Believing in Today

Frank L. Meyskens Jr.

Fithian Press; 77 pages

If you are familiar with "Gates of Heaven," Errol Morris' classic documentary about pet cemeteries, you may recall the film's slogan: "Death is for the living and not for the dead so much."

That's a statement that applies well enough to poetry. It's easy for living authors to theorize passing — think of Dylan Thomas' "good night" or the calm driver stopping his carriage to pick up Emily Dickinson — but all our epiphanies may take place above ground.

One of the most striking aspects of "Believing in Today," Frank L. Meyskens Jr.'s second book of poems, is that the author approaches death from a doctor's point of view as much as a poet's. That's perhaps a given: Meyskens teaches in UC Irvine's School of Medicine and serves as director emeritus of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Images of hospitals, diagnoses, accidents and illness saturate these poems, and they bear the mark of a writer who knows them as everyday realities rather than symbols.

Meyskens' unpolished style prevents "Believing" from being the transcendent collection it might have been — several poems read like rough drafts, and a number of phrases throughout ("dagger in my heart," "silver lining") lapse into cliche. At its best, though, the straightforward quality of the writing finds a balance between profound and prosaic. One of the finest pieces in the collection, "Not Enough," describes the author's exchange with a longtime patient:

"There has to be something, Dr. Meyskens."

Yes, a new medicine, and the cancer is in retreat.

"But I am sleepy all the time and can't enjoy life."

Not enough, not enough, even at seventy-eight.

A common theme throughout the book is the mundane nature of death and illness — an end that comes "suddenly with a missed beat, / a flat line," multiple "famous men" who pass through the doctor's office and, pointedly, go unnamed here. One of Meyskens' most haunting images appears almost as an aside at the start of the poem "Purgatory," where "the hospital bed is returned" after a patient's death. When life stops, business must continue.

The doctor must continue too, and Meyskens paints himself here as a journeyman who tries to uphold his ways in changing times. He expresses bitterness at times about those changes — one poem contains a swipe at millennials who devote more attention to iPads than neighbors — but he laments just as much his own diminishing inspiration. Slipping and falling on ice, he grimaces at the realization that he is "no longer seventeen," while in the opening poem, he muses, "Knowledge and revolution bloom in the spring, / not so easily when wrinkles solidify."

Intriguingly, Meyskens ends the book with a glimpse at younger days: a section titled "From a Long Time Past," which consists of eight poems he wrote during a fellowship in 1974-75. Far from a portrait of a brighter time, these pieces are among the bleakest in the book — brief snapshots of a lost patient, confronting age, even a melted snowman. In the gospel-like "Ode to the Crab," the poet hits upon a refrain: "Are you so evil God / are you so mean."

Not that there's an answer to that question. Still, Meyskens glimpses another angle in "Miracles," a poem placed earlier in the book (though, presumably, written later) in which he expresses his wonder at reviving a "no hope" patient sent from the ER. "When science gets it right / we can indeed seem like gods," Meyskens writes. There lies the duality of the doctor-poet — knowing we can seem like gods, knowing we never will be.

— Michael Miller

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