The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 13 no. 2


Christopher Bursk

Calling in Sick

For Dana Gioia one more time


What’s one day off, I tell myself?
One morning without the metal detector denying
whether anyone in jail has any right
to spiral notebooks and “Ode to the Nightingale,”
the guards rummaging through Keats’ odes for contraband
as if “To Autumn” held some secret drug
only their expert noses could sniff out?
What’s the harm if I take a sick day?
Do I really believe that a second story man can’t survive
without learning how to write a sestina,
that a carjacker’s future would be immeasurably better
if he’d just boil his rage down to the size of a sonnet?
Yesterday Sly shoved his iambic pentameter in my face
like a bill he was expecting immediate payment on.
Steven X’s rhymes feel like fists
slammed down on the table.
If you’re looking for New Formalists, visit any jail.
Repeat offenders respond to “The Art of Losing” right away.
Cocaine addicts don't need much of a stretch of imagination
to get “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
These days Pepe’s cranking out haiku
as if it were perfectly natural for a safecracker to count syllables.
When we applauded him last week, the guards rushed in
as if they suspected Basho
of starting a riot. I could use a day free
of trying to talk kids dressed up as corrections officers
into letting me teach. What’s the big deal
if Tiny doesn’t get to show off his latest palindrome?
Only a month ago this 350 lb father of two jumped a fence
and almost outran two police cars and now he couldn’t get over the fact
that live spelled backwards is evil.
It was as if he’d picked language’s pocket.
Why should I drag myself out of bed and drive thirty miles
just so I can play a small part in helping words
perform yet another of their miracles. That old lie
I tell myself as I take a couple of Tylenol Extra Strength,
pick up my keys and my Keats and head for jail.