Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Tyranny of Optimism — A Hectic in My Blood

James B. Rickert
Bloomington, Indiana, USA


Poet’s statement: “The Tyranny of Optimism” was written after I had spoken to a cancer support group. I became angry when it became apparent that all of us had experienced well-intentioned healthy people asking us to do the impossible: put aside all negative emotions—not mourn the loss of our own health, and, furthermore, sometimes, these same healthy individuals—those who had no personal experience with serious illness—sought to judge us on our will and ability to be perpetually positive and optimistic.

“A Hectic in My Blood” was written to help me deal with the reality of my cancer’s recurrence; there was no chance of a reprieve from the diagnosis; I would need quite intensive chemotherapy, and my life’s situation was suddenly quite different than what it had been just a short time ago.


The Tyranny of Optimism

They flock like crows, hawking for a bite of biscuit

Or bits of flesh. They caw with formulaic

Cadence and phrase: You must further dampen the worry.

There lives an uncle yet who held back death.

Defanged the usurper—would settle for nothing less.

Their sharp and impaled faces betray the menace

That gnaws their dreams. You see, my sudden random end

Tempers their pace, quiets their cheering and darkens

Their noon; feeds fat the ancient stain of death on youth,

On forest and rain, on creeping age and warm

Fire light. They stake my will against the shattered

Garret of my corruptible genes. Their doctors stretch

My yielded organs through their cacaphenous charts

And all bid me do my part to calm their scattered hearts.


A Hectic in My Blood

I watch myself checking the post—

Repeatedly. Waiting for the note that finds it all

In error. “We’re quite sorry,

An inexcusable mistake.” An apology with heartfelt

Sorrow delivered on fine bonded paper to contradict

The feel of my hand on my abdomen and the news

Contained in that touch.

They enter triumphant, yet cautious. Their prize

Shrouded in bright red disposable plastic

In waning memory of the warning color of Dendobates

Pumilio and the secrets of his haunted flesh.

They purpose it not for the incinerator, rather, for the line

Entering my chest. Dantean elixers to burn my body and purify the flesh,

A contrapasso for 42 years with no thought of disease.

Poisons with names not designed by the clever

Marketers who haunt our offices with the same happy faces:

Poisons whose names invoke history and invite death.

The first on the waterish fields of France where mud-soaked men

In trenches gasp, pink froth on their lips, their lungs burned

To nothingness with faces of dying bewilderment.

The smoke dark bag hangs over the room—pregnant and bristling

With its fire and cruelty. Attendants prepare me with their

Ritual washings and gown. I see my reflection in the dark fluid,

But through the image of my cachectic body—

Ruined like an overworked fillet—none can know that I see

Low slung hills distant against the sand, and feel

Pointed rocks against my feet as the sun reddens my hands.

A quiet place where we all were just a month or two ago.



JAMES B. RICKERT, MD, is a practicing orthopedist in Bloomington, Indiana. He founded the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, a patient advocacy group (thepatientfirst.org).


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2010 – Volume 2, Issue 3

Fall 2010  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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