Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller

BooksOctober 28, 2022

The Friday Poem: ‘Terribly Involved’ by Emma Neale

Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller

A new poem by Dunedin poet and novelist Emma Neale.

Terribly Involved

I lay there at night next to our son’s hospital bed
his small, warm hand in mine
while in the next bay along another child cried,
empty chairs sitting vigil at his side.
Safe after surgery, our son slept, if fitfully;
that nine-month-old baby, not at all.

His wail was so cold and desolate
I recalled an image from a long-forgotten film:
a blind arctic fox trotted along ice
that broke and calved so a small floe
carried it into open ocean, alone.

I slipped out to stand by the metal cot
near the baby in his nest of tubes and needles.
Hush, hush, little one, I whispered, hey-hey, little baby.
His cry swelled then fell like snow.
I called for the night nurse, asked,
can I hold the baby when you’re busy, is it safe to touch him?

Best not, she said. The parents might not approve.
Half afraid to hear, I asked, Where are they?
At home, she answered. They’re just not terribly involved.

I looked for shock or judgement
in the slight brackets of her mouth;
wanted to cling to her choice: terribly,
but saw the practised calm of her face
just meant she’d seen far worse.

I thought then of our own first maternity nurse,
the platitudes slipped out, blithe as free brochures:
Babies bring along all the love they need.
News headlines said the reverse.
What about the neglected, I’d asked, the abandoned?
Her reply: Their souls are on a journey, to atone for past lives.

Fictions she told her clients, not feeling they were lies.
Homilies to keep herself coming to her job
where she saw miseries she couldn’t mend
even if she could say, hush, hush, little one;
even if she could, once a fortnight, then once a month
for a designated time, lift each baby up,
give to some, briefly, all the love they’d come to bear.


The Friday Poem is edited by Chris Tse. Submissions are currently closed.

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