In the Theatre

(A true incident)

‘Only a local anaesthetic was given because of the blood pressure problem. The patient, thus, was fully awake throughout the operation. But in those days—in 1938, in Cardiff, when I was Lambert Rogers’ dresser—they could not locate a brain tumour with precision. Too much normal brain tissue was destroyed as the surgeon searched for it, before he felt the resistance of it … all somewhat hit and miss. One operation I shall never forget … ’

                          (Dr Wilfred Abse)

Sister saying—‘Soon you’ll be back in the ward,’   
sister thinking—‘Only two more on the list,’   
the patient saying—‘Thank you, I feel fine’;   
small voices, small lies, nothing untoward,   
though, soon, he would blink again and again   
because of the fingers of Lambert Rogers,   
rash as a blind man’s, inside his soft brain.

If items of horror can make a man laugh
then laugh at this: one hour later, the growth
still undiscovered, ticking its own wild time;
more brain mashed because of the probe’s braille path;   
Lambert Rogers desperate, fingering still;
his dresser thinking, ‘Christ! Two more on the list,   
a cisternal puncture and a neural cyst.’

Then, suddenly, the cracked record in the brain,   
a ventriloquist voice that cried, ‘You sod,   
leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,’—   
the patient’s dummy lips moving to that refrain,   
the patient’s eyes too wide. And, shocked,   
Lambert Rogers drawing out the probe
with nurses, students, sister, petrified.

‘Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,’   
that voice so arctic and that cry so odd   
had nowhere else to go—till the antique   
gramophone wound down and the words began
to blur and slow, ‘ … leave … my … soul … alone … ’   
to cease at last when something other died.   
And silence matched the silence under snow.

Dannie Abse, “In the Theatre” from New and Collected Poems, published by Hutchinson. Used by permission of The Random House Group Limited, http://www.randomhouse.co.uk.
Source: White Coat Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948-1988 (Penguin Putnam Inc., 1994)
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