ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Hospice Nurse" and other poems by Janet Buck

The Hospice Nurse

Pain pronounced enough to talk invites her in.
She skips clichés like weeds
between firm stepping stones.
Her hair is dyed by time alone,
seaweed strings acquainted
with the ocean’s depth, with
evidence of drool on sheets,
the scent of urine strong as mint
that blocks the fragrance of a rose.

Assessment stage is short.
“The end is near. It could be weeks,
could be months. Your skeleton is visible.
That baggy nightshirt is a see-through myth.”
I chew on gum like shredded tires.
My husband’s face turns pallid
as a peeled turnip near the stove.
It tells me, “I need smelling salts.”
His lips are wrinkled eggplant now.
He freezes in his chair.

I, with eyes wide shut, sit and stew
in bedsores crimson as raw steak.
A single daisy on the dresser
loses all its slats at once—
I am in the breakdown lane
without a steering wheel. If sobbing starts,
I cram a washcloth in my mouth.
We are in the danger zone where
choice is not a choice.
I move like rusted hinges on a door.

Half of me’s relieved to hear
exactly what I’ve always known.
Death is not a checkers game
I can win, So, hell, just put the board away.
Corners are all frayed and bent—
squares are blurred—swollen with
my overdrive now soggy postcards
staged in pouring rain.
The other half 's a monkey in a wire cage,
cramped and frazzled, staring
at a row of trees I cannot reach.

The Early Frost

Starved by lack of gratitude,
blinds are shut, daylight’s panther black.
The cervix of a rose escapes my view.
I blame myself for skies of lumpy
parsnip clouds the wind won’t move,
          my breath won’t budge.
Blame my eyes for cheap zirconia stars,
for streetlights going out,
one by one, for silent phones.

Every time Jehovah’s dressed
in polyester suits & ties,
slip pamphlets under the door,
our puppy uses them as urine pads.
This might make me laugh—
          except I’m pansies laced
with early frost, craving body heat,
a spirit that the pills won’t kill.
Admittedly in search of God—

Ready for eclipse, I taste
its licorice in my mouth.

The Branding Iron

Ashamed to have a stump and not a leg,
ashamed to be a branch and not a tree,
I wear heavy blankets from my shoulders
dropping to the dusty floor, even on 
on a steamy day in hot July. I’m cold
because I hate myself for giving up.
Didn’t know I liked my limp
until I couldn’t stand at all,
slumped on slipping elbows
just to brush my teeth.

Red water lines the shower floor.
I tell my husband, “Oh, that pink…
I ate a tub of cherry yogurt,
spat some out by accident.”
He knows it’s blood from weeping sores
that missed the circle of the drain.
Knows that cherry anything, even pie,
reminds me of the cough and cold
that landed me in ICU. The coma
and the feeding tube, the mask, the month
they said I would forget, but never have.
The place where sponge baths
were a chilly washcloth tossed into my lap.

When hospice comes, I’m hiding under soiled sheets.
I pinch both cheeks to add some blush,
put any trace of melodrama in a box,
jingle joking tambourines to fill the gaps of silences.
The nurse asks, “How much do you weigh?”
“About an empty box of Cheerios,” I muse.
She laughs; I like her now a little more.
A spit storm in a drought, it doesn’t last.
She mentions wheelchair, the branding iron
my flesh and nerves won’t tolerate.
I flip like bass convulsing to escape the net,
puke into a Target bag. My husband measures
doorways and I glare at him the way
a gleaming jackknife sits at someone’s throat.
One glance at freeways of my scars,
instantly I shrink from mirrors in her eyes.

The Visiting RN 

When deer sniff lurking smoke,
they race for higher ground.
Many people do the same
when life’s a coupon ready to expire.
Fear sets in & distance wins.
Out come chilled martini shakers,
Lazy-Boys, perhaps a pile of ironing,
a week of crucial luncheon dates—
anything to roller skate away from suffering.
I suppose it’s hard to say “Hello,”
knowing that “Goodbye” is next.
It’s best to wear asbestos gloves.


A homecare nurse arrives to check on me.
She knows almost corpses still awake—
too awake—to watch what lies ahead
are tigers in a knotted laundry bag.
Claw. Shred. Claw. I can’t escape.
She knows frail bodies must be flipped with care—
pancakes just about to break—knows bedsores
coming from the bone morph from salmon pink
to thick beet soup, curdling over time.
We talk for hours. The ending is predictable
as chickens dropping morning eggs.
She’s made of different threads,
admits that death contains no caveats.
My eyes are radish sunsets going down
across the foamy waves along a beach
I’ll only walk in postcards of a dream.


She holds my hands of crusty leaves.
Summer’s here, despite black ice we’re slipping on.
She can handle blood & burgundy turned vinegar
spilled on linen tablecloths.  
These are months of frosted ferns just hanging on,
limp as cardboard left to soak in sleet & rain.
I’m grateful for the sweet mirage of roasted turkey
wafting through the house Thanksgiving Day,
even though I’m living on Ensure, powdered protein,
prune juice in a plastic cup. Nausea is getting worse,
a grumbling volcano set to blow.
Sturdy as a streetlamp set in firm concrete,
She doesn’t run a stoplight just to reach the exit ramp.
She’s manna & duende, a soft enchanting music box
I wind & play when I’m alone, drooling on a pillowcase.

Her voice is unforgettable—
cashmere crossed with chamomile— 

*For Mindy Hudek

The Yorkie with a CNA Degree

Our puppy bodyguards the bed when I am ill.
My allergies contest the dander
and the dog hair near my sinuses.
I can’t let her sleep with me.
Tonight, I break the rules—pick her up—
get her comfy on the pillow next to mine.
She inches closer to my face
faster than a secondhand.

I’m a withered fuchsia now with shrunken vines
pointing toward an open grave.
She licks the dingy garnet of a bedsore
deep inside an elbow’s curve.
My shoulder has collapsed.
I rub it raw, use it just to hold
my tortured bones above the sheets
that scrape and burn like steel wool.

            She knows.

She finds the crater in my flesh—
a search dog trained with just her heart
uncovering a body still alive—
buried under stones and dirt.
She licks the source and will not stop.
Her sanding tongue strikes chords of nerves,
pain pushes through the plastered ceiling—
still I let her lick and lick—since tenderness
few humans own undoes the sparks of agony.

Some creatures see and don’t pretend,
go straight for grief, comfort
what is hard to talk about.
I reach for antiseptic spray, a square of gauze,
a roll of paper tape. She rips it off,
tries to chew the bloody swatch of cotton
in her mouth. I take it from her.
“Don’t do that, you’ll choke,” I say.
I pet her fur—panels of a plush mink coat.

She licks my cheeks. I scratch her ears.
Aiming like a bird at worms,
she heads back to the wound,
swabs it with her slippery nose.
I couldn’t ask for swifter angels at my side—
kanones vaulting fallen trees and pointed rocks
in February’s biting cold.

            Her mission done, at least for now, she falls asleep.
            Her snore, a chirping robin sitting on a fence—
            pushing winter into spring.
            3.5 lbs. of love I gently press against my ribs.
            The thought of leaving her forever
            closes my aorta valve.

Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee & the author of four full-length collections of poetry. Buck's most recent work is featured in The Birmingham Arts Journal, Antiphon, Offcourse, PoetryBay, Poetrysuperhighway, Abramelin, Misfit Magazine, Lavender Wolves, River Babble, The Danforth Review & other journals worldwide. Her latest print collection of verse, Dirty Laundry, is currently available at all fine bookstores. Buck’s debut novel, Samantha Stone: A Novel of Mystery, Memoir & Romance, was released by Vine Leaves Press in September, 2016. Janet lives & writes in Southern Oregon—just hours away from Crater Lake, one of the seven wonders of the world.

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