The Language of Bleak Averages

After a four hour workout under my father’s skull
the young neurosurgeon’s hands are white.

His eyes are Concentration Red. Caffeine-numb,
on a grid of hospital floors, I walk, seeing

the shaved scalp cut, peeled back and clamped, stagehands
in a spotlight trimming a blood-curtain’s advancing folds,

then a plate of fretworked bone, lifted clear to expose
the source of my father’s unbalanced body and moods –

a tumour, like the dark, cystitic head of a swamp flower
grafted to a host of nerveless coils.

After Recovery, that post-operative word for half an hour
of being watched and questioned back into the world,

a man I barely recognize sits up, stares through me,
and tries to claw the bindings from his head.

His corner of Intensive Care is lit with a gleaming life-
support machine and metal stand. A slow drip feeds

the line that feeds his veins. Beside his bed, flower-prints
on linoleum fast become a swirl of congealing blood.

A frozen splinter of tumour is with Pathology.
The test results are two days off, thought the surgeon

tells me, in the language of bleak averages, that even
weeks of radiation will simply stall

the way this kind of cancer blooms again. I think
of a mangrove tree’s air-drinking tapers, like a cluster

of slime-nourished, black asparagus. I think of how
the unfiltered shadows of grief return for years

beyond a life or love. As I rise to go, moonlight flares
into the ward, turning hospital gowns into folds

of alabaster, wired to fluids and electricity.
Somewhere near, a woman laughs from the depths

of sleep or delirium. As if in response, my father raises
his upturned palms and says She’s right, it’s a joke,

giving voice to uncertainty and pain – the stable currencies
of his faith. Then he coughs – a wet, bright sound –

nothing like a trickle of small change being poured
from hand to hand, which is what I thought

before poetry fell apart, and I was with a man
who lowered his palms, coughed again, and bled.

With the staples gone, the scare gleams like an inverted,
upper-case letter C through the most radical haircut

my father’s ever had. The cortisone has reduced
the swelling of his brain, giving him a freedom of speech

and body he’s never known. He is openly flirtatious,
asking the entire nursing station to join him

for dinner when he’s better. They all said yes.
It’s an invitation none will have to honour.

My father was assisted by a driver to his death –
a measured, battery-powered pack beside the bed

that eased a clear cocktail into his blood.
Euthanasia is illegal in Australia only on paper.

Hours before he died, emerging from his coma,
he sat up and clawed the air, saying I am a mear cat.

Then he went under. Holding his hand, his body
shutting down visibly, I remembered stories of light-

bulbs dimming, of wind bending glass when people died.
The light held on. The window glass moved

with a copy of my face when I looked at it.
His last breath was long, the exhalation silent.

When they came for him, he might have been someone
still expecting company – his open hands and mouth,

the comb-lines in his hair. He left the room on a false shelf
under a trolley laid out with towels, the woman steering him

pretending that this was nothing more
than laundry being taken down in the lift.

From The Sleep of a Learning Man (Giramondo, 2003), Anthony Lawrence, used by permission of the author. The recording is taken from Flying Low in the Minor Key (River Road Press, 2011) Anthony Lawrence/River Road Press, 2011

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.