Forgive me in advance for addressing you directly.  I did not really know how to start.  For some reason, I feel as if I hear you breathing, wondering, thinking.  I am not quite like Italo Calvino when he pretended to address you (and me) in the opening lines of his If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. [1] No, it looks the same, but it doesn’t feel the same.  True, it is closer than when someone addresses me in one of those self-help books about cancer.  It would say something like, So you have discovered you have cancer.  You feel like it is the end of the world.  I feel like adding the rejoinder, Maybe it is.  But that would be a bit rude.  Anyway, if you are still reading, you get the idea, I am sure.  If you want one of those sorts of books or internet sites, you will not have to search very hard.  If you want one of these, on the other hand, well, you appear to have found it, heaven help you.  This is my go at explaining, indeed of articulating my world of cancer.

You see, if you will allow me to continue to address you as a friend, or at least as a tolerant reader, I am one of those many who have had cancer, and am among those who think they have recovered from it.  Perhaps you too have cancer, or have had it, and are of my number. [2] Perhaps you are wondering what to do next.  Or perhaps you do not have cancer at all, but know someone close who has.  Or maybe you do not think of such things at all, and merely looked at my title, ‘Rhapsodies of the Prostate,’ and thought to yourself, ‘goodness, I wonder what he means by that,’ or ‘Poor guy,’ or, ‘Only a man could write something so stupid,’ or even, ‘What’s a prostate? What’s a rhapsody?’ or ‘How did I end up on this page?’  Oh, dear, here you are all the same.

You see, despite my intimate address to you, I just don’t know you at all.  I do not even know where you are, which things you like, which kinds of music you like, whether indeed you like music at all.  Ah, surely you do, though – allow me that illusion of certainty.  Yes, you like music.  And art.  Maybe even poetry.  Or else why would you be ‘here’ on this site.  See, even though this dialogue is one-sided, it needs you or else it is not a dialogue at all.  There is no need to show this, as Jacques Derrida once did (many years before he died from pancreatic cancer).  He wrote a book of imaginary postcards, a fictive one-way set of letters.  A funny thing to do.  I love that book. I love it because as I read it on a beach in Rotuma, I kept thinking, he surely cannot know that his postcard reached me here.

There should be two of us.  Writing is usually like that, isn’t it?  It really is always a double dialogue..  As you may know, even if you came here after searching for ‘cancer’ or ‘rhapsodies’ or ‘hospital,’ this journal, Double Dialogues, reflects on the possible dialogue of criticism and the arts.  Its curators explicitly ask for this.  Usually, as you can probably tell, I tend to the critical side.  The explosion of poetry which I wrote over the last two years is not typical behaviour of mine.  I am usually more restrained.  Some of this poetry is, well, operatically embarrassing in its scale.  It’s as if my private feelings of shame and humiliation required processing via an extravagantly creative act of exhibitionism.  The great song of ‘I, mine, and me,’ as the critic A.G. Stephens wrote in his very faint praise for his supposed friend, Christopher Brennan. [3] As to why it still gives me pleasure even now, I really do not quite know, but the simple fact is that it does, like that joy of pushing on a bruise.

If the art gives me pleasure, I am not sure my aestheticizing responses to my cancer will help anyone else.  I can tell you they did help me.  Well, so far at least.  Maybe, next year I will slide into that depression which is so common a result of the side-effects people like me suffer from the operation I chose: the radical prostatectomy. [4] By writing about my cancer and my responses to it and to all those involved in it, some found it useful to them, or at least of interest.  Also, nowadays, with no expertise whatever, I am able to talk to people about their cancers, and they in their turn seem able to talk to me.  While the value you find in your reading is up to you, I hope that you can find feelings and thoughts which reach out to you, which reach into you.

Prostate Cancer

So let me start with diagnosis.  When there was that first PSA hint of cancer, I kept it to myself a bit.  I had to think.  The first thing is, cancer?   Then, me?  And then, well, heck, it’s only the prostate.  This is a not-too-serious cancer, a kind of man cancer to be held in the company of man flu and the other ways in which men display their special talent for self-attention and exaggeration.  After all, in the era of three score years and ten (3×20+10 = 70) men died with prostate cancer, not because of it.  We are here to observe your cancer, not to treat it.  Such, if you are fortunate enough to have a low Gleason score, could be your fate.  In any event, after that little line of thinking, I shared it with those close to me.

Then, in seeking to make sense of the dialectic of medical science, of fear and uncertainty, of the care of those around, and of ‘who’ I am, I visited Sally, a well-known physiotherapist based here in the Blue Mountains.  She was my professionally emotional guide, a prophet of the side-effects which awaited me (in respect of the latter, a fellow-patient, Robert, gave me the crisp concrete advice I needed about the prostatectomy and its aftermath – that is a debt I cannot repay).

