“Blood Work” by Bardia Sinaee
On a first scan of “Blood Work,” I’m drawn to the capital letters that begin each line. To me, capitalizing in such a way seems like a deliberate strategy to designate the work as ‘poetry,’ a form that’s (importantly?) distinct from prose, and perhaps even as much as a line break will mark that division. The practice also feels old-fashioned, a call-back to both ancient and more modern forms when this was standard practice. Capitalized lines call attention to themselves, announce themselves with greater poetic gusto than their lowercase cousins; they also create a sense of stateliness or loftiness, or at least more rigid formality.
More, the capital-starting lines here are reinforced by other demonstrations of form: attempts to make the work look like a poem, like familiar and tidy verse. In Part One, we have two stanzas, each of five lines. The first line of stanza one and the last of stanza two are the shortest, making the sequence seem to bulge, lengthwise, in the middle (i.e., lines three to eight). There’s an evenness, a sense of uniformity, a kind of visual pleasure that might extend to both the reader as well as the crafter of the work.
Given the case and shapes and given the shadow of ominousness, even dread, cast by the title “Blood Work,” I’m not surprised to see the first line begin with two dactyls (stressed syllables in bold: “Out with the sun and the”). Dactyls are typically, or historically, associated with intensity, seriousness, the elegiac or elevated. The line ends with a stressed, single-syllable word (“jade”), transforming the second dactyl into a trochee. This means “jade” lands heavily. It carries tension that fires us into the next line. These dactyls, even the arch-sounding word “jade,” seem to reinforce the loftiness of the capitalized lines and the moodiness summoned by the title.
Okay, this is a serious poem, then! But then we start to get swerved by a few countervailing elements. Let’s look at the whole quintain (yeah, quintain!) to see what’s up:
Out with the sun and the jade
It is the squelching armpit of August
When simply living is enough for people
Approaching each other with a put-upon look
The weather, what it does to you
Notably, there are no periods or punctuation marks aside from the sneaky comma in line five (there should technically be commas after “jade” and “people,” and there are no full stops where they should rightly go — at the very least, one should appear after “look”). Ending line four, for example, without a period feels like stepping off the edge of the line, as if into an abyss. Sense dangles, subtly, in that blank moment; we reach for each next line for a handhold to keep us from falling.
This practice also undercuts our Capital Regality. So, while capital letters appear, they aren’t signaling ‘elevation’ as much as beginnings. What I mean is: there’s a fragmentary quality to this stanza, a sense that each line marks a new launching point, or another attempt to say something (or start to say something…) that isn’t quite cohering for our speaker. Something’s getting in the way of the speaker’s urge to make complete, formal, traditional verse, and that same shadow is also obstructing their attempt to make sense.
The tone also undercuts the tension: there’s really no other way to read “It is the squelching armpit of August” than as crude, even puerile. I see this line as a quick signal to the reader that while there are some stately throwbacks happening this is not a pompous or pretentious poem. Cut across an entire contemporary collection, I feel like the practice of capitalizing first lines can lose distinction and start to grate, or sound almost ridiculously self-serious. And thus, with a little bit of silliness, the speaker of “Blood Work” gains my trust — this isn’t a ‘lofty’ poem, Spencer; you can relax.
It’s also an evocative component of what, essentially, is a descriptive stanza conjuring the discomfort of a season. Here, in this humid summer month, people are aggrieved (“put-upon”); people are forcefully affected (“The weather, what it does to you”). The line, “When simply living is enough for people” can sound both aspirational (who doesn’t want to live simply, satisfied, without outrageous expectations?) and exhausting (hey, we’re alive; what else do you want?). I feel this exhaustion most acutely in the transition between lines four and five, where there’s our first failed attempt to keep a sentence-like clause afloat and we pivot to a pure fragment: it’s as if the speaker is too dehydrated to finish the line and instead throws up their hands — it’s this weather, this heat.
What else? Aside from “squelching armpit,” everything here is generic, imageless — delivered with a flat affect. It’s hard to see “the sun and the jade” or a “put-upon look”; we generalize to “people” rather than individual cases; the line, “The weather, what it does to you” is nearly opaque in how little it says. I don’t mean this is conversational or chatty, though; there’s a writerly formality, a stiffness, to the constructions, perhaps best exemplified by the expletive of “It is” in line two. Yet it’s also not image-based or torqued-up like poetry typically is, which makes the whole experience sound cloudy, as if overcast. The speaker is launching lines within a fog; they sound like they’re writing but they’re not writing ‘well.’
