Walnut Shells and BRCA

If I was going to write a poem,
It would be–
It probably shouldn’t be–
About how much I hate the dog.
The way he licks his paws for hours
In the middle of the night
When the baby is no longer crying.

It also wouldn’t be–or describe
The way the woman at the homeless shelter said
Excuse me! when I was standing in her way.
Her eyes blazed with something specific like:

Don’t feel too self-congratulatory you
Stuck-up white bitch.
This is my life every day.
If your life is easy, you’re in the way.

Which is true.

If I was going to write a poem,
It would never contain some clever allusion
About spending the morning putting a comma in
And the afternoon taking it out.
Nothing about the cruelest month or petals and
metro stations. No white chickens.
In fact, its likely I’d exclude commas, either by
Accident or on purpose,
In homage to a former life spent grading freshmen paper’s
On Aristotle’s Conception of Happiness by
Accounting Majors in Upstate New York.

Maybe I would include
Something about a patient I saw, who had breast cancer three years ago,
When she was 32.

She feels like a shell, she said.
A walnut shell.

I don’t know if she said “walnut,”
But picture a walnut shell.
She has no ovaries now, no uterus, no sex drive.
No car or cell phone either, so she misses
And gets called “noncompliant” by the nurses.
But she knows what they think of her.
And she never cries.

Except when she did.
Because she can’t take it anymore.
And also, her husband wants to have sex.

I cried too.
Maybe I shouldn’t have.

Any poem I’d write would not play with the
Subjunctive or conditional tenses
Or be annoyingly self-aware or rife with repetition
Or other artificial machinations.
Because a poem should not mean, but be,

If I were to write a poem, I’d only describe
The dog’s wet eyes when they droop in self-pity
As we play with the baby and shoo-shoo-shoo him
Away down the hall, so he can coat the fancy wool rugs
In thick, white tufts of hair
That the baby likes to dip her bagel in.

Jazmine Gabriel began working as an oncology genetic counselor in 2017. Previously, she worked as a lecturer in philosophy. She publishes on topics in genetics and ethics and shows paintings locally.

About the Poem

“The poem stems from life between moments at home and at work. I wrote the first draft at the kitchen counter in jest. I typed it up the next morning at work and kept fiddling with it in between seeing patients.”

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14 thoughts on “Walnut Shells and BRCA”

  1. On point!
    Last line had me laughing! So true!
    Reminded me of the time I put cheerios in the toilet bowl and asked my son Alex to aim for them during toilet training! He hasn’t missed the toilet bowl since then!

  2. be nicer to the dog and he won’t lick his paws as much. if you can’t do that find somebody who will. you’re on the road to being bitten.

  3. If I were to write a poem, it wouldn’t speak to me half as poignantly as the way yours does. You hooked me from the start–we have a dog who has the same thing–and then you surprised me by taking me to other, more “serious” places I’ve been and needed to re-visit. Thank you!

  4. If I were going to write a poem I would try my hardest to have it give as much emotion and imagery as yours. So glad I clicked on this email today.

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