Dorothea Biba Naouai

Crossroads/The Palette Knife

I might have become a painter
Instead of a nurse,
Had the knife not slipped
That day during camp
In the open air art studio,
The vibrations of raucous
Crickets floating
In on the summer breeze,
The dancing patterns
Of light and shadow
Cast by the cohort of great trees.

My painting had turned out
Better than expected, from a snapsho
Of my beloved cat, Fig
Still in his prime and sitting
Atop the family car,
A baby blue 1968 VW station wagon.
You could recognize his anything goes expression
And the quality of light in the
Autumn day of the photograph.

The triangular spatula had slipped
Unexpectedly as I enthusiastically
Scraped the paint-encrusted school desk,
Multi-colored blobs of acrylic
Were left in a pile of shaved bits
As the teacher haltingly
Selected a companion
From among my classmates
To escort me to the infirmary.

I didn’t notice her increasing pallor
As we traipsed along the dirt path
Through the woods

I was not afraid when the perfect seam
Separated as I opened the hand I had
Held gently closed since the accident

My stomach did not turn
As I saw blood pooling
Then running down my wrist

As I looked closer and saw
What I believed to be
Muscle, fat, bone;
The human anatomy laid bare.

Only once the camp nurse
Cleaned me up with normal saline
And expertly applied the
2 butterfly bandages
Covered with clean cotton gauze,
Did I lose my composure,
And burst into tears.
You may need a few stitches
She said,
Ushering in the possibility
Of a different pain, one
As yet unlived.

The idea of a hospital,
Strange clinicians in white coats,
Injections, numbness,
Needles sewing through skin,
Bandages and healing,
Instructions needing to be
Retained and executed with care,
These details in my
Ingenuous painterly imagination
Promised a much greater violence
Than the one-inch wound
Sustained by my 10-year-old hand.


The Older Brother

What was it like for him?
So young himself
To wake from thin slumber
To his younger brother’s thrashing

Was it the sound
Of strangled breath
That roused him?
Or a sudden kick,
An indignant thought – hey!
Before he saw him

The room was dark
And the house strange
It had been a comfort
To fall asleep
Next to his brother and sister,
Parents in the adjacent room

Now his lungs
Filled with air
And he called out,
His voice a clarion wail,
Summoning the gods

Years later, adolescent,
His lungs would struggle,
Wheezing each spring
With the soft blooming
Of the world

But now,
Long after the memory
Of his brother’s first seizure,
His lungs fill
With delicious smoke,
Cigarette dangling,
As he drives away
In his beat-up red truck


Herald Spring


She reclines awkwardly,
Strong yet delicate neck
Resting on ropes,
Suspended between two poles
On a flatbed.
Her arms stretch up
Toward the sky,
The direction all wrong now.
Still her arms stretch upward
Does she cry out? I wonder
As the roots, cut and compressed
Into a burlap ball,
re grabbed unceremoniously
By the teeth of the backhoe
While the man in the yellow vest,
Standing over
The cavernous earth,
Shouts orders.


One subway ride, midday,
Two transfers.
Three men of a certain age
With skin like earth
Apparently homeless
In varying states
Of malnourishment,

They appear swaddled
In their edematous skin
And the down parkas
In which they nest,
Hibernating in a world of dreams
Or sitting upright,
Eyes alert to trouble,
Like the rest of us.


Juicy fruit
Carefully carved
From pineapple, melon, grapes

We watch the news
As we scoop little balls
From the orange flesh,
Speaking French,
The language of his oppressors
And my
‘Pomme?’  He asks,
Or was it American
for ‘bomb’?


After Ocean Vuong

Heart felt
Heart of hearts
Heart in hand

I forgot
His name by heart

Either way
The heart

Dorothea Biba Naouai is a hospice nurse liaison and a writer who facilitates Narrative Medicine workshops in clinical spaces.