Writing Memories 8

 

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Writing Memories 8
Module 3.1: Illness

We talked about illness in old age, how our systems weaken and break down. Above all we discussed the difference between minor illnesses, the coughs and chills that, if caught in time, do not threaten to carry us away and the serious illnesses that are life-threatening or that steal our loved ones, still living, away from us as they shut themselves into the prisons of their own minds. Sad and serious faces filled the room. Everyone knew a friend or a family member that was suffering from, of had suffered from, Alzheimer’s or some form of cancer. It is not an easy topic: how could it be? Yet it is one that, as writers, we must often face and to which we must bear witness. How do we do it? Now that is the question. Here are two poems in which what turns out to be a minor illness is treated with humor.

Poems 1 & 2

Two Gnomes

Two small gnomes camped
last night, one in each of my lungs.

All night long they played
their squeeze-box, wheeze-box
concertinas, never quite in unison.

Sometimes they stamped their feet
and my body rattled with their dance.
Their wild night music caught in my throat
and I coughed unmusical songs
that spluttered and choked.

An east wind blew outside my window.
It whistled and groaned
as it herded the stars from left to right.

The stars pursued the westering moon.
The planets danced to the rhythms
of the accordion music playing in my chest,
and the sky’s planetarium folded and unfolded
its poker hands of silent cards marked with my fate.

Pibroch

This morning, the bailiff, Mr. Koffdrop,
evicted the two gnomes from my lungs.

Landlord Bodie placed an ad on Kiji
then rented the free space in the left lung
to a tiny piper who took up residence by my heart.
This piper piped me a highland pibroch
on his whisky-worn pipes.

A pack of miniature wolves infiltrated
the midnight forest flourishing in my other lung.
When the pibroch played, they pointed their noses
at that spot in my throat where the full moon
would have been, if she could have broken in.

They mingled their howls with the bagpipes’ caterwaul
and I lay awake all night with my heart beating
arrhythmic suspicions on its blood red drum.

The drum played, the pibroch wailed,
the wolves howled, my body lay scarred by
an absence of sleep and the presence of moonlight
that drove stars from the sky and filled the room
with shadows and shifting shapes.

Commentary: These poems recall several sleepless night when the wheezing kept me awake. I remember watching stars and moon outside the bedroom window and thought long on the Platonic dance of the spheres. In fact, I composed these poems in bed on different nights and wrote them down the following morning. They certainly amused me at the time and I am certain that the maintenance of humor in the face of disaster is a gift from the gods. It bolsters our will to fight and makes light of the ills and evils that sometimes surround us. The prose versions clarify the poems.

Two Gnomes & Pibroch [Prose 1]

Two Gnomes: Two small gnomes camped last night, one in each of my lungs. All night long they played their squeeze-box, wheeze-box concertinas, never quite in unison. Sometimes they stamped their feet and my body rattled with their dance. Their wild night music caught in my throat and I coughed unmusical songs that spluttered and choked. An east wind blew outside my window. It whistled and groaned as it herded the stars from left to right. The stars pursued the westering moon. The planets danced to the rhythms of the accordion music playing in my chest, and the sky’s planetarium folded and unfolded its poker hands of silent cards marked with my fate.

Pibroch: In the course of the night, the bailiff, Mr. Koffdrop, evicted the two gnomes from my lungs. Landlord Bodie placed an ad on Kiji then rented the free space in the left lung to a tiny piper who took up residence by my heart. This piper piped me a sad-to-play pibroch on his whisky-worn pipes. A pack of miniature wolves infiltrated the midnight forest flourishing in my other lung. When the pibroch played, they pointed their noses at that spot in my throat where the full moon would have been, if she could have broken in. They mingled their howls with the bagpipes’ caterwaul and I lay awake all night with my heart beating arrhythmic suspicions on its blood red drum. The drum played, the pibroch wailed, the wolves howled, my body lay scarred by an absence of sleep and the presence of moonlight that drove stars from the sky and filled the room with dancing shadows and shifting shapes.

Commentary: Both of the pieces seem finished and I really have no desire to plump them out further. I feel that way sometimes with a piece of writing: “No la toques más, así es la rosa / don’t tinker any more, roses are like that” (Juan Ramón Jiménez). It is so easy to write those words from the great Spanish poet and Nobel Prize winner. But one would do well to also remember these words from Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” And yes, we may all be mistaken, especially when we believe too strongly in our own infallibility. Dealing with serious illness is a much more difficult proposition.

Shadows
Self-portrait

My front door stood open, but I thought
I’d left it closed. I tip-toed in and called:

“Is anyone there?” Echo answered ‘… there, there,
there …”
then silence. I walked from room to room,

startled by shadows. I opened doors, looked
under tables, searched behind chairs. No one.

Ghosts flitted deep in dark mirrors. Curtains
shivered in an unfelt, worrisome breeze.

The house stood silent and empty, save for
the fear, the silent fear, that lurked
like my remembered cancer in each room.

Commentary: This is a poem from a sequence of poems …  A Cancer Chronicle … to which I do not wish to return or, in the words of the immortal Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote it all happened: “En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme / in a corner of New Brunswick, whose name I do not wish to recall …” But this is one of the joys of writing: it permits us to bear witness to anything we wish, no matter how terrible it is. More, it allows us to face the unfaceable, to bear the unbearable, and to control the uncontrollable.  In our own little worlds we are indeed, as Alexander Selkirk discovered in his solitude, the masters of all we survey. This is, surely, an enormous consolation and comfort when we live in this brave new world in which we actually control so little of what happens around us.

Suggestions for the writing exercise included in each module:

Write a prose memoir, just reminiscing.
Use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person narrative.
Choose 6-12 words from the reading and expand on them using associative fields.
Write from an image or a metaphor.
Journal style: automatic writing, but try to select the gems.
Letter style: write to a friend.

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