Poetry Sunday: “American Dream with Exit Wound,” by Dawn McGuire


American Dream with Exit Wound

She looks at belts differently now
Not at the grain, the tool work

Not thinking what size for which waist
She looks at where the holes are

One punched out with a nail file
a peeler, dug out with a stick

blunt but strong enough
to grind out a hole in leather

A hole too close to the buckle

She looks at his belts for a hole
too close to the buckle

Belt, tourniquet, cinch—
the cubital vein pops up

blue as a bruise
a swollen lip

The sting is brief

And all that is unendurable
melts into air

Hectoring voices stilled
Enemies pierced through

Achilles at last asleep in his tent
His pillow wet

The warm, blue Aegean
slipping over it


From American Dream with Exit Wound (IFSF Publishing 2017). Published with permission of the press.

Listen to the author reading her poem here.


Dawn McGuire is a neurologist/poet and the author of four poetry collections, most recently American Dream with Exit Wound (IFSF Publishing 2017), available here. Born in Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, McGuire was a poet first. She studied with Galway Kinnell and Mark Strand at Princeton, and as a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she has worked with Lucille Clifton, Bob Hass, Brenda Hillman, Sharon Olds, and Claudia Rankin. She has received numerous poetry prizes, including the 2013 Indie Book Award in Poetry for The Aphasia Café and the Sarah Lawrence/Campbell Corner Prize for “poems that treat larger themes with lyric intensity.”


Poet’s Note

Many poems in The Aphasia Café (2012) and American Dream with Exit Wound came out of work with patients who lost the use of language as a symbol system, as after stroke (aphasia) or severe trauma. In American Dream, I focused on vets from Operation Enduring Freedom (Iraq/Afghanistan wars) who came to see me for head trauma or nervous system disorders. Almost all had PTSD; many were addicts. They arrived monosyllabic, or silent. Words don’t begin to capture the world they live in. Yet, there is a mute, harsh eloquence, and if I can decipher it, we had a chance to cross over into a safe “third space” where the strongest medicine is made: real connection. If my poems work, it is because, like a decent doctor, they tried to hear the unsaid, the unsayable. “American Dream with Exit Wound” is a meditation on a combat veteran who turned to heroin. His lover was in the excruciating position of searching everywhere for signs that he was shooting up. As I wrote this poem, the “she” became Briseis, the lover of the West’s most iconic warrior. In the Iliad, she tried to prepare Achilles for the afterlife.

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  • Jennifer Soule July 8, 2018 at 11:56 am

    Important work