At my wits’ end
And all resources gone, I lay here,
All of my body tense to the touch of fear,
And my mind,
Muffled now as if the nerves
Refused any longer to let thoughts form,
Is no longer a safe retreat, a tidy home,
No longer serves
My body’s demands or shields
With fine words, as it once would daily,
My storehouse of dread. Now, slowly,
My heart, hand, whole body yield
To fear. Bed, ward, window begin
To lose their solidity. Faces no longer
Look kind or needed; yet I still fight the stronger
Terror – oblivion – the needle thrusts in.
II The Ward
One with the photographs of grandchildren,
Another with discussion of disease,
Another with the memory of her garden,
Another with her marriage – all of these
Keep death at bay by building round their illness
A past they never honoured at the time.
The sun streams through the window, the earth heaves
Gently for this new season. Blossoms climb
Out on the healthy world where no one thinks
Of pain. Nor would these patients wish them to;
The great preservers here are little things –
The dream last night, a photograph, a view.
III After an Operation
What to say first? I learnt I was afraid,
Not frightened in the way I had been
When wide awake and well, I simply mean
Fear became absolute and I became
Subject to it; it beckoned, I obeyed.
Fear which before had been particular,
Attached to this or that scene, word, event,
Here became general. Past, future meant
Nothing. Only the present moment bore
This huge, vague fear, this wish for nothing more.
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 now I’m convalescent, fear can claim
No general power. Yet I am not the same.
IV Patients in a Public Ward
Like children now, bed close to bed,
With flowers set up where toys would be
In real childhoods, secretly
We cherish each our own disease,
And when we talk we talk to please
Ourselves that still we are not dead.
All is kept safe – the healthy world
Held at a distance, on a rope.
Where human things like hate and hope
Persist. The world we know is full
Of things we need, unbeautiful
And yet desired – a glass to hold
And sip, a cube of ice, a pill
To help us sleep. Yet in this warm
And sealed-off nest, the least alarm
Speaks clear of death. Our fears grow wide;
There are no places left to hide
And no more peace in lying still.
V The Visitors
They visit me and I attempt to keep
A social smile upon my face. Even here
Some ceremony is required, no deep
Relationship, simply a way to clear
Emotion to one side; the fear
I felt last night is buried in drugged sleep.
They come and all their kindness makes me want
To cry (they say the sick weep easily).
When they have gone I shall be limp and faint,
My heart will thump and stumble crazily;
Yet through my illness I can see
One wish stand clear no pain, no fear can taint.
Your absence has been stronger than all pain
And I am glad to find that when most weak
Always my mind returned to you again.
Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake, I longed for day and light to break –
In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.
Observe the hours which seem to stand
Between these beds and pause until
A shriek breaks through the time to show
That humankind is suffering still.
Observe the tall and shrivelled flowers,
So brave a moment to the glance.
The fevered eyes stare through the hours
And petals fall with soft foot-prints.
A world where silence has no hold
Except a tentative small grip.
Limp hands upon the blankets fold,
Minds from their bodies slowly slip.
Though death is never talked of here,
It is more palpable and felt –
Touching the cheek or in a tear –
By being present by default.
The muffled cries, the curtains drawn,
The flowers pale before they fall –
The world itself is here brought down
To what is suffering and small.
The huge philosophies depart,
Large words slink off, like faith, like love,
The thumping of the human heart
Is reassurance here enough.
Only one dreamer going back
To how he felt when he was well,
Weeps under pillows at his lack
But cannot tell, but cannot tell.
VII For a Woman with a Fatal Illness
The verdict has been given and you lie quietly
Beyond hope, hate, revenge, even self-pity.
You accept gratefully the gifts – flowers, fruit –
Clumsily offered now that your visitors too
Know you must certainly die in a matter of months,
They are dumb now, reduced only to gestures,
Helpless before your news, perhaps hating
You because you are the cause of their unease.
I, too, watching from my temporary corner,
Feel impotent and wish for something violent –
Whether as sympathy only, I am not sure –
But something at least to break the terrible tension.
Death has no right to come so quietly.
Violence does not terrify.
Storms here would be a relief,
Lightning be a companion to grief.
It is the helplessness, the way they lie
Beyond hope, fear, love,
That makes me afraid. I would like to shout,
Crash my voice into the silence, flout
The passive suffering here. They move
Only in pain, their bodies no longer seem
Dependent on blood, muscle, bone.
It is as if air alone
Kept them alive, or else a mere whim
On the part of instrument, surgeon, nurse.
I too am one of them, but well enough
To long for some simple sign of life,
Or to imagine myself getting worse.
HERE the Italian version