Let’s now look at quintain two, again in its entirety:
Otherwise one must always look ahead
The potted cuttings abound with late growth
The park is dedicated to the missing girl
Love is for the lucky and the brave
You will experience good health
Distinct from the quintain above, there’s no extended clause, cut up across the lines: these are each what could be independent clauses but stripped of their periods. With “Otherwise one must always look ahead”, and this oddly misfitting sentence adverb (otherwise?), we shift to a more positive take, or given a hint that hope or pleasure may mingle with the squelching weather.
I feel like there are two or three rhetorical modes now emerging. The first, let’s say, is more of the same expositional stuff from stanza one: “The potted cuttings abound with late growth/ The park is dedicated to the missing girl”. Similarly, the affect is again a blend of formal (“the potted cuttings abound”) and flat (“The park is dedicated to the missing girl” — how laconic, disinterested!). Lines one and two have ten syllables a piece, and the rest range from eight to 12 syllables, so more of that pleasing evenness even as we’re abstracting to mere “cuttings” and “growth”, a “park” and “girl”.
The second ‘mode’ is the aphoristic — the proverbial maxims of “Otherwise one must always look ahead” and “Love is for the lucky and the brave”. Is the speaker talking to themselves, to the reader, to both parties? Are they reading headlines? Are they reminding us to chin up and soldier on despite all the humid discomfort? “Love is for the lucky and the brave” vibrates in being a total non-sequitur, a fragmentary eruption, but also its apparent profundity among all the wilted scenery. Given its surroundings, I read it as pithy and potentially ironic even as it might have origins in a sincere emotional moment.
The third ‘mode’ is line 10: “You will experience good health”. This is fortune-telling: a fortune cookie or palm-reading. This kind of empty horoscope undermines the potential truth of the line about “Love” above. And it also, I think for the first time, recalls the lingering dread of the title: talking about “health” now returns us to “Blood Work” and leaves us, at the end of section one, with a minor feeling of anxiety.
So we have flat, stiff and image-less observations; adages or aphorisms; empty predictions, prophecies; a season in hell, even among the tenacious foliage; a missing girl, a park of “put-upon” faces. Cloudy or foggy, a head filled with cotton. Notes, perhaps, in a journal; scraps composed in the effort to make sense, to make art, but leading down frustratingly incomplete, incoherent paths. And all of this arranged with care.
Part Two makes no serious formal departures from the first. In line one, the stiffness of an expletive (“there’s”, or “there is”) launches us into a description of a joke — not the joke itself — which restricts us to the same foggy landscape. The “juice box” and “catheter” tease us with their specificity but we are married to generality: we cannot hear the set-up, much less the punchline. Line two continues the vague formalism in its account of the nurse “with all the piercings” (again: not what, how, to what effect — just “all the piercings”). And line three, “But all is haste and consternation”, is so formal and old-fashioned-sounding that it sounds more jokey than sincere. In fact, with the next three lines:
The doctors are braced for an arresting discovery
Consulting their palette of opioids
Devising new ways to invade the living organism
… I hear a voice reminiscent of a BBC science or nature documentary, or at least elevated ‘magazine’ or ‘journo’ speak. It’s a voice lavishing grandeur to a subject that the writer might indeed find boring or silly. When you can’t summon the interest to write well, but you are forced to write about a tedious topic, this is the type of showiness that emerges: descriptive, technically sound, often charged with metaphor and analogy, but curiously devoid of detail and ease, a fluidity borne of heart, as well as originality. “Devising new ways to invade the living organism” certainly fits this bill.
Lines seven and eight give us some narrative exposition, a temporality and purpose to the scene. It seems “Blood Work” is quite literal: the experts are calculating “counts” of something, which are both “down” (line seven) and “in” (line ten). There’s a whiff of relief, a happy outcome, reinforced by the later adjective “grateful”. The “calm and deferential” visitors are for “You”, but this seems like a more intimate second-person address than in Part One, where we read, “You shall experience good health”. This is perhaps the ‘real you,’ or the real authorial persona who’s speaking, and not an abstracted ‘you shall’ found in a soothsayer’s column.
So far, Part Two is a bit more bloated than Part One; the first stanza is a sestet, not a quintain, and the lines are almost all longer in length and syllable count than before. It’s also got less of that fragmentary quality: it’s a coherent ‘scene,’ what could pass as five short independent clauses, in which we as readers immediately find familiar footing. By the second-person address, we even have a protagonist to root for as they are prodded by nurses and as they convalesce from their unnamed illness. The core of “Blood Work” is an experience of blood work itself — this isn’t a metaphor! The most crucial line making this make perfect sense is “You struggle to remember what they say”: this explanation makes all the cloudy descriptions that came before perfectly valid. It also validates the curious imbalance in stanza lengths, unlike the uniformity of Part One and Part Three.
