The Lung Wash


The first day, you cough up only water,
warm saline laced with vitamins and herbs.
Your lungs mistake healing for drowning,
they fetch up what tastes like the sea
into a white enamel bowl.
Your lungs mistake baptism for torture,
‘O God. O my God. O God’.
You sought him out, like countless others
who speak too much and breathe too little,
you found the only doctor in the world
who washes lungs, and went to him.

The second day you know what comes –
‘Breathe in Sir, now breathe out.’
The tube is pushed behind your voice
and water floods the hair’s-breadth
channels of your lungs, you choke
‘No no too much too much’
and phlegm rides up between the words,
coloured by the scent of home, and cigarettes.

By Wednesday the elegant office
with its dark red leather chairs
has won a terrifying fascination.
Sun streams through the window,
and the motes of dust light up
as if to show that air is only clean
when not seen for the carpet that it is.
Today you splutter up more phlegm,
with bonfires of your childhood,
other people’s breath kissed into you,
incense and cooking smells
and long forgotten perfumes.
Then when all the phlegm is clear
the lighter, deeper hidden words begin
to bubble out into the room
‘I always loved you, want to kill you,
be my life, come take my life.’

On Thursday morning you sleep in
and dream about a pulmonary specialist
in Venice with a plan, to counteract
the crumbling of his city with a thousand
human Venices, their lungs full
of the Grand Canal, but still you go.
‘O Mama don’t leave me. I’m hungry
I’m thirsty, I’m begging for some sleep’.
All the unsaid retches to be heard.
Il dottore with his bowl is ready to catch.

The last day you are growing into silence.
Four names from the bottom of your soul
were sobbed in sleep into the hot hotel room.
Morning brings a consciousness of breathing.
Coffee, or the smell of the lagoon
seem like a shot of meths.
Your chest is skinned and raw.
The still air of the clinic is like smelling salts.
The final treatment raises vowel sounds,
back to the first stirrings of your voice,
and then it stops.
That evening, eating shellfish in a cafe
full of idle conversation, you close
around your quietness. From now on
every word you use is plucked from nowhere.
Everything you say is sudden poetry.

from Raising Sparks (Jonathan Cape, 1999), copyright © Michael Symmons Roberts 1999, used by permission of the author and The Random House Group Ltd

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