Five Storeys Down. A Travelogue


[‘Five Storeys Down. A Travelogue’ was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize last year. It documents my journey from bowel cancer diagnosis through operation to recovery in 2011. ‘Jimmy Dancer’ is Australian rhyming slang for cancer. ‘Sprinter’ is a time (July) between Spring and Winter here in the highlands of SE Australia. The photo is of the Beijing smog catastrophe this winter.]

Five Storeys Down. A Travelogue

i.m. Mal Morgan, Jennifer Rankin & all the other Jimmy Dancer poets

[…] for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’

1. Diagnosis

As for eleven thousand others
in the nation this year, how easily
things fall into before & after.

The winds bring down the trees,
power out for days of candle
& reading out Nabokov, waxing

half-moon smaller in cold-star fields,
assembling the new shelf rack
in a neon garage closed to the gales.

The auguries you ignored in your
own elegies, the ruby red splatter
in the bowl you wished into piles

fecklessly fleeing from the shock,
the strange hole in the sky, a sphincter
in a perfect fan of cirrus spreading

from some invisible point below
the south-east horizon, a frozen swirl
like the ultrasound image of your

first grandchild made on the day
your first positive casually arrived
in the mail. These meanings missed,

trite hindsight limping in late
like an oldie on a marathon, Orpheus
turning to lose his Eurydice.

All this before the calm day placid
as the storm’s eye, the black hole
that hubs our galaxy’s diamond wheel,

as the c-word hidden inside ‘tumour’
leaps from the surgeon’s mouth
like some loud jack-in-the-box

to frighten the child you still are
as much as not. Afterwards,
it’s all disconnect. Winter’s winds

have picked up again. It’s porridge
& black tea on rising to roar
& tree-bend, two ducks rising

from the dam spray-sprung, giving
themselves over to the wild ride
of wintry air leading where it will.

2. Pre-Admission

On the farm it’s ‘Sprinter’, readying for the hungry gap:
rabbit guards round apple trees, some extra grain
for the hens on lay, moving the sheep to fatter fields.

Dawn a grey goshawk in grey rain over Hobson’s wood.
The night has gurgled up its murk & froth: you’re in
Japan peering down a stairwell you’re to descend

five storeys down, or your wife squatting in the bath
weeping helplessly towards you as you sit on the loo.
That day, waiting, reading, at Pre-Admission suddenly

the door opens to emit a groaning dwarf, hunchbacked,
hooded, black tights taught with a spinnaker of growth,
her slow-mo shuffle lovingly led by a woman walking

backwards into the shocked pause after your last line:
Plato, on love. Later it’s down the vile drink, part plaster
of Paris, part warm lime with milk, your anus pistoling

out its juice. Would that your mind be emptied as easily
by drinking some white glue beyond ennui, disbelief,
your daily lack of love led backwards from book to life

as you descend five storeys down, five storeys down.

3. Admission

Three days later in admissions an inaudible TV
with medical Oprah, a studio of women ecstatic
at slim Dr Oz, flanked by a botoxed bimbette
on high-wire heels teasing out bits of dried bowel

on a cold metal tray. Bedded, a belly tonsure,
shiny white wrist tag & the Institution
hands out its bum-free smock. Thankful
as a kid for the warmed blanket imagining

winter rain on the roof. Here it’s all septic
& air con, a sudden change to Theatre Four.
You’ll miss Disney Dalmatians in No. Three,
desist from making a pallid joke à la chinois

about the number four as surgeons Gan & Ho,
bonneted like kitchen hands, awkward, squeeze
your trembling paw. Calm gas lady Lynch
makes up the trinity team & another nascent

gung-ho gallows joke is lynched before arrival.
Left arm tourniquet’d for the welcome hit,
the rest is total absence among dancing knives
& proverbial machines that, hopefully, go ping.

4. Return

Coming out high, a cloud of voices calling your name
from some other star, your wife repeating foggy disyllables
of welcome news: ‘success’, ‘smaller’, ‘lower’, you all ear
& unseeing, laughing hysterically for more fresh air.

