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> > > Alan Morrison: Shadows Waltz Haltingly and the Shadow of Huntington’s

3 September 2015

For Alan Morrison the task of tackling poetically his mother’s fifteen year-plus fight with Huntington’s Disease, and its ultimate claiming of her, was an emotionally and psychologically thorny one. But so deeply had he been affected by witnessing the many harrowing stages of his mother’s illness that he inevitably attempted to assimilate it all through the expressive medium which comes most naturally to him: poetry. His collection 'Shadows Waltz Haltingly' is published by Lapwing (2015).

cover image of Shadows Waltz Haltingly shows four black silhouettes of figures in dance poses.

The cover image of 'Shadows Waltz Haltingly' is adapted from a photograph of four radically angular dancer poses from the revolutionary Russian ballet, The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky, 1913)

The collection incorporates many poems charting the final years of my mother’s physical and mental atrophy, and in quite graphic detail, though the depictions are couched in metaphor, symbolism and synecdoche. The collection also explores other themes and taboos – war trauma, anxiety/angst (via Kierkegaard and Robert Burton), and the interrelation between creativity and mental illness; but pivotal to it is the scattered narrative of my mother’s descent into Huntington’s.

Huntington’s Disease (HD) is an incurable hereditary neurodegenerative disease which gradually erodes cognitive and motor faculties, simultaneously abrading the brain (which loses considerable weight and moisture in the process) and mobility. It was first described by George Huntington –hence its name– in a paper titled ‘The Chorea’, in 1872. The person eventually ends up bed-ridden, with little if no control over bodily movements (hence the typical writhing, twitching or jerky movements known as ‘chorea’), and finds it difficult to swallow, necessitating liquidised feeding. 

The disease is triggered by faulty mutant gene repeats in the brain’s basal ganglia, proteins known as ‘Huntingtins’, which have a limited lifespan. All humans have these proteins, but it’s only a tiny percentage of the population in whom they mutate, causing HD. Autopsy X-rays of brains ravaged by HD show an enlarged central cavity resembling a butterfly-shaped shadow or a Rorschach blotting –images I employ in the poems ‘Night of the Pegasus’ and ‘Scorched Carpet’ (the name of a type of moth).

Children of people with HD have a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and symptoms commonly start between 35 and 40. Thereafter, life expectancy is around 15 years, much of which is spent in care homes, and even, at least initially, psychiatric hospitals, since early onset often manifests in hallucinatory psychosis. Indeed, in the early stages of her illness, my mother’s mental health became so unmanageable that she was taken into Graylingwell psychiatric home, near Chichester. It took years for psychiatrists to chemically ‘stabilise’ her mood, and once this ‘mental splint’ had been aligned, she was moved to a nursing home near hers and my father’s home in Bognor Regis, by which time she was a wheelchair-user. 

Death in HD usually comes through pneumonia, since even liquidised food cannot be swallowed properly and has a habit of settling on the lungs. My mother was in and out of hospital with chest infections during the last years, until one of numerous doses of pneumonia finally took her from us. She was just 64.

Due to the gradualness of this disease –on average stretching over ten to fifteen years– relatives experience a sense of arrested bereavement, especially since the personality and essence of the person all but disappears some time before physical death. Nevertheless, the finality of passing is still something with which one has to come to terms, no matter how long-anticipated. 

Although I had written poems on my mother’s HD on and off for some years, her physical passing prompted a further outpouring in an attempt to come to terms with the loss; and, not least, to depict the profound experience of looking on her shortly after she had passed away. The poem ‘Desk Shutters’ describes how her eyes wouldn’t stay shut, but kept springing open ‘like tiny desk shutters’. All the more poignant since my brother and I had arrived at her bedside too late to see her before she passed: it was as if her eyes had anticipated our arrival and the chance to look on us one last time. 

Children of HD sufferers can be genetically screened to determine if they have inherited the faulty gene repeat; however, since there is no cure, and prognosis is so daunting, most potential inheritors decline it. Naturally, given my own chance of inheriting what is informally referred to in neurological circles as ‘Horrific Disease’, this subject –harrowing witness of my mother’s immense suffering notwithstanding– feels all the more personal. 

