THE SENILE DIMENSION

I am often asked which book my sequence, The Senile Dimension, which won the Scotland on Sunday/Women 2000 Poetry Prize can be found in. It was first published in Meantime, Prize-winning Writing from Scottish Women (Polygon), then appeared in my first collection, Kicking Back. But as Kicking Back is now out of print and copies cost at least £15 on Amazon, I've been promising for a while to put it on this blog.
So here it is at last.
As it charts my experience of my father's illness, I've added some later poems - a kind of 'Part Two'. These poems were first published in Strange Fish, a joint collection with Helen Lamb. Sadly, Strange Fish too is now out of print.



The Senile Dimension

So sorry, dear, to hear
poor dear
about
your father's
senile dimension.



1.
Breathing Space

You are riotously funny
a one-man farce
you clown around
toppling the routine
of all our lives.

First off there is
the dressing of you
vest over shirt
socks over shoes
Surrealist in Senility.

At tea-time you babble
perched on a flip-top bin
(we really flip our lids at that)
you dollop butter in brown tea
shake sugar on white bread
then down it all – seasoned
with our mirth.

You are riotously funny -
laughter gives us breathing space.
All too soon we know we'll face
the final scene
not of one man farce
but family tragedy.


2
Salting the wound

The baby brings out the best in you.
She alone makes contact
in your broken mind.

You cosset cajole cuddle
like any doting grampa.
She giggles, gurgles
while for her you haltingly unmuddle
a few syllables of sense.

The baby brings out the best in you,
brings smiles to your lined face,
rubs salt in the raw wound
where life and death are caught
where only the very young
and the very old
are free to laugh and meet

3
Broken

The Machine is broken.
It does not respond
to normal commands.
It operates
but erratically.

I have phoned.
I have phoned.

The Repair Man cannot call today.

The Machine is definitely broken.
Its memory has rewound.
It jams on replay replay replays
scenes from childhood days.

The Machine is losing power.
Even its basic functions cannot be relied upon.

I watch it constantly.

I am afraid of the Machine.
I think it might be dangerous.
The children should be warned.
Someone should unplug it.
But no-one will.

I have called the Repair Man.
The Repair Man cannot call today.

4.
Dayroom

Minnie sings, sweet as the mina bird
in the jungle of the dayroom.
Her yellowed dot eyes dart from chair to chair –
she fears the apes and tigers hiding there.

Andy claps the bumbling clowns
they stage to take away his gloom:
he loves the crazy unmatched clothes,
the gormless smiles, the pear-drop tears,
the cartoon comic frowns.
He claps claps claps them
when they tumble down
in the circus of the dayroom.

The window rambles on
and on and on
with memories of the War
and the General Strike, and the first TV
and remember wee Aunt Annie
and rides in her flash car
to the captive audience
it reflects upon
in the mystery of the dayroom.

Life goes on and on and on
and makes no sense to you or me
in the hot air of the dayroom.

5
Visiting Time

Not yet widows, not quite wives,
a clockwork army, they arrive
wielding lipstick smiles like
tiny blood-red riot shields.

They breach the locked ward doors and dig
from bulging shopping bags
today's provisions – sandwiches and sausage rolls,
home-made cakes and chocolate bars.

The old men mumble, the old men stumble,
the old men fumble, the old men grumble

while the not yet widows, not quite wives
unwrap with swift efficiency from tightly-wound clingfilm
this week's slice of love, sandwiched in a fresh-baked sponge
delicately iced with guilt, lightly spiced with sympathy.

The food is offered, mauled
by toothless gums, the good wives
bend to wipe the old men's chins, then
feed the fallen crumbs to gape-mouthed bins.

The visit soon is done. The women gather at the locked ward door
display their lipstick smiles, say firm farewells to men they love,
to men they know are on their way nowhere.

And with their emptied bags, their emptied hearts
each not yet widow, not quite wife departs.


6
No-one cries

In the psycho-geriatric ward
he wears slippers
which are not his.
He wears trousers, socks, a shirt
which belong to no-one -
not anymore.

In the psycho-geriatric ward
his soul is trapped in a cage
even you could not wriggle out of.

He wears a smile
which is not his
not like we knew.

He bears a crown of thorns
inside his head
which should be left on
no-one.

And no-one's eyes are closed.
No-one's hands are tied with red tape
he claims is not his.
He claims he cannot struggle out of.

No-one hangs his head and cries
this problem is not his
in the psycho-geriatric ward.


The Senile Dimension – Part Two

Go quietly then

You lollop, ape-like, shoulders stooped.
I feed you buns. You chomp.
Slavers foam the shadows of your chin.

I guide your hand towards a lidded cup.
Prehensile thumb and fingers grip. You slurp.

I close my eyes and think of you as you once were,
playing the chanter by the fire,
the rich notes swirling in the air
like sweet wood-smoke.

Reality, in a food-stained cardigan, pokes
me back to here and now.
Reality, pale and bony
wrists jutting from frayed cuffs
grunts for more sweet tea.

I chat, try to bridge the gap between us
with a thread of words. You start at ghosts I cannot see,
utter names of friends long dead.
From time to time, distraught, you weep.
Suddenly, you suck your thumb, drift into sleep.

Alone I wait.
No chanter music now to pass the time -
only the central heating's drowsy hum.

Outside the daylight fades,
the street lights flicker on and cast an eery glow.
And still I wait.

Soon they will come to take you from this darkening room.
Go quietly then. Don't rail. Don't fight.

Soon I too must make my way into the darkness of the night.


Blue Dawn

1
We enter the room you slipped out of
only a moment earlier.

Seated round your bed, we wait
as the heat ebbs from your body

until your hands, your brow
grow pale and cold as marble

until your absence grows as solid
as once your presence was.

2
Later we return to the house
you will never again come home to.
A black crow perches on a leafless birch,
rends the darkness with his raucous call – yet even so
it is the silence that most startles us.

3
As darkness turns to grey, I make my way back home.
Crossing Flanders Moss great herons rise from high untidy nests.
Clumsily they flap into a timeless sky.

A sudden buzzard, death gripped in its claws
bursts upwards, unexpected, from a hedge.

Grief swoops and sinks its claws into my heart.

4.
Beside the Forth a lone swan,
silver in the first rays of the sun
lifts gracefully towards a pale blue dawn.


Golden Daffodils

A year after you died,
you appeared, alive and well
at the foot of my bed.

While my body slept,
we strolled together
through the wood behind the house.

It was good to get the chance
to tell you all the things
you’d missed since we last met.

We stopped just where the birches thin
and fields unfold in waves.
We watched as dawn clouds raced across the sky.

I left you there.

Tomorrow, I’ll take flowers to your grave,
golden daffodils you helped me gather
last night in the wood.

Your favourite flowers, you said,
with their promise of the coming spring
their promise of re-birth.

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