Secular Penance


so quiet on this unit

but a girl took her life here –

accidents happen.


I think back on threefold therapy,

Making messes where there seemed none,

Little infestations crawling inside you

Like the friend that left too early –

Quit crying for him he’s gone.


And she’s gone too: incommunicado,

The one I expected to be a

Soul-journey landmark, measured and precise.

I cannot keep her

And this my fitting retribution.


I. 2N

Floundering through dark-tinted windows

The aches and pains of internment

And the little chip spin on the breakfast tray.


This is the time between the belt-loop fiasco

And the absurdly tiny denouement,

The one you look back at and simply smile.


Because the time measures twice-around

Little feeds of chicken-gut realization,

Undue nurse interrogations.


We can see each other’s minisculality

Fun frivolities we forget about

As we reach out locked windows.



II. Matt

Bleary-eyed reminiscence

Shoots itself back into your veins


Cheap labor extra extra

Read all about it


In this moment

Inscrutability oy veys itself


Into thinner lines than you imagine

And the wind moves where the tide goes


If you do important work

I will watch if not help


Paradigm shifts listlessly take in

Arrogant pricks with them


Who shoot up rejections faster than

The human eye computes.


But I look up to the stars and see

The trackmarked blood galaxy

On your sweater’s left arm.



III. Laura

Entertaining thoughts of

Entertaining you,

I fly like tri-winged eagles

To your newly furnished doorstep

And trust you’d do the same.

(The wing on top is for steering.)

Don’t be shy we’ve already met

At the place of vulnerability

Where nurse-guides and psychics

Watched our every move,

Secular penance paid

For wanting to leave this life.

Mixed into this cauldron,

You burn like my eyes at the sight of the sun.



IV. Nolan

Blatantly forgiving at other people’s expenses,

Nolan listened to my explanation that his name

Was easy to remember because of Christopher Nolan.


Burgeoning out from two lines of sight,

The guitar shimmers in your thin hands

Like an unseen fire in the hearts of the patients.


You work at metallurgy like a Norse god,

Or one of Robin Hood’s merry men –

You stole from the rich and gave to me.


Class-consciousness elides into further stupid comments

Made by me at the expense of you on my first day;

I was nervous.


Tried-and-true methods for acquainting yourself with others

Fall apart in front of your covered eyes that squint behind hair

Too bushy to hide from other patients’ haggard views.


Transferal of feelings from me to you and Ben and Laura;

First days’ jitters dissipating with every mention of music

To let the boredom free itself from the lonely hospital



V. Ben

You would always lie flat-backed in chairs

I don’t know if that was intentional but I noticed.

In groups you lay there checking your own pulse,

Making sure you were alive in spite of the surroundings.


Nothing interrupted your two week stay except yourself,

And I arrived at a peak time; if you can call the lowered-eyebrow

Premonitions of future attempts a peak time.

As much one as the other; come, see, came, and saw


You are too smart for this place, and the others know it

You could go to college, be a contendah, etc., says Nolan

You can be someone great like Chinese ancients

Or the modern Silicon Valley upstart dreamers

Dreaming their fills of computer chip circuitboard magma.


An avowed atheist whose dream-colors rival medieval murals,

You can respect religion until it hampers safety considerations

Or when your family has a bad experience with religion

And you grow up in the crosshairs of two nothings.


I want to slap you out of it.

Nurses want to slap you out of it.

But it’s never that simple when the dice we’ve been given say the same thing

And when we never play cards anymore.


We were the ones plucked out of the ether

We were the ones God didn’t forget


Ben, if you’re reading this let me know if you got into residential

I long for a reunion.


Blake Wallin is a senior English Literature major at Wheaton College. If you would like to chat about the experience in the poem (or anything else), he can be reached at

Cover photo: Mary Lock (