This potential hereditary threat is addressed most directly in my extended villanelle, ‘The Rage’, which also traces the family history of the disease back to my late distaff grandfather. Another poem, ‘Guns of Anguish’, recalls his experiences as a frequently tortured WWII POW, and speculates as to whether HD might be triggered through sustained trauma to the nervous system (like any disease, inherited or not, it must have a starting point). 

The title of the collection alludes –in its aural stiltedness and terpsichorean imagery– to the original name for Huntington’s Chorea, ‘St. Vitus’s Dance’. The book’s cover image is adapted from a photograph of four radically angular dancer poses from the revolutionary Russian ballet, The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky, 1913), choreographed by the prodigiously gifted ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Something of the unnaturally contorted and jerky dance movements of The Rite, which caused such uproar on its first performance, reminds me of the bolting and twitchy involuntary movements (‘fasciculations’) of Huntington’s. Nijinsky lapsed into schizophrenia at the peak of his ballet career, from which he never recovered, so there is a cross-pollination of themes at work in the eponymous poem. 

It is my hope that this collection will, among more poetic purposes, help raise awareness of what is still a shadowy disease rarely discussed in the media, even though its symptomatology is glaringly similar to the more common dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Perhaps it is because the disease is relatively rare and affects a small percentage of the population, plus the fact that, by the law of averages, there have been far less ‘famous’ cases of it (the only one known to me is that of Woodie Guthrie), that HD is a still relatively underexposed illness. 

For further information about Huntington’s Disease visit the Huntington’s Disease Association website.

Sample Poems from Shadows Waltz Haltingly:

The Rage

An extended villanelle on Huntington’s Disease

How does a gentle soul go out in rage?
Most enter in a tantrum, part in tears,
But some –again– rave as they disengage. 

This isn’t only dread of end, some sage
Saccadic catching up with spooling years,
It’s just some quiet souls go out in rage.

Nor is it tempered by steepness of age,
Or paucity of time –youth’s abject fears
Of blackness– some rave as they disengage.

But nature of departure can presage
The loss of all composure as the biers
Quake beneath the narrow house –then rage,

Rent from bile of sickness, takes the stage
To shattered laughter at warped puppeteers 
Threading tripwire strings through balisage. 

Corporal of the Buffs in wartime cage 
Tortured on and off for four barbed years –
So came as no surprise he went in rage:

But yesterday’s tempers traced the first stage
Of a disease which robbed his demobbed years 
To a snared hare the priest could not engage. 

Autopsies thumb the brain’s each cabbaged page,
Leaf flimsy onion-skins obscure as smears;
Neurons scoured this gourd, and caused the rage,

But post-mortem’s obfuscating beige
Botched ‘blood-poisoning’ –a fib that blears
And marbles readiness to disengage 

In a daughter outraced past grasping stage 
By a basal ganglia’s burnt rubber gears;
Her eyes’ repeats replay that glint of rage

No whispered reassurances assuage;
What she grasps abruptly disappears
To shadow’s dislocated cartilage. 

Memories clump into one turgid page –
Her mind can’t turn the untouchable years
Gummed together with time’s thick mucilage.

My threatened stem pre-empts a shaping swage
That may trap me in same warping veneers
Coating her wooden bones for saxifrage 

Of rotting lobes; her arms are plumbed to gauge
Depth and space, swaying trunks that steer
A trumping body –limbs bolt, disengage.

A blunted line’s elephant in her cage…
The hunted gene knows few test-volunteers:
Why trace the cureless thunder at this stage;

Pre-empt the protein-pogrom to rampage
Before it has to?    Will my punished ears
Prepare me more for when I disengage?
Will augurs fail? Will I go out in rage?
 