What I glean from all this is that our speaker (or writer) is writing through distraction. This veil could be anatomical, produced by medications or symptoms, the pain of literal illness and medical procedures, or it could be emotional, produced by worry and stress. Anxiety over medical tests, trials or unhappy outcomes will drain any landscape of colour, definition, vitality, original metaphor, excitement. By the last line, “The nurse applies a swab and starts to spin”, common-sense sensorial experience literal begins to fade away. So our speaker is making an attempt to observe, to reflect, as previously imagined — heroically, against all adversity, or simply habitually, out of an unexamined impulse to create — but is not able to be the artist they perhaps wish to be because of the hospital experience. Everything so far included in the form — even the too-easy rhyme between “counts are in” and “starts to spin” — reinforce this reading.
So by the end of Part Two, this is a perfectly sensible poem. I now return to the aphorisms and predictions of Part One (“one must always look ahead”, “Love is for the lucky and the brave” and “You will experience good health”) as fear- or anxiety-inducing. What good are upbeat placards, self-help maxims and headlines when one is staring down the barrel of pain, loss, disability or death? They swirl amongst the squelching weather, distracting and reinforcing one’s sense that the old world is fading of vividness, replaced by one of opioids and dread. This is a poem about illness but created from the perspective of the ill.
Do we need a third section? Or has the poem said everything it needs to say? Let’s lay out the two quatrains in full:
If you have trouble keeping track of time
If you feel like you’re being punished
If you have trouble with basic tasks
Lifting a water glass
No one will hold it against you
It’s like when you were younger
Someone is keeping an eye on you
It’s getting dark and someone is driving you home
I’ll quickly note a return to the pleasing form of Part One, with two balanced stanzas, albeit with the shape of the section reversed (bulging now at the beginning and end and shrinking through the middle). I now notice that the second-person address, which emerged only occasionally, has become central. We as readers are addressed by three conditional set-ups, ‘if’ statements, but without conclusions, so these feel like stop-start attempts to rephrase an idea or cover it completely. “Lifting a water glass” rhymes snugly with “tasks” above and gives a concrete example of something supposedly basic. All of these potential problems — keeping track of time, feeling punished, not being able to do basic shit — feel as though they’re lifted from a manual, a primer for people experiencing grave changes to their minds or bodies (so echo the predictions, headlines and adages of previous sections). With the more intimate second-person address, these land with some pathos. They open a feeling of sympathy, both for the imagined speaker and for myself, or a conceptual self that arises in mind who might also be feeling these distortions or obstacles and the natural fear that arises as a result. As I’ll continue to ramble about below, this is the significant addition of Part Three — the new injection (ha ha!) of emotion to a poem that has been, well, unemotional up to now. You can stop reading now if you don’t want to delve into this emotional territory.
With luck, even as we fall apart, “No one will hold it against you”. Then, the analogy between how others treat you when you’re seriously ill and how you were monitored as a child. When I first read this poem, I found these last three lines about “when you were younger” touching. When we are sick or in bodily jeopardy, we can often feel very small. We feel an intimacy with our inner child, I think, or the quieted memories of childhood when we were most powerless, most scared and distressed, and our problems were either solved or exacerbated by adults. We were monitored by wiser, larger god-like things, who hushed our cries or soothed our wounds; they controlled our comings and goings. I felt in the last line of “Blood Work” a memory of being chauffeured; I felt a memory, partially my own and partially collective, a part of commercials and pop culture, of being asleep in a steadily moving car sliding through the cushion of night. Of being gently awoken or carried out of this car and into a home. Remembering this is touching because it means we were cared for, that we were loved tremendously, once. It reminds us, I think, of how vital it is to repay this kindness, to carry forward that sense of care. We feel this interconnectedness, our pure need to be cared for by others, and our appreciation and gratitude toward them, when we are sick or hurting, mentally or physically — when we are most vulnerable and afraid — and we understand that we cannot stand apart or alone. All our toughness, our posturing toward independence, has always been an illusion: without others we are Wittgenstein’s mistress, or we simply die.
This is one way to read the poem. Another reading will see the lines as deceptively sentimental, in that they intentionally create a pleasing sappiness that is all too easy to cling to. They’re a trap! If we’re sick or have a distressing prognosis, we’re happy to rush toward any happy ending, not matter how mawkish it might be. So, perhaps a truer or also harder way to read the poem is to deny what it’s saying, to know that these feelings are false: that there is no one “keeping an eye” on the speaker, or us. There are no more mommies or stuffed teddies, no gods or goddesses, no big sky fathers, angels or saints, holding the keys to our happiness, our living or dying. Or, if there are beings beyond the human realm watching us, stroking our hair or holding cool palms to our foreheads, they are created by mind, just as our living and dying is created by mind: it all happens inside us.
