Poem of the Week

The Pain of Others

Hannah Aizenman

No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.
Susan Sontag

On the radio, I hear a doctor describe
his dilemma: the inalienability
of pain, of sensation altogether.

The body almost a black box,
for all its symptoms and signs, the being-
in-it like marooned on an island, reliant

on shapes of smoke reaching, legible,
some passing ship. My problem
as a medical professional

(he says) is the need to quantify something
for which no standard metric can exist.
I’m eighteen again, working part-time

at the clinic for child and adolescent
bipolar-spectrum services, spending hours
in the basement with a copy machine,

running off reams of intake forms
to be distributed, completed, collected,
filed away. I entertained myself

by answering diagnostic questionnaires,
idle and useless as the personality
quizzes in the backs of dumb magazines

I’d flip through all summer, lying
beside the community pool—
Is your relationship

abusive? Could you have
an eating disorder?—ignoring, then
dismissing every score. It left me

sadder than almost anything, what
they’d first ask the youngest patients—
How are you feeling today?

—multiple-choice: the options
five crude, computer-generated faces,
perfect circles, two dots each for eyes,

each mouth a single line, progressing,
by the image, from upturned, meant
as a smile, to the rightmost, a full frown.

I tried to imagine being the child
with suddenly only these symbols
to pick from. I wanted to apologize

for the obtuseness of adults.
Are we more alone before provided
words or after, once confined to them?

I have read that women tend
to underestimate their pain,
which seems sort of a non sequitur—

like, how?—according to whom?
The doctor on the radio
found a solution, by the way. Instead of

How much does it hurt?
he asks, What would you give up
to make it stop?

Hannah Aizenman holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she lives and writes in Brooklyn.
Originally published:
June 30, 2021

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