I’m Not Sure How Much More I Can Take

Ricky Ray

By the time I was twenty-four, I had ten herniated discs,
slept three hours a night, felt like a stabbing board,
laid on the concrete during lunch, drank a fifth for courage,
smoked three blunts a day. It barely took the edge off:

passed out at midnight, up at three. The doctor who
discovered my disorder—nameless early degeneration
asked if I’d fallen out of a building. We laughed
but it was the kind of laugh that knifes you in the gut.

I had the back of a sixty-year-old construction worker,
pleaded for help, but spinal medicine in the 21st-century
specializes in torture medieval, not help: painkillers,
steroids, fusion: they snake metal rods through either side

of your vertebrae, screw them in place to stop the bones
from pinching nerves, or compressing leaky discs,
which tend to blow in a chain reaction, dominoes of disease
that go: 1) goodbye dancing, 2) hello bad sex, 3) not even that.

I asked the doctor what he’d do in my place, and he said I didn’t
want the answer. I know the answer, having lived it, the way
each day is a sword I push myself a little further along, and he’s right:
I didn’t want it. I wanted him to lie to me, but he was either more honest

or ruthless than that. I like to think of my spine as my teacher,
a gift from hell that says, don’t end up here. A gift from the Earth
that says, I’m ruining your body that you might know something
of the ruin you inflict upon mine. I thank her and pay attention.

I ignore her and find respite in imagination. In one dream,
my discs are the stages upon which Ella and Billie prove
the heart is more gut-sunk midnight than it is lovemaking at noon.
In another, the discs are nebulae exploding in slow motion,

opening in me a universe I won’t survive. In my favorite,
they’re eggs that some poor creatures are trying to peck
their way out of, my pain their only path to manifestation.
And I want them to know the aching beauty of a lungful

of mountain air. So, a little yelp from me, another
little Ricky emerging from its shell. Our pact? The one
a ghost makes with a new soul when they meet on their way
to and from this world: here, careful, take this spark, it’s hot,

it’ll be your body, as once it was mine, treat it kindly,
it’s been through hell, but it’s ready to walk those flames again,
trust its intuitions and it’ll show you the whole miraculous
canvas that I could only begin to describe, just care for it,

and if you forget, if it hurts so bad you want out, out, out,
lie down in it and let it hold you, lie down in the Earth
and let it be held, say help! and the Earth shall remind you
whose body it is—yours and hers (and mine!),

and everyone who has ever lived, and everything
that has ever been, the heat that began when Grandmother
Universe woke and spoke the love that is this spark I pass
and in the passing transmit the entire inheritance to you.

Ricky Ray is a poet, essayist and eco-mystic who lives with his wife and his old brown dog in the old green hills of the Hudson Valley. He is the author of Fealty (Diode Editions); Quiet, Grit, Glory (Broken Sleep Books); and The Sound of the Earth Singing to Herself (Fly on the Wall Press), a finalist for The Laurel Prize. He was educated at Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he lectures on poetry, animism and integral ecology. Follow his travels at rickyray.earth.

© Variant Literature Inc 2022