Old handwriting on shabby pages
Photo: Getty Images

BooksNovember 27, 2020

The Friday Poem: Code name by Oscar Upperton

Old handwriting on shabby pages
Photo: Getty Images

A new poem by Oscar Upperton from a sequence about Dr James Barry, a 19th century surgeon whose gender has been the subject of much debate.

Code name

Young Barry begins the study of medicine, under a new name and in a new town.

A name needs rinsing out, once in a while.

I live in a river town now, a Scotch town

and water runs through my house on April mornings.

It isn’t really my house, but my real name

I wrote in the book by the door. The landlady watched my hand.

I think she thought I was illiterate; small pleasure

in proving her incorrect. My code name is a real name

that anagrams to itself. Each letter denotes a number,

which denotes a house in my home town.

The landlady asks if I’ll need meals, and I say I do.

The landlady asks if I’ll give her trouble, and I say I will not.

My window looks across the street into another window,

where a woman teaches people to dance. Some early evenings I see graceful backs

and necks turning in practice. I put my head down

and write the names of neck bones onto paper.

To sketch the bones of the hand requires the use of a hand,

and to remember the names of the three membranes surrounding the brain

requires functioning dura mater, arachnoid mater, pia mater

(tough mother, spider mother, tender mother).

Three mothers, bones in my hands, a stack of books beside my bed.

The tenant across the hall from me does not leave his room

and a bad smell emanates from his door. I sniff,

trying to diagnose. I observe my landlady’s gait and track

the progression of her rheumatism. I open the door to the hall

(tough mother) and then the door to the stairs

(spider mother) and then the door to my room

(tender mother) and sleep, sleep. My name dreams

of writing itself over the tidy buildings of the town.

What will I do with this life, that I have in honesty

part-stolen? Will I run through houses like an April flood?

Will I keep my membranous brain intact, the names of bones

stacked like books within it?


The Friday Poem is edited by Chris Tse. Submissions are currently closed and will open again in early 2021.

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