After Working A Very Short Time At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying, Kalighat (Kolkata)


After Working A Very Short Time At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying, Kalighat (Kolkata)

We carried some
like laundry
to small sheet-metal
tubs, their scooped torsos
in our grip.

There was one
who made me wish I’d stuck
with washing pots and pans in the back,
where cold jolts of spigot, along with
the straw and sand we used
to get at the burned spots,
had steadied my hands.

Because it seemed that she
might die in my arms; worse,

Her thinned limbs spindled–
stripped kindling–only her
head, which the shaved bristle
somehow oversized,
seemed substantial and the dark
gaze that clutched
as if I might drop her–

Then I did drop her–
as I carried,
as I set her down
(awkwardly arranging the
double sheen of shin), but,
after I left that blue
moist hall, Calcutta, and for years afterwards,
when I reached
for the story I had pocketed,
and, too busy, too fearful, too
padded, washed my hands
once more.


Click here for a somewhat ponderous reading.  (I’m sorry, still learning; it does give a sense of pauses.) After Working A Very Short Time At Mother Teresa’s Home For the Dying


Above is a draft poem posted for dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night that I still don’t think I’ve gotten right (in multiple ways.)  It’s not meant to denigrate hand-washing!  But is based on a very short experience working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in the 1980’s in what was then Calcutta (now known as Kolkata).  I was lucky enough to see Mother Teresa a couple of times.  She was tremendously impressive, immensely charismatic.  And her nuns (the Missionaries of Charity) seemed to me like angels.  Most of the dying in Kalighat had tuberculosis. 

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48 Comments on “After Working A Very Short Time At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying, Kalighat (Kolkata)”

  1. Steve King Says:

    This so powerful…I can only admire your decision to work there. I’ve never personally known of anyone who’d done that. This is a very stirring work

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Oh, thanks so much. I really did work a very very brief time. I was in Calcutta actually to do research on labor law, which was it’s own very frustrating adventure. Thanks. k.

  2. Sometimes we have to wash our hands of it, at least take breaks from it. I think you got it right. It a hard story to tell, but you told it so well, indirectly through the laundry and pot washing.

  3. I admire your courage, both in the experience and the attempt to capture it here. To carry another seems a sacred thing. The space in the poem works very well.

  4. ayala Says:

    A powerful poem. I admire your work there and all the angels that have shared their hearts there.

  5. apshilling Says:


    .i really enjoyed the reading . . . a suitable and complementary conveyance vehicle for this subject matter . . . a powerful piece.

  6. brian miller Says:

    fark k….what an experience…one of those that sticks with you and def makes you feel afraid to examine it too closely….felt…i remember a mission to the hills of KY and meeting small kids no one wanted and hearing their stories….being so close to home it struck me…and sent me down the path i still follow…

  7. Laurie Kolp Says:

    What wonderful work you are doing here. I am always so happy when I volunteer my time to places like that.

  8. Patti Says:

    This is heartrending. I so admire you for doing that. The link I perceive between your work there (which I suspect was far more than you think) and washing your hands is too complicated to describe, but it touches me inside.

  9. hedgewitch Says:

    It’s only human to drop others’ misery, others’ deaths, as if they might be contagious…but it’s also easier said than done. I admire you doubly, for writing about it, for doing it. Your descriptions are like a slo-mo black and white newsreel of something too awful to look at, too horrific to turn away. A fine poem, draft or otherwise. (thanks for the process notes–wondering what the dying was from.)

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Yes, I don’t know the situation now. At that time there was a lot of TB, which is a bit scary to the nervous types. I suspect that there’s still a fair amount of that but maybe AIDS now too?

  10. Admirable poetry you’ve written here K. You found both the frailty and nobility in the dying; and the honor in the work that’s done. So easy to make a mis-step but none was taken here.

  11. claudia Says:

    oh wow k. – what a moving write – what a moving experience.. i would’ve loved to meet her..she surely was such a blessing to so many people

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      You know, I saw her and listened to her. Can’t talk of meeting – but I was lucky enough – just happened to be there one day when she came by to buck up workers. I didn’t really deserve to be in the group, but I happened to be. I will write about it. I thought she was pretty extraordinary and did feel very blessed. I’m sure there were things about her that weren’t perfect, but she was very good at what she did. k.