Later it’s waking like Gulliver pinned to the bed,
some human valve cabled between two drips & two drains,
an oxygen bridle puffing its plastic subtleties right
up your nose. To your left you discover two lovely

remotes: morphine on tap & a nurse or TV, some
healing illusion you’re back in control. You’re not.
Nights heave punctuated with torches wandering like lost
campers, fishing boats on nocturnal seas, as some nurse

enters to pump up your arm, clamp a heart peg
to your finger, thermometer your ear, anti-coagulate
belly or thigh. Air con’s fake susurrus of windy leaves
sighs its counterpoint to the thump of your oxygen lead.

Between bouts of ear-plugged sleep finessed with
the odd squeeze of morphine your frazzled brain
coruscates with a diaphanous flow of surreal images
you can never quite grasp, a cinematic ghost grabbing

at water that goes up in smoke, eyes gazing inwards
on the swirling membrane that passes for your mind.
Suddenly something whispers: be kind & gentle, &, shame-
-tinged lightning, you think tumours may flower with rage.

What if it’s not the two hundred chemicals Dow, DuPont
& Bayer have added to old boomer bods, the fumes
along Parramatta Road or the fallout in the fifties
but your failure to face your fear, contain your rage,

be more gentle & forgiving, starting with yourself?
Was the tumour a failure of character? Either way,
meaning twinned to metaphor, sooner shall conjecture
pass a needle’s eye than this camel make sense of life

the kind & gentle need as much within as without,
TV’s trash & gore now causing sheer disgust, even
the news quite hard to bear. You’re an open wound
& crave the warmth of human care. Enter the nurses.

First it’s Emma, then Terry who shifts the night & turns
from woman into man in the very first light. Thank-
fulness bubbles for each melding mother with machine,
a name, smile, assured movements all the balm it takes

to soothe a prone & vulnerable mess of mind & cells.
Let all eleven women & two men be here named
who get you through the first raw days, a tally
of thirteen kindnesses trumping Jesus’ entourage:

Emma, Terry, Kirsty, Sue, Barbara, Cathy, Kate,
Rob, Maria, Tricia, Sarah, Robyn, Katrina. Fourteen
appears in the dawn window in the gnarly folds
& wide gut of a centenarian cedar, strong solace

of evergreen limbs swaying fragile solidity in a muck
of focus on the cesspool of self, as, obsessive as
Narcissus, you wait for the Godot of renewed rumble
& fart signalling your slow-limp return to the living.

5. Recovery

Home, recovery, weeks of ignorance & pain
fusing of nose, bowel, eye, mind into a shaky
world that runs on empty & pure disgust

your inner chaos annoyed by every outward
bit of fluff, a crooked carpet, your beanie
not where it’s supposed to be, suddenly

you understand the mad compulsions
of OCD: every crack in the pavement
could echo the one inside, raw, unanchored

you need the moorings of external rules.
Tossed between blind blockage & smear,
anal pressure driving you up its wall

for weeks, food reduced to bland pap, five
weeks of agony till, bless her, a community
nurse suggests ‘constipation’ & you get it right.

Stuck in half of Moby Dick, pumping
weights, eating well again courtesy
of your wife’s culinary poetics, you begin

your slow ascent back to square one.
Twelve kilos lost, at six weeks it’s ecstasy
to manage a walk around Magnet Mart.

Spring is on cue & its bounties roll in,
fruit tree blossoms, a new bird species,
the eye dance of new green’s potential.

All this a gift, nurses, wife, gut granted
yet all too easily taken simply as such,
familiarity breeding the ignorant patina

of contempt & habit that grinds us,
willingly, into its daily dust till now
you’re thankful for each gurgle & fart,

the body’s unknowable wisdom eating,
absorbing, passing waste, a universe
of mysterious flows slowly reforming

the healing ruins of the surgeon’s knife.
Relationships’ gifts felt but fade in & out
like weak signals from some uncertain star.

In truth you’re back at square one
minus some gut & arse, no wisdom felt,
no sweet Eurydice sung back up from

suffering nor duende dealt from Jimmy
Dancer’s sado-touch. Seems you’re still
the old apple-tending pain in the arse,

scribbling grump, ‘kind and gentle’,
like any revolution, as far away as it ever was,
the daily miracles of clouds & people again

seen through the diurnal glass darkly,
that passing squint of skylight from
five storeys down, five storeys down.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on March 1, 2013.

2 Responses to “Five Storeys Down. A Travelogue”

  1. Moving and frightening Peter. I truly hope the prick doesn’t come back.

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