Writing about my experience of physiotherapy was a lyrical experience, but inflected with the new vocabulary I was learning.  I wrote about pelvic floor exercises, and breathing.  I wrote about my body, the body.  As she put me in touch with my body, she worked on my feelings too.  As I started writing poems at home, she told me more about what I was, inside, about myself as physical matter.  This other person, this me had body parts I did not even know existed.  I began to imagine how it would be when I would be unconscious, being operated on, being moved about, the first cut, the dissection, the moving of my organs, all while I was unaware.  There are many diagrams of ourselves, including this one, from Duke university’s lab guides for cadaver-disssection.   But living tissue is different even when it is unconscious; as living flesh, I was being introduced to myself: my inner muscles, my perineum, me.

Image illustrating the ‘Dissection of the Male Urogenital Triangle’ [5]

Image illustrating the ‘Dissection of the Male Urogenital Triangle’ [5]


Strange so late to be introduced to you!  Strung you are,
You St Andrew’s cross between trees and stars,
You strong and striated stream of weirdness
Named for the bewildered novitiate.  The outside of you I see
But it’s the inside which I, exploring, grope.  And feeling along
Your knotted ropes which bind canals of flesh
I touch floors and cavities I have never seen.
Pelvic dreams we all share
Dare me to know your throbbing weave.

Stranger still they named you so!  Obscene
Taxonomies fixed labels to bits
Of sliced and slivered body: Grey’s Anatomy,
Or Leonardo too, those corpses splayed
In butterfly cases in a mould-filled room.
Not this room though.  This room’s cool and quiet.
Alone with Linnaeus, I cite Latin and Greek.
I am camera, scalpel and corpse all at once
I linger on each body-bit dissected,
My entire brain now infected
By that wandering scientific finger. [6]


The side-effects are significant.  There is information [7] about them, and it is mainly misleading.  There are three so far as I can tell: incontinence, impotence, and what might best be called generalised weakening.  The latter I have seen in another fellow-prostate cancer patient, who needs a daily afternoon rest.  In that respect, at least, I regained my full physical strength and mental capacity after about nine months. All that is left now in that regard is what anyone who has an operation requiring a deep six inch cut suffers – some scar-pain. The incontinence and impotence, on the other hand are ongoing side effects for me, and for many others besides. Because I was warned accurately about them, I prepared myself as best I could.

Like most people, I feared urinary incontinence (and had already chosen not to take radiation partly because of the risks of bowel damage).  As for urinary incontinence, I have learned to live with it.  Continence improves dramatically in the three months after the operation, and slowly thereafter for up to two years.  There are a lot of aids and choices for those who want to have control at all costs.  One of my friends uses a catheter several times a day to cope.  Some choose to have ‘sling’ operations which allow manual manipulation and control.  But for basic reasons such as urinary tract infection, I did not choose further operations. [6]  Instead, I worked on getting better pads and nappies (‘diapers’) over the internet than are available in the shops. [7]

Most men seem to fear impotence.  When my specialist kept returning to it as something important, I realised that his many years of practice had shown him this, and there was little I could do to reassure him.  When after a few months, it became clear that I was indeed impotent and likely to remain so, my specialist advised me to use injections to take Viagra or Cialis type medicines, either by injection to the penis itself, or failing that, to take a continuous low dose of Cialis.  Having had a heart disturbance in the aftermath of the operation, the last thing I wanted to take was anything which would cause the blood to surge in this way.

In my view, these things – incontinence and impotence – are disabilities, not dysfunctions.  As for impotence, I use this old-fashioned word because I just do not see that the term, ‘erectile dysfunction’ is preferable.  On the contrary, as one who prefers things to be called by their names, impotence at least has the merit of being specific. The word is derived from the Latin word, potere (to be able), and thence, from impotens, impotentis, to have no power or control over something.  As to erectile dysfunction, it evokes an obsession with the sex organ itself (when there is always more than that).  Erectile dysfunction sounds all ‘crazy cock’ to me, connoting a dysfunction: a robot gone haywire, government programs failing, socially aggressive misfits, disorganised cities, things firing off randomly.  I don’t feel like adding my unfortunate little member to the list.  Then again, maybe you are sighing, saying, ‘John, you are over-thinking this.’  So perhaps it does not really matter what it is called.

Immediate aftermath of my operation, with drains and catheter attached.

Immediate aftermath of my operation, with drains and catheter attached.

