Dr Esther Gomez-Sierra, Lecturer In Spanish Studies at The University of Manchester.
Early one morning in November 2013, I was walking briskly through Victoria Park, at Bath Spa. I had travelled to this golden city with a group of my undergraduate students to immerse ourselves in the Spanish Golden Age theatre season then playing at the Ustinov Studio/Theatre Royal Bath. The park was strikingly beautiful under the autumn sky –an explosion of russet tree leaves against the dark clouds in contrast with all the green hues, made particularly vivid by a light which had a strong electric quality. I was looking forward to a day of very pleasurable work; underneath, my head was busy with a monologue: ‘mmm, these gardens are so peaceful and gracious… I wish I could show them to my mother… How would we manoeuvre the wheelchair over here? I cannot see a ramp… The terrain is quite rough in this area… is there a good way [mild panic] to access the loos? This downward slope seems dangerous…’ The surreal quality of this sneaky train of thought hit me as I was walking down the slope –harmless enough for passing pedestrians: my mother had been dead since 2008. In our times, general accessibility for wheelchair users is, of course, of paramount importance; in this particular case, though, the harsh realities of chronology had rendered my automatic train of thought utterly pointless. My brain, lagging behind ridiculously, was still fully committed to the constant concerns generated by my mother’s eight years of hemiplegia: I was planning for somebody who could never make it to this place, who had been long gone. But then again: had she? Do not people remain and therefore survive in the memories of their loved ones? At another, even deeper level, a compact set of words was resonating in my head with each two steps as I was making my way back to the city centre and the majestic river Avon: ‘a faulty gene, a legacy of sorrow’, ‘a faulty gene, a legacy of sorrow’… That morning walk was the catalyst for this poem. The writing process made me revisit, this time in a deliberate way, a number of issues, in order to give a panoramic sense both of the illness and of my mother’s own voice: the difficulties she underwent because of her stroke-induced hemiplegia, the solace she found in black humour, her concerns about her offspring and the possibility of ‘passing on’ the vulnerability to stroke, and the inseparable issues of pain and resilience –a quality which I have come to see as a form of hope born out of the experience itself of being ill, rather than out of any external element. Some features are implicit, such as the research on scientific terminology carried out while writing (for example, the anatomic and physiological distinctions between pia mater, dura mater, and sub-arachnoid mater, with mater meaning mother in Latin, and therefore suggesting various connections which are only hinted at in the text). The title ‘Ictus’ aims to link together the domains of poetry (ictus as metrical or rhythmic stress in the domain of prosody), music (ictus as a beat), and body (ictus as stroke). Visitors to the ill usually spend an allocated couple of hours with them, and are spared the sometimes soul-destroying, sometimes glorious realities of a journey through a whole day which during the course of an illness repeats itself many times over: this poem is an attempt to share one of those one-day journeys. A still journey, in this case.
by Esther Gómez-Sierra
By night, I don’t sleep;
it’s just too hard a job.
I nightdream, radio on,
until the sky gets clearer and the window
tells me it is tomorrow: I am safe, can let go.
I rise of sorts.
I wake up but don’t get up:
they lift me up, those hands
that instead of maternal, loving touch,
bring latex-clad skill.
Not moving is so tiring… I doze off. Other hands
take me to rounds of care,
My half-dead body hurts, silently screams.
Each step climbs mountains.
I remember the sunny streets of town
when I was young,
the meals I cooked, the clothes I made,
Saturday picture palaces,
the romance of our long leisurely strolls.
And now each step climbs mountains.
They say it’s lunchtime.
Swallowing food is swallowing bad news.
The meek, trustworthy olive
becomes a choking hazard;
a perspective of death by humble fruit
inexplicably makes me laugh and thrills me.
Waves of absurdity
reach my dry shores.
No matter how delicious,
such dish is not my friend.
The cells of this my body, of this my jail,
seem to have parted ways
with any form of pleasure.
Visitors come, they bring
news of a faraway land,
of the street nearby.
I marvel at their feats, their exploits,
I marvel at their feet, their walking feet:
they travel, they commute,
sometimes they take
the underground, or planes.
Sometimes they come by bus!
Did I do that as well,
or was it someone else, another me,
whole of presence, of mind, of self-perception?
But now each step climbs mountains.
They leave, they always leave,
I await them with greed
and when they come
it’s never, never, never what I dreamt.
A tail of noxious words
gets in the way of loving,
things may end up in whirlpools of regret.
It can’t be helped.
They leave and I remain
in a backyard of worries,
against the dimming light.
Will this be my bequest
—a faulty gene, a legacy of sorrow
shaped as stillness?
Am I a mere conduit of illness,
a slave to whims of blood?
The sun gives up and goes,
cynically, all red.
I dread this moment,
I need this moment,
a ritual of cushions,
the sweet sound pills of radio programs
talking me through the night
—company without mass—,
granting me one more sunrise of despair,
one more contentious evening,
as it will mean that, one more day,
I am still living.