I wrote the poem “Not a Mile,” which appeared in the New Yorker last April, soon after attending a community meeting in Danville, Ohio, about the opioid crisis. Author Sam Quinones, who wrote the excellent book on this subject titled “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” Skyped in from Tijuana to describe to the audience how black tar heroin made in rural Mexico makes its way into rural Ohio.
A Knox County police officer told us how he recently responded to a call at a house party where he found eight people unconscious, seemingly dead, only to be revived from heroin overdoses by administering Narcan. I drove back in the rain to my house and began to review my notes for class the following day. I planned on discussing Sylvia Plath’s iconic poem “Lady Lazarus.” It struck me that I planned on asking my students many questions about how death was represented in the poem, and that we would be discussing the topic in metaphorical or abstract terms, while in the areas immediately surrounding Gambier, there are many who are facing death on a literal level. In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath speaks in a persona that has a strong death drive, but is able to survive her own self-destruction, rising at the end of the poem like a phoenix that “eats men like air.” I try to create a parallel between her speaker and the two men in “Not a Mile” who undergo their own form of resurrection via Narcan.
I was thrilled that the poem was published in the New Yorker, and in the months that followed, I began to receive emails from readers around the country, from Alaska to Indiana to Maine, telling me that they recognized their hometowns in my poem. This is, on the one hand, evidence of the pervasiveness of the opioid epidemic, but on the other it heartened me that poetry can be a way to make connections in the midst of a crisis.
Not a Mile
from where my students ask me
why Sylvia Plath wanted to eat men,
two men overdose. This is rural Ohio,
and the new drugs from Columbus
are cut with elephant tranquillizers.
The police are nurses now.
They don’t dream. My students try
to understand why the voice
in the poem brags about death but
never dies. Not a mile from here,
two men regain consciousness
in their living room full of litter boxes
and Optimos. They are not particularly scared
by the police or their I.V.s. They have both
died before, and been revived with Narcan.
It’s November 6th, and the sky
has been blank for so long its emptiness
has turned supple. The men refuse
further medical treatment. One dumps
a baggie of crickets into a lizard tank.
My students are sincerely trying
to analyze death: its cadence and anaphora,
its German origins. The police
do not know how to speak
to my students. They bark and lord
over a scuffle or jaywalking
because they are used to hauling the dead
back to life and fishing names
out of their mouths. They cannot help
but see everyone as needing to be saved
by force. Not a mile from where my students
show me outlines of what they are trying
to say about resurrection, one of the men
pulls a phone out of his mesh shorts
and calls Columbus. My students worry
they cannot explain where Plath ends
and death begins. Not a mile
from our classroom, men dissolve
like powder in water. Men so close
we can’t see them. Men like air.