And I suppose it does not matter either that many medical people tend to use infantilising terminology when talking to me.  Instead of the urinary system, for instance, I was repeatedly asked about how ‘my waterworks’ were going.  As I feel little relationship to utility companies supplying water, even metaphorically, I have nevertheless learned to accept this – many of the men with incontinence (or impotence) are older men, and in being one of them at least to those wary young doctors, I suppose there are other things to worry about..

Reticence is another matter, one that does some harm.  Reticence in men is one of the strangest things I had both to explore and to understand.  It blocks discussion.  I realised that my response to cancer was not going to be a quiet one, but also that the side-effects of prostatectomy and radiation treatment alike are a matter of great personal embarrassment.  There is a tendency as a result of this to sweep the matter aside.  But this only makes it all worse: if the problems aren’t discussed, then no one even knows there is a problem.  That is part of the reason we actually understate the nature of the decision to have a prostate treatment.  While too much discussion is tiresome (what can be more boring than listening to me going on about my symptoms?) too little distorts the world.  Well, a small part of the world, if you see what I mean.

Anger.  I felt no anger.  Perhaps the poems helped me to avoid it.  Certainly, hey let me take control of my decision-making, and they gave me a grounded vocabulary to ask questions.  But many men feel anger even at their prostate diagnosis, and indeed, many cancer sufferers feel the same way too, as if it should not have somehow selected them.  But much as a seed may germinate anywhere, cancer is entirely natural.  I could no more feel anger towards my cancer than I could towards a tree that had taken root in the wrong place.  Still less could I ever feel anger towards those who helped me, the practitioners, the doctors, the nurses, the caterers.  We all do what we can.

Fragility: stripped back, thin

Now I am over a year after ‘the operation,’ strange emotions cloud my judgement.  A renewed fragility.  Where did that year go?  Why are my memories so muddled, so intense?  Why, even now, have I lost confidence in myself, the worth of things I used to do, even as I see in new ways the small flowering plants and all their brilliant yellows in the midst of winter?  Why were people so good to me?  Was all this real?  Why do I sometimes feel as if the world goes on as if nothing at all happened?  Why was I lucky?  Was I lucky?

But I have become at once someone who sets some daily struggles aside as not worth attention, and yet, also, someone more fragile, or at least aware of my fragility, and of the fragility of those I love.  As the operation date approached, as the operation took place, and immediately afterwards, this fragility took hold of me.  I could no longer absorb the bad news of the world, least of all the cant of politicians, of the hard-talk brigade.  I soaked myself in music – not the rock music soundtrack to my driving nor French pop music – a music salve applied to my very being.

Two pieces of music wrapped themselves around me.  The first, by Beethoven was his Missa Solemnis, particularly the later parts of it.  This ethereal and limping music expresses frail humanity in a way that this far-from-modest composer could only have arrived at after being partially broken down by life itself. [8] The other is ‘Alt Rhapsodie,’ whence my name, ‘rhapsodies’ of the prostate.  Brahms wrote it, and it has three parts.  The last part has a chorus where, over a Goethe poem, the heavens are appealed to intercede, to offer assuaging comfort. [9]    Not that I forgot the others.  No, I did not forget one of my sister’s favourite songs, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ [10] nor of course fiery Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody.’ [11]

As literary critic, I was dismayed to realise that the best poems I wrote about my cancer were nearly all written in a haze of pain and medication.  I have never believed in the idea that good art occurs under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  And that is not quite the case I am making anyway.  Rather, they were written when my mind was barely able to cope, and was reduced to basics, such as trying to reach a glass of water on the hospital tray.  Not only were some of the poems written in these most awful circumstances (which anyone who has had an operation can understand), but also, the rhythm of hospital life with its rounds, its sleepless hours, its noises and interruptions, reinforced the effect.  I brought an exercise book with me, and even now, looking at it, I am disturbed by how incoherent some of it is.

These poems, I thought, were barely poems at all.  They were stripped back, thin and vulnerable.  Later, going over the poor little things, typing them out, I mended incoherences, sucked out small digressions, oddities.  Before calling them the ‘hospital’ sequence (below), I called them ‘prose poems,’ because they did not seem to me to be poems at all.  Not quite.  They were almost-poems. Not quite whole.  Like me.

