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Old Hells I Have Known
Ross Bender, Alum, Staff Member
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 1980

("I'm with you in Rockland")

down Baltimore Avenue, West Philadelphia
grey winter twilight
stone obelisk in the graveyard shrieks
catches my eye and jerks it
jerks my eye to the cemetery

ominous stone finger brooding
over whose dead bodies?

the original indigents in bedlam
the outcasts, the insane, the demented
the paupers and those troubled in mind

and the immigrant veterans
maimed and destroyed in America's unending wars

are there bars on the windows?
the VA hospital squat and sphinxlike
that sphinx of cement and aluminum that bashed open their brains
crowded hazy rooms
the stink of disinfectant and urine
cracked linoleum corridors

all pale green

you light a cigarette from the infernal machine in the wall
oh, "kissing the wall," we called it

are there leather restraints
on your wrists and your ankles
shackled down, spreadeagled on the piss-soaked mattress and
the foreign barbarians playing the needles,
playing the needles on every groove in your brain like an old cracked 78 until
they have satisfied their inquisitorial curiosity
and the Air Force doctor
and that nice couple from the Embassy?

you're not supposed to remember any of it
not even the Japanese smirking lobotomist
in his sadistic reveries

are there still places in the back of your mind which if unbandaged suddenly ooze,
then bleed, even though they hadn't occurred to you, except in nightmares, for years?

are there lovers who have bewitched you, torn you apart, and whom you have devoured
without knowing, beyond caring, just because it hurts?
are there sisters of charity to pluck the lice
from the suppurating grooves of your emotional brain?

the torture was real.
are you too polite to mention it in polite company?
do you surmise that your personal season in hell was good for your fortitude,
that you have gained something, matured, and grown wise from the experience?
was it perhaps not quite as bad as you had imagined?

listen to me, it was real.
yes, they were trying to destroy you,

blot out your mind
they were trying to grind out your reason, turn you into some lackspittle dog
to bark and whine at their whims, to parade on a leash

never mind who—they'll elude you forever

they are evil—never mind why.
you survived...
you lost many years which will never return

in some sense, it's true, you're a cripple

but you woke up this morning and the demons were fled
you woke up this morning clothed in your right mind

—Ross Bender

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