‘Scorched Carpet’: Lepidoptera chorea

I kiss her forehead, faintly scented with ammonia 
Like a baby’s milky scalp, stroke her moth-soft cheek;
Altered brown pools hoist up unfocusedly
With a snared doe’s powerlessness, a bovine innocence, 
Then throw their gaze star-ward at the ceiling trying 
To trace a way back in cracks amassing 
To an anguishing maze; locked limbs penned in by 
Metallic fulcrum on a bed’s grazed acre 
Where she ruminates on the mangold-vague 
In a pitiless light’s amaranthine gaze… 

Her hard-starred husband sits chipped and beaten, 
Glass-eyed with tiredness, biting cussed nails in 
A war of attrition between gum-bone and doomed tooth –
Curded gold ingots with gaps in-between, gnarled 
Markers against the dark of his laugh –alternately: 
Puzzling his gingered moustache/cradling his bald 
Dome’s freckled Dodo-egg in olive-brown hands’ 
Torn curatorship... She just lies there and says 
‘I’m going to sleep now’, and that’s it, the same pattern 
Every day; and I sit there reading the paper; 
And if she isn’t sleeping, she’s staring aimlessly 
At the ceiling, not talking, just staring into space, 
Listening to the rustling of my supplement cryptic; 
It’s as if she’s continually waiting... For What? 
There’s nothing to wait for anymore... Is there? Except… 
Maybe, my next visit… tomorrow… the day after …

A plunge of the gut tugs me back to wracked pasts; 
Mutters in austere summers by the charred 
Carcinoma of the fireplace as to how our life –
Prior to stowing away in that granite hold 
Of mortgaged purgatory– pitched into night, 
Swum off to nostalgia’s pinched margin… All since, 
Dreamlike, unreal-seeming, adrift on a splintering 
Sea’s dismembered memory-debris, us clinging 
To furniture bits like slicked-back rats; a limbo 
Stormily jolting us into spent nerves, withering 
Spirits, automatic pilots, vaguely thrown echoes 
Of ourselves, a crop of broken shadows amok 
On stone floors of a rug-sprung cottage sprouting 
Tumours of dry-rot, variegated thought-funguses, 
Damp-patch arabesques, ghosts of hectoring 
Heirlooms carved out from the tortoiseshell dark, 
And angst-cracked vases fraught with petrified flowers 
Plucked copiously from days’ sunken gardens... 

Out in the sticks of Kernow’s obscure-delving 
Veldts and bleak-skied disenchantments, we fell 
Under a spell amid fishermen’s seaweed-tangled 
Creels of twisting hillsides –restricting us, intercepting 
Escape; my mother now snagged in its slippery 
Lobster-cage; won’t let us dispatch past mistakes, 
Just patch up a boat’s rotting frame, still trapped in
Chartless waters, un-navigable fogs, our compass 
Submerged as the spoon in her pureed food –drinks 
Chalky with thickeners: solids and fluids sink 
Quick in her lungs like wrong-downed anchors… 

Dad called our downward spiral A jinx –and 
In spite of uprooting from ill-wishing Cornish 
Superstitions, horseshoes and pixies, he thinks 
Our bloodline’s congealed by a gypsy’s swart curse –
Or the Irish rebel’s whose shillelagh-thick skull 
Dented the gist of a forebear’s cudgel –
That branch rooted to the spot in the singe 
Of his ashy lounge, against a wall’s tar-orange…

But if it’s a curse, it’s Huntington’s grotesque 
Olive-skinned dress-rehearsal for the grave; 
Punctilious scouring of bulb, lobe and body – 
A moth’s clumsy lamp-clunking chorea that hovers 
On my mother’s wood-tongue: she: a puppet 
Suspended on the bed’s lunging knee, legs 
Lolling hollowly, clenched smile’s bruxed teeth 
Thrown with a screened ventriloquist’s wheeze…

Did a harbinger’s cudgel club an albatross?  
Who knows the source for this coursing sorcery?
That trapped past has latched us in its narrative,
Snatching at us when we can least resist; 
A mushrooming thought-form smothering our sights, 
Netting us in its shadowy web –each time we 
Resurface in blinks of wakefulness, it prises 
Our eyes back open to another warped twist...
 