Writing poems about cancer is not new, of course.  In Australia, Philip Hodgins wrote a number of really fine poems on the matter.  ‘Death Who’ is wonderfully  wrought, as in an understated form of free verse, he engages in a conversation with cancer.  The conversation begins ‘equitably enough,’ but ends in a scene where ‘he’s got you like conviction’ but also, is ‘kneeling on your chest,’ a malicious and ‘glaring’ force. [12]  Hodgins makes his cancer male.  I do not feel it that way. True, a cancer of the prostate, which it must be said is a very male thing to have (or in my case, to have had), is made up of masculinizing cells, errant cells which, refusing apoptosis (cell-death), proliferate.  Do forgive me this (no I have not forgotten you), but I see cancer as pre or non-sexual.  To be sure, you could just say it is mitosis gone mad – that is what the biologists, do say, but isn’t this what unicellular organisms do in their total replicative process of reproduction?   They just want to live.

Late Styles

Many years ago, in a matter of what must be psychiatric banality, I was in a dramatic car accident with two friends.  We all lived: afterwards, stilling our shaken nerves with alcohol, we all described the feeling of slow-motion-capture, a sense that, ‘that’s it, we’re gone.’  Knowing it was now not in anyone’s control any longer, we accepted what we took to be inevitable.  Recent years have brought a flood of books which reflect on this calmness in the face of death.  Not that that aspect is quite new of course.  After all, Plato’s version of Socrates in the ‘Apology’ and ‘Phaedo’ present Socrates’ own exigencies: a double demand that he at once not flee as a duty to God and also, a requirement that he let ‘no day pass without discussing goodness…life without this sort of examination is not worth living’ (66).

Robert Dessaix’s book, What Days are For, like his earlier novel, Night Letters, aestheticises the challenge of mortality.  For me, what Days are For is a stripped back and wonderful work, and I actually bought it for a fellow cancer-traveller.  The aesthetics are partly hidden, but who else would notice the details of his unlikely rescuer’s clothing?  And if aesthetics be thought a kind of mere decoration, it is worth considering what the approach does, even in the work of its title, a citation from Larkin’s poem, ‘Days’:

Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields. [13]

Dessaix cites Larkin to remind us that daily life matters.  It is not a matter of holding on no matter what, nor of ‘appreciating’ life.  It concerns living itself, doing life while we are here, while we choose to be here, of not missing that which is right in front of us.  And of being a little wary of those experts who know better, even if we at times, choose to follow their advice.  Perhaps especially then.

Our society is afflicted with shallow explanations of stages of this and that (grief notably, but many other things besides), an entire psychologising lexicon of the emotions with which to garb our actual feelings and to push them, blinking uncertainly, into the dazzling light of public conversation, Resilience, positive reinforcement, growth mindsets, and other frameworks have their place, I am sure.  But when I hear the jargon escape from its proper bounds (a particular university department wherein it would be best confined), I hear the murmurings of Dylan Thomas, about not going gently into the night. [14]

A strange peace this: the peace of human transcendence perhaps.  The Beethoven mass was something I clutched close just then: that moment where the hubristic ego collides with mortality, the site of the sacred.  Writing of this sort of secular sacred (the one which works for all, even, perhaps especially those of us who do not believe in supreme beings), Theodor Adorno called it ‘late style.’ [15] Reflecting on one of his favoured modern composers, Schoenberg, he suggested
Important works of art are the ones that aim for an extreme; they are destroyed in the process and their broken outlines survive as the cyphers of a supreme, unnameable truth….the impossibility of the sacred work of art becomes increasingly evident the more the work insists on its claim to be one without involving the support of any outside authority.  (226-27)
IF ‘Bruckner was presumably a believer in the anachronistic sense….the Promised Land remained closed to him, and perhaps even to the Beethoven of the Missa Solemnis’ (228).  Even broken, Beethoven was brutal, raw.

As we approach the sacred, death encroaches. A book with the inscription, ‘the international bestseller’ might be one you, dear reader, could be expected to have heard discussed.  I myself have never heard such discussion, nor read it.  Instead, I happened upon this book while travelling, and looking for an English language book to read.  PF Thomése depicts something much worse than the menace of my own demise.  Shadow Child is a haunting (in the beautiful and terrible sense of that word) account of the death of a child: ‘A child without parents is an orphan.  But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?’ (4). There is no word for it.  And there are no ready words for this book either, save this: I am glad it exists, and it filled out layers of feeling I never knew existed.  It is also true that as I read – in translation – its bleak and beautiful prose, I found no solace, no possible acceptance, no way out.  But I see its value all the same.

Death is everywhere.  It touches us personally, in that way that Emmanuel Levinas divines in his accounts of the face-to-face.  No, I am not in the camp of those who feel we can ‘move on’ or ‘get over it.’  And no, when a person close to me dies, a part of my world dies too.  I never get over it.  There is always a gap where that person was.  If the person was a close friend, a family member, a person who mattered to us, the gap is larger and it continues and does so without end, until my end.  My mother died in 1988, and while I know that is not yesterday, I miss her all the same.  So it is with all my friends who have died.  I could name them and I miss them still.

