What to say first? I learnt I was afraid,
Years back, before the turn of the century, I lived for a time in a shared flat near Highbury Corner in North London. It was a dilapidated place spread over the two upper floors of what, in its day, would have been a rather grand terraced house. My room was on the lower of the two floors and shared a wall with both kitchen and lounge. Most nights I was undisturbed by this proximity to the lives of others, but not that night.
Not frightened in the way that I had been
When wide awake and well, I simply mean
Drunk feet on bare boards, and two voices. One was that of my flatmate, C. The other was unfamiliar, a deeper male voice that presumably belonged to his catch for the night. Had I fixed the latch on my door, strangeman would have merely fallen against it, but instead he came crashing through and hit the floor face first. Out cold. C. grabbed the carcass by the ankles, dragged it back out into the hallway, and closed the door without a glance.
Fear became absolute and I became
Subject to it; it beckoned, I obeyed.
The following morning, C. knocked on my door, this time bearing a gift of apology. We stood there wordless while I removed the book from its wrapping and read what he had written inside the front cover: Elizabeth Jennings wrote a poem called ‘A Litany for Contrition’. She’s a poet I love very much & I thought this would make a suitable offering from your contrite flatmate.
In 1998 I went to Barcelona and ended up staying, and in the process I lost touch with C. The book, however, has remained close to me, above all for Sequence in Hospital — eight short poems, each individually titled. One of them, After An Operation, struck a chord at the outset, stirring and constructing memories of hospitalisation in childhood.
Fear which before had been particular,
Attached to this or that scene, word, event,
Now, as I recover from a perforated colon and fecal peritonitis that saw my life begin to wane, I find the lines of that poem mingling with my own thoughts. Thoughts about C., wondering where and how he is, and visioning in my mind’s eye how he dragged the unfucked body of a stranger back into the hallway with all the nonchalance of a slaughterhouse worker or master butcher.
Here became general. Past, future meant
Nothing. Only the present moment bore
This huge, vague fear, this wish for nothing more.
Thoughts, too, about my own body out cold on the operating table, and about the wonders of our day — anaesthesia, antibiotics, precision surgical instruments. Slice me open, flush me clean, sew me back together again.
Yet life still stirred and nerves themselves became
Like shoots which hurt while growing, sensitive
To find not death but further ways to live.
And then there are the digital wonders. What was once for surgeons’ eyes only is now available to all via YouTube. It’s all there in brutal, beautiful detail — how to perform a Hartmann sigmoidectomy and subsequent reversal of the colostomy, the two procedures I underwent, four months apart, to salvage my colorectal system. For me, now, there is something uncanny about watching these videos. It is akin to an out-of-body experience, except that it is not my body, merely my reflection in the mirror of dreams.
And now I’m convalescent, fear can claim
No general power. Yet I am not the same.
And now I’m convalescent, and fear has dissipated, what remains is gratitude. To C., for introducing me to the work of Elizabeth Jennings, and above all to Laura Lázaro and Antonia Lequerica, the two surgeons who brought me back from the edge of life and shadowed my every step as I inched back into the fold.