On Caryl Pagel’s “The Sick Bed”

Even as my own editor, I consider myself honored and lucky to have the opportunity to write about one of my favorite poems. I wish I could say everything about this poem; but then, there’s the poem, for that. — AS

On Caryl Pagel’s “The Sick Bed”

To whom does a ghost most dearly mean, and when? Is it more intensely known when encountered, or when anticipated but not yet encountered? Are there ghosts of the ill as there are ghosts of the dead? May one sit, in more than a metaphorical manner, with the ghost of a living person, if that person is ill or dying? What about with the ghost of oneself?

For all the countless times I’ve read this poem, quickly or closely, I confess that I can’t yet claim to comprehend with clarity the relationships between the speaker and illness, the speaker and death, illness and death, the speaker and the patient, the patient and death, all these things and ghostliness. Is the speaker ill? Dying? Is she rather attending a patient fallen ill? Is that person dying? I feel the room of the sick bed haunted by all these possibilities, by conditions not yet settled.

The image that best defines the physical space:

            May your light strum from
            a dust torn window

The room itself is spectral. It tenuously admits something ghostly. In this matter at least, my inability to clearly define relationships among things feels like an asset.


A poem of magisterial stillness. Though the narrative circumstance for the speaker at times seems to border on shame, and is always lined entirely with tension, the poem itself evokes a stillness so remote that it might be etched into a different century altogether (and maybe this sentence is falsely opposed: after all, what is more full of tension, more full of deniable potential, than a stillness?).

One source of that stillness is entrapment. Muted, perhaps largely voluntary, the speaker as nurse or vigil-keeper, or the speaker as beset by illness, anyhow in a state of entrapment brought about by illness — that state which obliterates all other concern by force of simple need. For comfort, for relief. Prostrate condition in which one may promise anything at all but may not act.

Words in this poem often are caught between meanings in much the same manner as the vigil-keeper at a death is caught between life and death (as surely as the dying). The poem’s second section evokes this most succinctly: “Gone uncaught / un-lit or flown” contains an almost total negation of motion or its possibility, but in no sense a negation of the conditions of entrapment or stillness. The word “left” in the section’s penultimate line seems to me to occupy such a space between meanings.


There is an aspect of reading in contemporary poetry that I’ve struggled to articulate: I don’t know how to explain the satisfaction I take in sitting with a line, or a pattern of line break, that suggests, but doesn’t force, ambiguities. Consider this line, from the first section of “The Sick Bed”:

            What made me mean body

Although the line seems in most readings to pick up on something unfinished in the lines that precede it, and there is a certain ambiguity therefore already in the line as a physical and rhetorical space, I’m most concerned with the ambiguity in the sentence itself, located in the word “mean.”

If taken literally as it seems to be meant, that is, as a probing reconsideration of something the speaker said (or anyhow felt or thought) in a past moment, the line ends the poem’s first section on a rich note of consternation — one is as moving sparingly through a room, pausing at the window but not really looking out, astonished by the capability of the self for error.

On the other hand, there’s no keeping entirely out the connotation of lowliness or basicness in the word “mean.” The implications of a full acceptance of that connotation are striking, as the “you” and “he” that have dominated the section (I take it someone has died, though it isn’t certain) then serve a purpose additional to what they already have, as a prod for the speaker to consider her own bodily meanness. Which taking Ammons into account, I might then consider either as a reflection on mortality and smallness, or as the root of a sort of awe forthcoming in the particularity of the lowly — a sort of awe that might easily be seen as arising from a death or the depths of an illness.

Which double root is the point, to an extent: attempts to settle ambiguity in one direction or another lead to other ambiguities. The syntax of this poem — of many poems, but of this — is wonderfully full of decisions that can’t be made definitively. When considered against the stanza (for instance, the many ways words might organize into sentence in the passage “may your head fall empty / illness find / approaching graveness” — the line breaks guide choice to an extent, but they don’t entirely close off the possibility of reading syntax as “empty illness” and “find approaching”) or section or poem as a whole, however, what I find I encounter is not a poem, but a poem and several ghosts of a poem, each of them whole.

Does it go at all beyond the pride of recognition to consider questions of this sort? Is it ultimately academic? Egotistical? I think it isn’t, though clearly I have enough doubts that I’m willing to list them.

Tell me, though — does this sort of pausing, considering, though it ultimately leave one uncertain, feel worthwhile to you, valuable? It’s nothing new I’m describing: if you’ve read much poetry, you’ve considered this yourself much as I have here. Ambiguity (of one sort or another) is a defining characteristic of most contemporary poetry worth reading. But in and of itself, does it make a given poem one worth reading? Can it carry poems, for you, like it carries this poem, for me?


Or maybe what carries this poem, for me, is not ambiguity at all. Maybe it’s the moments of absolute clarity that punctuate the poem’s later sections:

            That day became
            a broken ear

for instance, or:

            Prayer shuts one from page


            Exception: unseen

            Please let me leave unseen

These statements are as perilously balanced, as artfully constructed, as the moments of ambiguity I’ve found such richness in; but they have a character of desperation to them that even the stillness of ambiguity can’t quite attain. What’s released from a state of betweenness must emerge with the urgency that drove it forth still somehow attendant upon it? I can’t commit to something like that.

But then again, what’s more urgent than a ghost?


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