One such gap opened up in the midst of my recovery, in the midst of my poetry-writing.  The gap appears also in the verse, because it was written when I thought I would be able to help in his road back home.   He was our neighbour.  The following poem was written when it seemed I was worse off than my neighbour,  We thought he was going to get better, but we were wrong.

Neighbourhood Watch
(For George)

My heart flickered, but yours almost died.
We tried to survive ward constabularies
To learn the cold vocabularies of care.
Now I am nearly me again, while you
Dangle suspended, organs tangled
In unexpected mortal threats.
You were always there, concerned for me.
I almost missed it.  But it’s my turn now.

As I was recovering from prostate cancer, George went from being healthy to having a routine pacemaker installation, to a sudden crisis – and death.  I am unable to write more about this – the poem is stalled in inadequacy, stalled in life.  I cannot now write a fitting conclusion to it: it is still my turn now, even though there is nothing that can be done.  And I cannot close it.  Nor indeed, should I.

Photographs and Poems

I wanted a record.  Not just the poems, but the poems with other things: recorded sound, and above all, photographs.  This is a little strange, I admit.  It is as if I needed photographs to remind me that I had been stripped and cut open, then clothed, fed, bathed, cared for.  The hospitals are staffed by remarkably professional people, an entire industry where people make a living caring for people like me.  They get used to seeing us like that, as meat in sheets, as moaning, as calling always for assistance for the most basic things.  As recalcitrant.  I had vowed not to be recalcitrant.  Mainly, I managed.  Mainly.

But I needed photographs.  Some I took myself, some I persuaded others to take for me.  And now, I have these interesting pictures, and mainly, they make me laugh.  They also remind me of Roland Barthes’ book, Camera Lucida.  In that book, he looked at old photographs of himself and of his mother, whose recent death had triggered the need.  Barthes was not to know that he was soon himself to die – only we the living can appreciate the structure of that terrible irony.  Barthes points out that photographs are strange things.  As he says, they are ‘always containing this imperious sign of my future death….I need to be alone with the photograph I am looking at’ (97).  Barthes’ little book is a theoretical gem, beautifully written, an elegy of sorts.  He reminds us of the clichés of photographs (‘capturing the moment’ and so on), even as he points out that often the exact opposite is the truth: the captured moment recedes even as it is trapped in an image, reminding us at every turn of the passage of time.

Yet in capturing images of myself in hospital, my memory of that time provides something of the opposite effect: things now are better.  Such a stance puts the hospital photograph in the company of the prisoner mug shot, or the detainee.  Usually, a question of permission is at stake.  Because I asked for the photograph to be taken, the problem is more one of my own exhibitionism, something strange to me.

Self-portrait in blue (actually I had to ask Shiva to take the picture).

Self-portrait in blue (actually I had to ask Shiva to take the picture).

Mr Magoo

Look at me, I’m all in blue
If they give me a name
It’ll be Magoo.
I’m the joking fool without a care,
The senile old fellow in the old armchair.
And if you ask me
What it is I do
I’ll say Mr Magoo does not do
Mr Magoo just is.

I am not sure why I found my own image so funny.  The socks looked funny, even if they are designed to prevent blood clots.  The gowns were so utterly humiliating (they open from behind so there is no dignified way to walk even if you have not yet had your operation), and yet they made me laugh too.  The photograph takes me back….so do the poems.

And so….

Dear reader, I am grateful for the support, the love, the fellow-travellers, and the world I encountered.  I commend it all to you….may your road be sweetened by their raptures.


1.  Before the Operation

‘Abdominal Pain’ [16]

‘Abdominal Pain’ [16]


Plectere, to soften by blows…..these two poems are not opposed, but are point and counterpoint, strophe and antistrophe, one and the same but to a different rhythm.  They are about my primal fear of being stabbed and turned to steak, or maybe, a primal longing to become a mass of meat.

1. Defence
In defence, I clench my gut
I brace myself against the invading blade.
My braided meat tenses and tightens,
But no exercise can stay the knife,
Which soon shall divide this flesh in half.
My body becomes belly.  How I hunger
For simpler blows!   For old-fashioned fists
Whose bruise-flowers now must fade and die!
Red bursts of dread blaze fiery life
And sear a steel line right through me.
I bleed like a bloodied onion
And I watch as my smiling butcher waits.
Slow, the sullen queues of cattle churn
Each defeated and waiting its turn.

