Ben Casey Days, Rochelle Ratner, Marsh Hawk Press
The presiding genius of Ben Casey Days, Rochelle Ratner’s collection of prose poems published posthumously by Marsh Hawk Press, is the eponymous hero of the 1960s television series, an heroic doctor with leonine good looks, played by Vince Edwards, who saved the lives of desperate people with regularity. In Ratner’s blackly humorous reformulations, Ben Casey is reduced to a fetish-like Ken doll dressed as the television character, whom the author wins at auction on eBay, and who becomes conflated in her mind with her husband and tender caregiver, whose actual name is Ken and to whom the book is dedicated.
She also bids on a Ken doll in a Ben Casey doctor suit (made in Hong Kong and still shrink-wrapped). Four days, seven hours left before she wins. She increases her bid. She needs Ken not Ben tonight. And he’ll stay home with her tomorrow. Ken. Ben. Ken. Ben. Then.
That final “then,” with heartbreaking sadness, speaks to us beyond the grave. There is no hope for this patient.
The five sections of Ben Casey Days correspond to the headers of the actual television series, once intoned with portentous gravity at the beginning of each episode: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity. In the individual prose poems of each series, Ratner achieves a surrealistic sensibility, in which objects—physical, sexual, material—take on totemic significance. Patients are allowed no modesty. To doctors, patients become their illnesses. Their bodies are objectified in a very real sense. And yet, through it all—as these poems assert—the flicker of self remains. These poems give voice to the damaged and injured in body, mind, and spirit and at the same time take on our political culture and our contemporary policies of waging war and peace. For example, Incentives,
1. Right out of school, can’t get a job, and now the Army’s offering $20,000 just to ship out quickly. Well, it’s working—nearly 4,000 recruits in just three weeks. Except he and his friends go out drinking. His vision’s too blurry for the fine print. First comes basic training, then comes more training, then comes $10,000. The rest is doled out over time. Get killed and it stops right there. Lose an arm or leg and forfeit twenty percent. Fingers and toes barely matter. If the head is lost, the remaining bonus is forfeited. Here is a soldier no longer fit to serve.
2.No one defines what losing your head means.
These poems have a fearful intensity and embrace a span of humanity. Many of their details will ring true to anyone who has ever been a patient, as in this vision of death experienced by Woman Left in CT Scanner for Hours after Clinic Closes:
Don’t move, they told her, weighing her down with a heavy blanket, strapping her arms in, locking the machine. Or maybe just closing it. She loses track of time in the dark. There doesn’t seem to be anyone out there. Twenty-five minutes, they said. Bone cancer. Pain. Metastatic. And those were the last words she remembers hearing. It seems like hours ago now. She’s starting to fear the dark. Nobody told her she could go home. Ever.
These modest poems pack a big punch. They live up to their large themes.
Her poems have recently appeared in Brink Magazine (www.brinklit.com, Soul Fountain, Amarillo Bay (www.amarillobay.com), Earth’s Daughters, Poems Niederngasse (www.niederngasse.com), and 2 River (www.2river.org). Please see her website http://www.annewhitehouse.com.