What We Can’t Swallow (Bitter Pills/Politics)


What We Can’t Swallow  (Bitter Pills/Politics)

When my father was old and ill,
he could not swallow pills
Even the pieces I cut
to speck size, souped
with applesauce,
After finger-digging
some neon morsel
from between the rawer
pink of gum and lip (the bit where humans
evolved from bivalves) for
the eighth time (he, scowling
at the bitter trail),
I’d get frustrated, almost
and might even have given up
or castigated,
but for the background play
of Big Bands,
his yarn-blue eyes, and perhaps most importantly,
some tuning of my inner ear to the
reverberation of unkindness, that bit
(evolved from prey) that
instinctively ducks the rebound,
boomerang and karmic ka-ching, a
sensor of pendulum swing that
kept me adjusting the volume of
both applesauce and Glenn Miller,
till the pill-specks all
got down.

It’s that same part of me, breathless and increasingly
as I walk uphill today, my joints
all waving hello,
that wonders how it is that greed
cannot see
its self-interest;
how those politicians/people
urging the further squeeze of the sick,
the elderly, the working poor and poorer, in favor of
the more-er and more-er,
can be so cock-sure that they will not also
some day
have a bitter pill
to swallow, one that the past greasing of
palms may not


I’m posting the above for dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night.  Check out dVerse and also (from my main page) my books!  poetry, GOING ON SOMEWHERE, (by Karin Gustafson, illustrated by Diana Barco). 1 Mississippi -counting book for lovers of rivers, light and pachyderms, or Nose Dive, a very fun novel that is perfect for a pool or beachside escape.

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52 Comments on “What We Can’t Swallow (Bitter Pills/Politics)”

  1. brian miller Says:

    how it is that greed
    cannot see
    its self-interest…that almost answers its own question…this is what happens in a system where it is all about ‘me’…its gonna take a whole lotta applesauce for this one i am afraid…

  2. Claudia Says:

    apple sauce, glenn miller and politics.. oh that fits well together… i’m always wondering why they can’t see where this is going…well penned k.

  3. hedgewitch Says:

    This is just brilliant, k (not a word I’m fond of, but sometimes…) The adroit internal rhythm and word play all brick and mortar for the foundation of metaphor built, and the scalding truth you’d need a tanker-load of applesauce to mitigate. A fine political poem, and a fine human one as well.

  4. ayala Says:

    A bitter pill to swallow indeed…greed and politics go hand in hand. Love the write.

  5. I recall my dad cutting and trying to swallow so many pills….great job in painting the despair of our times…indeed a bitter pill to swallow ~

  6. Mary Says:

    I loved the progression of this poem, the different types of pills discussed (I too was a caretaker for someone who could not swallow pills..)…the parallels you drew. Yes, indeed, I think there may be some bitter pills ahead for all of us. Your poem is a kind of cautionary tale.

  7. Such imagery in the father-daughter interplay, both visual and tactile, and that imagery gives amazing power to the bitter pill metaphor, beyond the simpleness of that object, when you turn your gunsights on politics. Great read!

  8. Sometimes not even all the money in the world is enough to save us. Having been a 24/7 carer to mylife partner, I can see how frustrating it would be trying to get someone to take meds who has problems swallowing. Sometimes it needs the patience of a saint.
    Sad but, lovely read K.

  9. Or that they’ll have one as loving as you to make the internal check and adjust the music and applesauce. Oh, the hubris. And on whose backs? Great poem!

  10. Wow–very well done.

  11. As some one who works in healthcare, I applaud what your wrote. It does seem that the elderly and poor are getting left behind — or left in our emergency room with no way to pay the bill. Everytime I see cut backs to Medicare or Medicaid being touted as the solution, I cringe. anyway, this was well written in a way that didn’t raise my political hackles. You told a story instead of preaching, which is more effective.

  12. punnypalaver Says:

    Excellent the greasing/lubricate powerful close; “karmic ka-ching” my favorite phrase. My fifteen-year-old son takes six pills in the AM and 8 in the evening, all with applesauce and I know the frustration well. Such beauty in your love for your grandfather–being a caregiver is not easy, but you’ve made your description of it poetic and a perfect analogy for wider political polemic. In short, loved it!

  13. The only politician who is worth voting for is one who promises to change nothing, to keep other politicians out of our pocket, who believes the best widget is the one we already have…. Aside from that, Miss Manic, your story is sad….. i know you have much greater memories of your Dad….. but this one is necessary too, because you were there for him,,,,,,,, It’s quite special too.

  14. C Rose Says:

    the messaging is real, timely and congruent with truth, the harmony, picture and style in which you treated it in your words was perfect. loved this write ~ Rose

  15. This is incredible, K. I have to give my daughter her meds by breaking open the pill and spooning it to her in sugar. We’ve done applesauce and ice cream as well. 🙂

    I love these sections:

    “some tuning of my inner ear to the
    reverberation of unkindness”

    “instinctively ducks the rebound,
    boomerang and karmic ka-ching, a
    sensor of pendulum swing that
    kept me adjusting the volume of
    both applesauce and Glenn Miller”

    “my joints
    all waving hello”

    Bowing down to your cleverness here:
    “cock-sure … one that the past greasing of palms may not lubricate”

    Your line breaks are great, as well as your repetition of “bit.” You are an incredibly smart poet. I love your work.

  16. Mama Zen Says:

    I’m just standing on my chair and applauding!

  17. danadampier Says:

    I love how you deeply expressed your opinion about politics with a metaphor. It’s so smooth and I understand perfectly where you are coming from.

  18. dfb Says:

    ‘how those politicians/people
    urging the further squeeze of the sick,
    the elderly, the working poor and poorer, in favor of
    the more-er and more-er,’

    Never truer words spoken, well said, well written – one day the meek shall inherit, maybe sooner than we (they) think…

  19. Steve King Says:


    They never seem to have to experience bitter pills, though…and every year the sinecurists seem to be more and more entrenched, less responsible…this is a great use of the figure of the pill. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the ills our leaders bring us.


  20. A very touching and moving poem. This is the kind of poetic storytelling that makes poetry great. Thanks for sharing.

  21. apshilling Says:

    An emotive subject expanding into a macro narrative weave;
    excellent mechanics enhance your project – making for a very good read – penetrating and memorable 😀

  22. yoga-adan Says:

    brilliant tie in from the very very personal with your dad, to the too too impersonal of our “representatives”

    esp liked,

    “I walk uphill today, my joints
    all waving hello” –

    knowing that feeling alright 😉

  23. Oh, so clever, so clever… I love the bitter pill metaphor, so clearly drawn and applied so astutely to our times.

  24. Susan Says:

    “some tuning of my inner ear to the
    reverberation of unkindness, that bit
    (evolved from prey) that
    instinctively ducks the rebound . . . ”

    I have that. It is terribly hard to tame and that’s one of the reasons I love this poem. The music, the eyes, your own heart–something gives you the patience NOT to follow instinct here. But when you/I/we get that hard pill to swallow from the politician–and the politician finally gets it . . . This is a powerful and meaningful comparison. Bravo!!

  25. clawfish Says:

    Big bands give the backbeat to this bittersweet confection that as a jazz riff slips into you and makes you feel so much

  26. rmp Says:

    a very interesting piece. As I read the first stanza the image of a pestle & mortar sitting on the counter of my uncle’s counter ready to grind up my grandmother’s pills and mix with applesauce. Such an old memory.

    I like the transition–from the bitter pill to politics. a very nice piece of writing

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