2.  Embrace
I see the smile on your murderous face
And I smile too as we finally embrace.
I feel you finger me lightly.  I feel
Steel parting trembling clutched hands
Shielding this swollen belly of mine.  Foetal me,
I feel you.  I feel my surrendered lips part as
Your pen draws a line from penis to heart.
Make the first cut, take me apart!
Suddenly you are kind!  I feel your eyes
Smile as I feel mine close.  My Stockholm
Lover, I am Winston who took
So long to learn he was only meat.
Asleep am I as you slice through
And in deepening black I yield to you.

Learning still
(for Shiva)

I see your eyes, yet I look away.  Things unsaid,
Perhaps best not to say.  A word works, a gesture
Does more.  I reach out, but drowning, I cannot
Quite reach that shore.  Touch me, touch you.
Yes it is real.  Yet still there will be more.

My life, I said, had been fine.  But that was wrong
So wrong of me.  ‘What,’ you asked, ‘If I said that?’
I look away again.  Even now, there is much to learn.

(For Tegan Bennett-Daylight)

You knot rope out of sheaves of paper.
But it floats, soaks, and sinks.  The shore beckons.
Dying leaves and a blur of words
Mix well with wine and laughter.
You caress the embossed print
Running thoughtful fingertips
Over the textured weave of words
We need.  The scent of books keens the senses:
‘Let’s form a club,’ you say.  A book group
The sort that discusses, meets to think
Or failing that, while children sleep,
To drink.

‘Yes,’ I simply say.  For surely
These words are the forget-me-nots of time.
And we can switch Pemberley for the author
Of Waverley, as we press Sydney suburbs
Into serving lawn-devouring centuries
Or Austen who, surely, survives stranger things
Than film adaptations, or our fake Champagne.
I draw breath.  These famous teas of yours are no worse
Than any English hydrangea growing
Wild in my verse.  We droop in an absurd heat
Hotter than any prose could describe.

Tegan with her books, and some of Russell’s as well. [17]

Tegan with her books, and some of Russell’s as well. [17]

2.  Hospital

I see a subtle straining at the mouth:
Quiet, so gentle is she.
‘It’s all part of our training,
I’ll bring new sheets to you.’
Animal shame writes my name
In shit.  She says it’s the Piko prep.
Revulsion from my primal core
Seizes me, almost prevents me
Helping, as she opens the bag
So I can shove my dirtied
Self away from me.

5.30.  Five hours late.  Wait.
‘You’ll be fine.’  5.40.
I won’t remember the next five hours.
‘We’ll look after you.’  Cold.
‘John?’  11.30.  Oh dear:
Sentences fail.  I say, ‘Sick.
Pain.  Sick.’
‘It went well,’ even through
Anaesthetic, his relief evident,
And mine.

My drips.

My drips.

Post-operative Dream
I dreamt of juicy steak.  Saw it.  Watched its juices
Sluicing over a death-white plate.  Then some green
Kind of fried fritter, details of peas
So extremely green it forced me awake
From the luminous vibration of a most
Beautiful hallucination.
And I was not hungry at all.

Febrile figures climb the walls
They do it silently so as not
To alert the Authorities, who
With buttons and drips
Blast them into temporary oblivion.
At night, they return.
In flickering fluorescence,
They dazzle me
When I try to stand.

Crooked clown, frowning with pain
You’re walking rather well today!
Well, that is the lying sort of something
These medical wizards like to tell you.
In long-lost days, you were the dreaded
Mrs Mulligan, the soft-cheeked Madhu
Or the room’s most raucous Janine.
Wherein now your personhood?
You are nothing but a shabby shape
Shuffling so slowly even kindly Snape
Murmurs sympathy beneath his breath.
What thing are you?  What use are you?
You know you’re not needed now.

Shattered images nod as I pass
Silent walkers holding fast
To pale women.  In the glass
My flesh, or yours.
Split night red, staples, cuts
It’s just me I see.  Or you.
Light sudden on the face
Night breaks open like a skull
The mirror is gone
And I have disappeared.

A muddled head have I, like when
I’m slapped too much.  Like when my child
Is sick or after I drink too much.
A muddled head knows neither hour nor day
Nor place nor reason why.  Just tired,
Old, no longer quite in,
Or of, this world.


Says he
‘Better than you, I guess,’ he replies,
‘Just here for the wife,’ adds he,
Searching for coffee, the kind
In a paper packet, the kind
Not good, but hot,
Once hot water added, that is.
Pause.  ‘Yeah, her second time:
Getting used to it,’ says he.
‘Better be careful with that,’
Says me.

