Michael Van Walleghen

July 25, 2016 Van Walleghen Michael


“Our minds confer body even on nothingness.”

Between Life and Dark

                                       —Eugenio Montale


The bedside window is cracked a little, for fresh air presumably, and a lopsided venetian blind bangs softly in a periodic breeze. Between the windowsill and the crooked blind, bright moments of sunlight leap nervously into the room…then disappear again. I’m only an hour old and had no language for any of this, of course—although, in retrospect, it might have been my guardian angel I was looking at, practicing his alacrity no doubt, should there be any future need to leap to my rescue at the speed of light.


But what was I to make of the bald nurse, clumping into the birthing room just then, wearing a four–inch orthopedic shoe? If callow intuition is worth anything, I have to believe that whatever pops out of the primordial vacuum at the hour of birth remains exactly what it is at the moment of first perception—and insofar as this was the first nurse I’d ever seen, why shouldn’t she be bald? And likewise, why shouldn’t it be also true that at the precise moment of my miracle birth every nurse in the universe might instantly find herself wearing an orthopedic shoe?


Anyway, there I was, barely an hour old, and already I’d invented the orthopedic shoe. Pretty soon, I will have invented the breast—and a few days after that, my mother too. And then there follows a kind of snowball accumulation of objects too numerous to mention—and some that should probably remain safely in the dark forever…that obese, wobbly shadow in the bright room across the courtyard for instance.


From my perspective, limited as it was to the scant three inches between the ticking blind and the windowsill, I could just barely make out an eye or a tooth maybe… But if I narrowed my own eyes and looked a little sideways, the figure inescapably resolved itself into a large bear in a wheelchair. And since my feckless guardian angel had usually hidden himself in the closet by then, I was glad to have that clumsy nurse close by for company—useless as she later proved herself to be. But against all odds, after one hysterical alarm or another, we managed to become pretty close pals.


We had a lot in common after all… Not only was I as bald as she was, but as I found out soon enough, so precariously balanced that it was almost a year before I could walk five feet without falling down. And for five years after that, I don’t think I could have escaped a bear in a wheelchair with a head–start the length of a football field—I doubt if she could either. We were sitting ducks— although I didn’t know it.


I was so dumb in those days, I couldn’t even put that hungry snuffling in the hallway together with the light going out across the courtyard. I completely missed the connection. Being perfectly what I was was all I cared about. I don’t think I could have imagined much of anything beyond that—like having a soul, for instance. One might say I was only half human in those first few days—or something even less, watching the sunlight trembling on the wall, and snuffling at my mother’s breast. The nurse meanwhile, patting herself on the head as if she were putting out a fire, or a tongue of flame descended from the Holy Ghost.


I didn’t get that little charade either until my first communion…my poor, crippled soul limping with me to the communion rail—and the rest of my life, like a squealing, teddy–bear pull–toy, wobbling close behind us, catching up.

Michael Van Walleghen is the author of six books of poetry, the most recent of which is In the Black Window: Poems New and Selected (2004). He has a Borestone Poetry Award and a Pushcart prize. His second book, More Trouble with the Obvious (1981), was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. He has been the recipient of two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships and several grants from the Illinois Arts Council. He is recently retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign