“Progressive Health” (the mail you’re glad you didn’t get)

Here’s a poem that will make you feel better about whatever’s come in your mailbox today. I actually heard Carl Dennis read when I was at UT. He was funny, darkly ironic, and just about the most unassuming-looking person you could imagine. He loves to imagine absurd (and yet nevertheless nagging) ethical dilemmas.

This poem was on my bedroom door for a long time while I was in college. I even bought the book it’s from, Practical Gods, which was no small thing back in the days of box wine and minimum-wage jobs.



Progressive Health

By Carl Dennis


We here at Progressive Health would like to thank you

For being one of the generous few who’ve promised

To bequeath your vital organs to whoever needs them.


Now we’d like to give you the opportunity

To step out far in front of the other donors

By acting a little sooner than you expected,


Tomorrow, to be precise, the day you’re scheduled

To come in for your yearly physical.  Six patients

Are waiting this very minute in intensive care


Who will likely die before another liver

And spleen and pairs of lungs and kidneys

Match theirs as closely as yours do.  Twenty years,


Maybe more, are left you, granted, but the gain

Of these patients might total more than a century.

To you, of course, one year of your life means more


Than six of theirs, but to no one else,

No one as concerned with the general welfare

As you’ve claimed to be.  As for your poems—


The few you may have it in you to finish—

Even if we don’t judge them by those you’ve written,

Even if we assume you finally stage a breakthrough,


It’s doubtful they’ll raise one Lazarus from a grave

Metaphoric or literal.  But your body is guaranteed

To work six wonders.  As for the gaps you’ll leave


As an aging bachelor in the life of friends,

They’ll close far sooner than the open wounds

Soon to be left in the hearts of husbands and wives,


Parents and children, by the death of the six

Who now are failing.  Just imagine how grateful

They’ll all be when they hear of your grand gesture.


Summer and winter they’ll visit your grave, in shifts,

For as long as they live, and stoop to tend it,

And leave it adorned with flowers or holly wreaths,


While your friends, who are just as forgetful

As you are, just as liable to be distracted,

Will do no more than a makeshift job of upkeep.


If the people you’ll see tomorrow pacing the halls

Of our crowded facility don’t move you enough,

They’ll make you at least uneasy.  No happy future


Is likely in store for a man like you whose conscience

Will ask him to certify every hour from now on

Six times as full as it was before, your work


Six times as strenuous, your walks in the woods

Six times as restorative as anyone else’s.

Why be a drudge, staggering to the end of your life


Under this crushing burden when, with a single word,

You could be a god, one of the few gods

Who, when called on, really listens?


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