I’m a shiny ball dropped
Into the arcade game.
Flipped to Cardio after heart event.
Tests.  The Sultan lights up,
Smiles at the impossible woman
And I am fired to the Scan
Zone before rolling
Back from whence
I’d come.

Urologist in Blackheath
(for David, my specialist)

We meet nowhere except
In that secret mist which twists
And gropes along the Grose.
Drowning hanging leaves in cloud,
It heals wounds in my little cottage
And yours.


Dead, dead, staring zombie eyes,
Embered remnants of my burned out head.
I press the bed-button and Lazarus
Starts to rise
And rise and rise and rise!
No resurrection of the dead, this;
Just the mechanical raising of the dead.

Technology-assisted resurrections. [18]

Technology-assisted resurrections. [18]

Flesh Machine
I greet you cleaners, cooks and healers.
One mighty machine are you, a
Terminator covered in flesh, wrapped in cloth,
And uniforms of white and blue.
Uniforms only you understand.

Steel wrapped in flesh
Your soft touch reminds me that once there was
Humanity there, that perhaps there is
Humanity there.

‘Everyone leaves. ‘
‘Some,’ she says
‘Stay a day, and the next morning
Someone else is in the bed.’
‘Some stay a few days,
a week….’
‘But then next day are gone:
Everyone leaves.’
But I love my job.

This poem always shocks me when I read it.  Outside, now in Blackheath, it is 3 degrees.  In the ward, it was about 20 degrees.  But outside, when I was recovering from the operation, there was a small heatwave.

Record heat outside, they say.  But the drone
Of the engine drives on and on.  We passengers
Walk the aisles, our drips and bags clipped
Our bodies hunched with pain.
A Korean man nods, twists his face into a smile
And I, clutching my stand, do the same.

Blood pressure device prepared.  A casual glance was all.
Clothes off.  ‘Nice scar,’ she said unsmiling.
‘No infection,’ I murmured.  Warming slightly,
My arm gripped tightly for measurement,
She tried again.  ‘Could have been a tailor,
Sewing like that.  Those little lines!’  I smile
But do not enter.  The scar, not entirely mine,
Pirouettes passively, taking its place
In the game of surgical rivalry.

3.  Aftermath

The slats filter the street below
Dividing me from this world I watch
From above, so far away, yet so close.
Loved ones, I lie here
Unworthy of all this care.

Mr Ninety-eight Percent
My boat floats in broken light
The waters are dark with sunken hope
Sopping ropes moor me
As I drone and drone about only
Being ninety-eight percent.

What’s wrong?
A life in lights records
The promises made and yes,
The bet half-kept.  Better
The time lost with forms and rooms
Than doctors’ jokes and yet,
It’s true, what what they say
Life saved.  And yet, there’s that
Missing bit, that tiny little
Two percent.

I lie, to myself mainly. I lie to me,
Or lie and turn aside.  The deck-top
Coleman flares.  Tented sails smoulder
Twisting I lie and whine.  I’m fine
I sigh.  I died and survived
I’m here, hero, heaven-sent
Mr 98 percent.


Art and the World: a postscript of sorts

Paper flowers.   Just ahead of the operation, imagining myself already operated on, the memory of a film with a motif of art and fakery returned.  In fact, the song which concludes the classic Hindi film with the title, ‘Paper Flowers,’ exhorts the young to avoid the dreams of being stars. Like bees attracted to the sweet phony scent of success and renown, they fly to the fake flowers and are deceieved.  All this, of course, in a film starring the director and someone he reputedly loved, the actress, Waheda Rehman.  The footnote below indicates the moment where art is captured by art – a film about film-making.  But the final song is also a plea so dramatic and so lyrical that it has the cry of anguish of any artist in its breast – as the lover flees his beloved (  But it is only a song, only a story.

Never mind if art can tell the truth; ask rather, can art tell any truth, can it ever?  Why do I feel so strongly that it tells truths that no counsellor could offer, that no self-help book writer could know?  I wonder all the same if every single line I wrote were not some exercise in self-deceit, in vanity.  The dialogue of critic and artist tussling over paper flowers struck me as at once all so human, and yet, perhaps, all so futile.  So what does a self-deceiving, vain poet do?

Why, write a poem about it of course.

Kaagaz ke Phool
Art changes things.  But it also assuredly fakes them as well.  It is hard to know how this double dialogue of fakery and of reality intermingle, interlock. [19]

I write words about bees and broken petals,
But each word’s a lazy lie.  Words hide the truth,
But do so as they disappear.
As the butterfly skitters between flowers so
Do I peg the groping pain: I say
I’ll write the ache, write the truth,
But I lie – O lie, and lie again!

