Inc., a book that includes 16 poems of India by Zolynas, paintings of India by Netter Worthington, and calligraphs and abstractions by Anwar Dil. A full collection of Zolynas’s poems, The New Physics, originally published by Wesleyan University Press, can be read in its entirety online at capa.conncoll.edu/zolynas.phys.htm. The poem is published by permission.

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