  12. A deeply moving prose poem. So deep.

  13. Ravenblack Says:

    A memorable and meaningful time it must have been a part of this work. Loved the honesty. I’ve done a bit of volunteer work that benefits the elderly but never in direct interaction with the people for which it is for. There’s the fear of doing more harm than help when it comes to handling what is perceived as fragile. Thank you for this inspirational poem and share.

  14. Authentic and brutally honest. Some of the images this conjures are hard to bear, but the writing here is perceptive and intelligent.

  15. hobgoblin2011 Says:

    wow, what an amazing piece. An expose of the conditions, the people, and just a reminder of how things can be much worse. But there’s more here than that, there’s a genuine compassion, which I think you have to have in working with such situations, it’s a visual created that definitely yanks at the heart. Great read. Thanks

  16. I felt this viscerally thanks to your splendid, spare writing. Scooped torsos hammocked in our grip and the limbs spindled, stripped kindling – so beautiful, so heartbreaking. And the fear of a TB cough and of such death makes the hand washing understandable. Bless those nuns and their helpers for all they do in unimaginable circumstances that you have painted well.

  17. I love the personal share K ~ The details of the chore and sickly woman, sticks in our hands ~

  18. Completely overwhelming. I assumed from the start of your poem that it was voluteer work, washing this or the other the mainstay of the first couple of verses. But then there seemed to be a sickly child and the mention of Calcutta, where I know that Saint (I prefer)Teresa spent most of her life selflessly helping others. Then I read your mention of it. I did not know that you were there. But now that I do, bless you Miss Manic…… Your life is indeed filled with complete beauty in every way I can think imaginable……

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Ha! No, my life has a lot of negative aspects!!!! And I only was there briefly. And this was a place for adults. I know that the Missionaries of Charity run orphanages started by Mother Teresa (and I’m glad she was canonized, but have to use the name I know), but I did not go to one of those. I was really there to see what it was about – there are many people that volunteer for long periods. I really was not one of them. But thanks much for your kind words. k.

  19. Luke Prater Says:

    Life.. death… this is thick with the rawness of reality. Earthy and visceral, genuine account yet so poetic… appreciate your stuff more than you realise

  20. I love prose poetry that tells of something I never knew that I already knew. Thanks for this! 😉

  21. Poet Laundry Says:

    Ooh chills…powerful piece. Dang good write indeed.

  22. jenneandrews Says:

    Another exquisite poem, Karin. You convey such intensity, how the experience abrades, with the straw and sand– the eyes burn…how brave of you, and what a brave and beautiful poem– I especially loved
    We carried some
    like laundry
    to small sheet-metal
    tubs, their scooped torsos
    in our grip.

    Much heart in this poem…xxxj

  23. ladynyo Says:

    Oh, K! What a poem. Goes straight to the heart, and had my mind riveted to your story. There is a greatness to this poem, for the raw honesty, the struggle of carrying this memory for so long, and then finally being able to write it out.

    Courage led the way on this…and incredible, unforgettable compassion.


    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Ha, Jane – you are way too kind. I’m afraid the main compassion is probably towards me doing so little to make the world a better place! I am always amazed by how one can be so moved but how hard it is to really change one’s life. But I do appreciate your kindness. Thanks. k.

  24. Dick Jones Says:

    An excellent demonstration of that most frequently broken of poetic requirements, ‘show, don’t tell’. The impact of the piece is so well served by the spelled-out regret of the last stanza. A fine poem, Karin.

  25. janehewey Says:

    thank you for sharing your experience. i think it is your phrase “and washed my hands once more” that zeros in on the pain. scooped torsos and cold jolts provide stunning imagery while you carry us into the center of your experience. nothing short of beautiful,k.

  26. Humbling words ~ this took courage

  27. Lila Says:

    Indeed you are a master of showing and not telling, k. I can learn so much, so much from you! Your words reach the heart.You still come to mind when I read Vilanelles and Sestinas (:

    With this poem, I really felt how “heavy” it is to carry the dead, and to help others who are in dire condition, because our hearts can only handle so much, even if we are the ones physically strong enough to aid the dying. More than anything, it’s an emotional effort. God bless you.


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  28. Beth Winter Says:

    First, I could cry. I think it is incredibly sad that anyone lives in such a way and I’m grateful that they have a place to go where someone cares. This is vivid and a poem, once experienced, will linger through my days. Well done.

  29. Wonderful poem, very real. Wonderful to have had that experience, and given that gift to a human. I know you were gifted in return. And in your poem, that being lives and is honored once again.

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