Just now, yes now, a stray bee whirs,
It turns, deceived by honeyed words and verse
Woven lines are the worst of toiletries
In this strange hotel. Among plastic trays
And papered flowers, I count down
Imaginary hours that make forgotten time
That make up the mad rhyme of days
Crossed off and denied.

The bee, meanwhile,
Turns again, heedless of snoring inmates,
Or the pay TV in this fake hotel room.
Unreal, like me, it has forgotten how to flee,
Sweet words of mine enfold it,
Hold it, for there really is no bee at all,
Perhaps never was.  Still, it dies squirming
In an imaginary spot of sun.  And I, looking on,
Write its embarrassed epitaph.

Film still: Kaagaz ke phool.

Film still: Kaagaz ke phool.



  1. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.  Sit down.  Relax.  Concentrate….best to close the door….Find the most comfortable position…’ (3). In fact, if I may still address you this way, I was a young undergraduate in a library when I picked up this book. With no one around, I leant up against one of those concrete pillars that were fashionable in the 1970s, and started to read it.  Maybe you have read it too.  Maybe you, like me, found the book by chance, and read it much as its author hoped.
  2. This entire project is dedicated to the family members of mine who suffered from it (my mother, from leukaemia, my father from different cancers, my aunt Helen, my sister Annette), and to my family, Nathalie and Shiva.  It is dedicated to my cancer corner friends too, whose cancers were in many ways worse than mine, Courtney, Ruth.  Nor do I forget my fellow-travellers, Robert especially who guided me some of the way and Robert in Queensland who can joke about it. Perhaps hardest of all, I think of those touched hardest by death (Brett) and of the friends who died from it (Kisor particularly).  All of you make sense of it as you can, and as we all must.  As I now also seek to do…
  3. Stephens said fairly of his considerable volume of work what may also be as dismissively said of mine that it is a ‘sonorous, spectacular commentary on I, Mine, Me’ (137-38).  In our even more myopic, narcissistic world of self-obsession, is there any need to answer it?  That one, dear reader, is for you to decide, not me.
  4. There is a lot of literature on this.  Important I guess.  For example: Weber et al. 2003). ‘The effect of dyadic intervention on self-efficacy’ Psycho-oncology.
  5. Source: ‘[Cadaver dissection. Lab 9].  Perineum.’ Duke University.
  6. I suppose many of you have already seen this sort of video.  But just in case:
  7. There are many useful sites on this. And if you want to buy something this way, this organisation is not a bad place to start:
  8. Ah! The wonders of the internet:
  9. You need to cue to 7.30 minutes in for part 3.
  10. You know the official version.  But it is hard to forget the living presence of Freddy Mercury, isn’t it?  Not to mention that glorious guitar solo.  Well, it is nothing if not operatic:
  11. This is also a piece of showy stuff.  No 2 of course.  And orchestral of course. Let us in the throes of honesty, not pretend to taste just now – but there is no way I could have taken this bombast (or of Queen for that matter) when I was recovering, even if I thought of it.
  12. You can find these poems online:  There are many other fine poets on the matter too.
  13. The poem is not long:
  14. It is hard to find it without music being added.  This is Jonathan Pryce:
  15. I wrote about this in another context with Joy Wallace.  We were looking at Judith Wright’s verse.
  16. Medline Plus.  ‘Abdominal Pain.’
  17. Tegan proposed a book-reading therapy – but life closed in around us.–and-what-a-year-its-been-20161215-gtc11l.html
  18. ‘Hospital Beds for Hire.’
  19. This print has bad audio, but at 28 minutes in, the scene where Shanti (played by Waheda Rehman) stumbles by accident onto the set, we see her real fear amid all the simulation.  It is of course simulated because it is, after all, a film about film-making.


Adorno, Theodor.  Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music.  Trans. Rodney Livingstone.  London: Verso, 2011.
Barthes, Roland.  Camera Lucida.  Trans. Richard Howard.  London: Fontana, 1982.
Calvino, Italo.  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  Trans William Weaver.  Orlando: Harvest, 1981.
Dessaix, Robert.  What Days are For.  New York: Knopf, 2014
Plato. The Last Days of Socrates.  Trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant.  London: Penguin, 2003.
Stephens, A.G.  ‘Chris Brennan.’  The Writer in Australia.  Ed. John Barnes.  Melbourne: OUP, 1969, 137-38.
Thomése, P.F. Shadow Child.  Trans Sam Garrett.  London: Bloomsbury, 2005.