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Verge 2012: Inverse


Catherine Noske


But what holds us from believing,

(given how we’re set down here and placed)

I no longer know how old I am. I am old, that I know. But not how old – time has slipped away from me somehow, it slides and melts away into the cracks in the walls, the lines in my bedspread, it dissolves into a material constancy. I think I am living in a different dimension. Everything melts here – my hands, my face; my legs have blossomed into oedemic tubers, delicate and painful and blue-veined. Thoughts melt, too. They run one into another. There is a poem moving round and round inside my head, slowly, as the time moves. I don’t want it to melt away. So much, so much melts away.

I am living my life out in vignettes of verse; only I’m never aware I am living one until the moment has passed.

that only for a short time rage and hate

and this bewilderment linger in us,

just as once in this ornate sarcophagus

My husband came to me – yesterday, I think. He has been dead ten years now, I know, but there he was. He wore his shirt unbuttoned, as he did before we were married, and no old-man’s vest underneath. I smiled to see him, how I smiled! My fingers were fine-bone-china-fragile, lost in his. He shuffled uncomfortably, plucking at one sleeve, and asked, Why haven’t you ironed this? I never was sure he loved me, but perhaps he did, if he felt the need to come back. Maybe not. There is evidence for and against. I have given up trying to decide.

Once upon a time I learnt German for Rilke. A poet makes a wonderful lover. Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs. I didn’t get very far. I learnt the Lord’s prayer. Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name. Sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Now, I can’t remember if I believe in God or not. In German, Rilke sounded both more beautiful and more terrible at the same time.

There are days when I feel like I could get up; just swing my legs over the side of this bed and walk out of here. My body fizzes with it. And I go, I do, I try to go – I swear it. But I never move. Because I know when I do that it won’t work like that, it will never happen, my body will fold and crumple, and besides, sometimes the dream is enough.

Other times I am afraid to go to sleep. The voices that meet me there sound like Rilke in German.

… in this ornate sarcophagus

among rings, ikons, glasses, ribbons

in slowly self-consuming robes, there lay

something …

This morning I am being slowly decomposed. My skin is liquefying, my limbs expanding into gelatinous bags of melted bone. The whites of my eyes are becoming transparent, my eyeballs losing shape. They are sagging in their sockets, lumps of softened lard. The nurse this morning had to lift my body for me. I felt wet-paper-heavy in her arms. I am turning to water right before my very own eyes. Perhaps they are poisoning me.

There is a photo on my bedside table, I think it might be me. It sits in a crowded silver frame, a young girl in a bikini top, bronzed and slender and smiling. A cigarette is hanging from one hand. I can see her laugh at me, peep and giggle from behind the glass of water, the tissues, a crucifix on a gold chain that I do not recognise but which must be mine, my spectacles and the tiny statute a nurse left there, a Jesus with his arms spread wide. He is plastic made to look like ivory. The girl in the photo rolls her eyes at him from time to time. Come to me, his arms say. Come and I will take you. The girl smiles and smiles.

I am waiting to die. I do not want to die. I am waiting to want to die. It will happen, I know. It always happens, by the end.

until swallowed by those unknown mouths,

They are not feeding me anymore. People come, people are here with me. Sometimes they hold my hand. They are always quiet, silent even, or only whispering in strange, hushed tones. Sometimes, behind the crowd or at the back of the room, I see my husband again. He is smiling now. He is smiling and it is kind, and I would go to him if I could. I would have him hold me, hold me, rock me gently. I would be in his arms, safe from all the world, if I could. He is gone, when I look again. He has disappeared.

until swallowed by those unknown mouths,

that never speak. (Will there ever live and think

a brain, that would make use of them?)

The people have gone. There are nurses still. I am quite cheerful today.

I have always imagined, (or perhaps this is a more recent day-dream), that dying would involve a lifting, a movement up and away, outwards even. I have liked to think for a long time now that I would open up and drift apart, that my atoms would spread out and join … join everything. I think, perhaps, that such a death would be quite beautiful. I’m not so sure it is like that anymore. This little part of me, this little voice, these little visions, they are all that is left. I think perhaps dying is a melting inwards, I think maybe you move deeper and deeper until there is no further to go, until everything folds in on itself and collapses like the death of a star, a supernova.

Did you know that supernovae are the product of an implosion? When an aging star ceases producing energy from nuclear fusion – I watched a documentary with my grandson, Thomas – it suddenly collapses in on itself, implodes, a victim of its own gravitational forces. The energy released heats the remnants of the star, a shock wave of gasses and dust that to us, microscopic little us millions of billions of miles away, looks like a firework, a sudden blaze of light and colour. They are beautiful, apparently. No supernova has been recorded in the Milky Way since 1604.

It makes me happy, thinking like this. I tell the nurse and she listens to me with something like surprise smeared thinly across her features. Her eyebrows have been drawn on. She says, Thomas is here, do you want to see him? But I shake my head. He isn’t here. He shouldn’t be. He should be at school. He is a very bright little boy. She goes off anyway, and when she comes back there is a lumbering great hulk of a boy with her – fat, a fat slob. I don’t recognise him but he cries when I ask him to leave.

When we watched the documentary about supernovae, Thomas ate golden syrup and butter on bread and sat at the foot of my chair. Occasionally, just occasionally, I let myself reach down to stroke his head. I didn’t want him to think his Grandma was a sissy.

Then from the ancient aqueducts

Then from the anc …

Then from the ancient

My mother told me once that crying over a man was stupid; a silly thing to do when there were so many of them out there, better ones, different ones, ones who will love you properly. I think I might have turned to her and told her to go away, I don’t remember quite, but I am sure, at least, that she never said it again. Then another time my daughter came to me and curled up in my lap and said, don’t cry, don’t cry Mama and her voice was so broken that I cried all the more.

I am connected now to tubes and tubes and tubes, and they tie me down in place. I cannot move my hands anymore. They feel cold in my veins, and my mouth is dry, but when I ask all they give me is ice, ice, tiny chips that disappear into nothingness on the dry expanse of my tongue. I want water, cool and pure and wet, I want to feel it wash me away. I am cold. Give me my ice.

She is here, my daughter. I think she is the one who is holding my hand but I am not brave enough to ask. She has grown. Lord, she has grown! She is so beautiful now.

I am so tired. I feel it melting into me, becoming part of me, stronger than real flesh or bone. I am so tired, and so in love, and that is melting inwards as well. If I am a supernova then it will be love that colours me as I go.

I am so tired.

Then from the ancient aqueducts

eternal water rushes in: -

that mirrors now and moves and sparkles

   through them.

I am so very, very tired.


Excerpts all taken from Rainer Marie Rilke, ‘Roman Sarcophagi’, Neue Gedichte (1907),
translation, C.A. Noske.

Verge 2012: Inverse

   by Samantha Clifford and Rosalind Mcfarlane