Just the same, while it’s indeed “getting dark,” there is no one “driving you home”. In fact, the sense of connection we feel to others, our essential interdependence with them on both a practical level (without other people, we starve or freeze, succumb to colds, etc.) and absolute level (physical divisions between forms are illusory), is another way of seeing that both subject (speaker) and object (pain, calm, weather, worry) arise simultaneously. The speaker’s sense of being watched or cared for arises from within, not without. Fear itself does not exist outside of us, our minds, our imaginations. Our acknowledgement of a situation depends on our habits, our habitual perceptive strategies, and how deeply we believe in the delusion of separation, of duality. This means we create heaven or hell or something in between; we are tormented in every sludgy thought, or hideous forms turn to flowers when they reach our field of perception. No matter what we draw on a sheet of paper, that thing appears — a demon, a skull; an angel, a buddha.
So the speaker is creating a scenario that alleviates their confusion and pain, and we as readers are maybe too happy to run away with it. Personal aside: I’m certainly what you might describe as an anxious person. When it comes to hospitals, doctors, medicines, and treatments, I’m an absolute baby — a stressed and terrified wreck. Since I was a child I’ve had a phobia of all doctors, all needles or procedures. This is rooted in several very negative experiences, some of which I can still recall, some of which are part of the shadow furnishing of my habits. I have wished and wished this fear away; I want to be like other people who do not have this irrational, phobic meltdown when they have to endure a waiting room. Shamefully, I had to drink most of a bottle of tequila to get my first COVID shot and was so unnerved that I did not feel drunk in the slightest.
What can I say about this other than this is my Grim Reaper, my Death in Life. Maybe yours is heights or ghosts or spiders, whatever. Maybe open spaces or closets are your Death. Of all the fears that afflict us, of all the torments, fear of dying and of illness are likely lurking behind these massive terrors. And these are perhaps the most intense, the most hardwired — the very worst things in the backs of our minds. They reveal that we are utterly dependent on mechanisms we cannot control. They reveal that what we feel is consistent, ongoing, immortal — our egos — are just bubbles, dreams, flashes of lightning across dark skies, and that these splashes of emotion depend on dust: our bodies, which are like banana peels or mosquito wings, cigarette ash on paper plates. The closing of the book of our memory, to use a tired metaphor, is agonizing because we assume that everything will persist in a state of loss; that we will lose all the things that we love and persist on in a state of separation from them.
The closer reality is even harder to fathom but something that I know you know intimately: that we will not experience loss, or even death itself, for the thing that remembers and feels will not exist. “We” never existed in the first place. “We” made “we” from suchness (the universe) and we are merely suchness (the universe), which will never begin and never end. Our bodies die, we have to say goodbye to everything, and our consciousness has to cease functioning, but all of this was purchased with our birth. Birth is thus functionally the same as death and as equally non-existent. Seen another way, when we see death we are seeing the result of life, which reaffirms and makes this human life precious. Any brush with death will do this: it will ensure we, as the country song says, “live like we are dying,” because we all are dying and ‘living’ as a human being could not happen without it.
Likewise, when we are afraid and grieving, we are plunged back into a world of truthful cliche. I mean when we are in the depths of despair, we are experiencing love. What love could exist without grief? What grief could exist without love? The problems for us begin when we do not see this, and we think grief is either avoidable, unnatural, unfair, or we intentionally stoke grief, reciting it, rehearsing it, recalling it when it slips away. An emotion is experienced in the body, has a rising action, a crescendo, and a falling away. But we can dwell on grief, or fear, or loss, or any other negative experience, and allow it to transform us into a grieving being only, cut off from experiencing another state. That’s my problem, that’s your problem, that’s what we must overcome with mindfulness, with self-awareness, with kindness for ourselves and with a commitment to deepening our wisdom, our generosity and gratitude for this one body-mind, this one precious life.
How did we get here? Oh yes, someone driving us home in the dark …
To be vulnerable, to be transparent, despite feeling strangely uneasy about saying these things … At times I feel a howling grief for myself as a child, who is still the child inside myself suffering whenever I think of dying, my grave, the cold ground in which I have to go, and which all the people I love will go; and then I want to tear my clothes for you, for all the creatures, human or otherwise, who are experiencing this exact phenomena, who want to live. Do you feel like this? If so I think we are part of a brother- or sisterhood of things and I feel like we are in good company. Why I think “Blood Work” is thus a good poem, a fascinating poem, a helpful poem, and so on, is not only because it cleverly portrays an experience of disorientation and reflection in the face of stress, but because it also arouses these feelings of dependence, these remembrances of myself and others. It punctures, medicinally, the illusion that we are separate and self-assured. It can inspire a hope that we may become kinder, gentler. So perhaps it can be a helpful tool in your process of working these dreadful things out; it can be a tonic toward the ultimate goal of wisdom and appreciation of life, in not being trapped by our fears.