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Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
dove sono

She was an 81-year-old pediatrician, born and raised in Vienna. There she trained in medicine, thence fled to Paris in 1934, thence to New York in 1940. When she first came to the doctor in 1990, fragile and erect, she had been having spells of supreme unease, lasting minutes to hours. She was frightened: could these portend a stroke? Over the next months, no more of her symptoms occurred. Whatever could be done to prevent stroke, was done.

When a stroke did come, she was motionless and mute for several days. Then, as her faculties began to reappear, her speech was German. The language of her childhood, the language of her persecutors, of Immanuel Kant and Walther von der Vogelweide, of Tannhäuser, of the guttural tribesmen who fought the Roman legions. Her ruined talents huddled around a little linguistic fire, lingering; and she too lingered a few months, and died.


He was an old retired electrician who had left Naples fifty years before. He came to the emergency room because of fainting spells. A doctor had given him six or seven medicines, which probably hurt more than they helped; these were stopped. When his right side went limp a few days later, his English, formerly fluent, if accented, was gone. His Italian was intact. He cried.

He sang an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, the words of an aching wife who fears, with justification, that she has lost her husband’s love: Dove sono i buon’ momenti?*

* Where are the beautiful moments?

Charles Bardes is a physician who practices and teaches medicine in New York.  His book-length prose poem, Diary of Our Fatal Illness (University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Poets, 2017), narrates the illness and death of an aged man. Other poems, essays, and ruminations have appeared in AGNI, Raritan, Ploughshares, The New England Journal of Medicine, and elsewhere. Pale Faces: The Masks of Anemia (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008) is an extended lyric essay that probes the mythological and cultural aspects of a common disease construct. In 2018 he received the Blackwell Prize in Writing, which “honors a writer who exhibits exceptional talent on the printed page, as well as meaningful social commitments on the public stage.”  More info at charlesbardes.com. (updated 3/2020)

Charles Bardes and Tom Sleigh coauthored “A Viral Exchange, under Lockdown” for the AGNI blog.

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