Before the door whispers shut on that carpeted 
Tomb, I glance back at her drooping dormouse lids 
Screwed tight as a child’s incanting a wish; 
This abrading disease, a knuckled fist 
Kneading interminable brass-rubbings of her brain’s 
Fibrous butternut –a vast Rembrandtian wall 
Diminishing her shadow to a signature scrawl 
At the foot of a blank canvas, bare, biblical 
(O how she’d obsess on those Dead Sea Scrolls...)
But for a small wooden cross nailed to its plaster –
A chrysalis trying to hatch out unnoticed, 
Or a bulb-singed, clenched-winged, crouching moth – 
Scorched Carpet’s imago camouflaged as a cross...

* Scorched Carpet is the name of a species of moth
 

Regal Margis

Broke, they were both brought to Bognor: the buy-to-
Bet Boom’s mortgage balloon meant this derelict 
Cove of custardy art deco, upturned boats, 
End-of-the-pier phantom Punch and Judy men, 
Where stamp-collecting George V sojourned to take 
His cure from the waters, was the closest they could 
Moor to Brighton and their sons… Such limbo 
Of burnt-thumbed suburbs so close to tide-ebbing 
Blood-ties mumbling repeatedly nearby 
On beaches of recrudescent, shored-up memories 
Swelling and collapsing on the sands, roiling more 
With shingle as they crept back, simmered in her mind 
Until her surging thoughts popped like seaweed pods, 
One by one; the leathery tentacles of time’s 
Narrative torn apart by the muscular churn 
Of gaunt waves’ sardonic claps of malignant applause, 
Margins blurred beyond Regis, now bruised on damp
Pages, her rubbery limbs bouncing on strings 
Of jolting puppetry, malign legerdemain 
For a jaundiced audience invisible as jellyfish 
In this strange, dream-merging and graspless ‘Regal 
Margis’ on West Sussex’ sleepy Westphal arm... 

His half-happy short-lived retirement of months, 
Hovered-over by his wife’s moth-eaten thoughts 
Before they tripped and hit those treacherous lights, 
Throbbing bulbs; in the false calm he’d nurtured 
A habit –as if adumbrating a storm ahead– 
Of tapping Morse code (recalled from his Royal 
Marine Signaller days) on the warm rusty switch in
The pottered nostalgia of the two-roomed Museum…
Next door to a porchway with a blue and white plaque 
Marking the spot where a beer-soaked William Blake 
Was once stung by bored Bognor bobbies in eighteen-
O-something-or-other… those legendary green 
Song lines of ‘Jerusalem’, from Milton, sprang from 
His pen when he lived nearby in sleepy Felpham –
Now a road there’s named after him, but the village,
Long absorbed into barely publishable suburbs, 
Once aired like a ‘Ladder of Angels’ to Blake, 
Now petrol-coated outskirts of parked Satanic cars … 

Brief soporific months slept off in the town’s 
Unannounced Poets’ Corner: the pause before 
Her mind’s trapeze collapsed into the sawdust ring 
Of delusions’ unexpurgated Grand Guignol; 
The Chorea’s grotesque routines of circus tumbling; 
Leaving her husband a pale washed-up clown, 
Face-tugging, fuddled by juggling of diagnoses 
And ever-switching prescriptions, trick-unicyclists 
Passing on batons of appointments between them, 
Until the last port of call hit upon the mutant gene 
By a smudging margin: this degenerative germinal 
Seed might be passed on… and on… far out across
The circular sands and seaweed links to distant tides… 
Hardly time to process the garbled messages since 
She’d tripped on slippery steps in the public toilets, 
Twisting one foot back anticlockwise at the ankle; 
Ever since then, nothing could be put right again... 

Slumped by her barred bed, a peach crib, his fogged 
Ghost struggles to decode her vague signals, cryptic 
As Tongues; nonplussed, his blunt fingers tapping 
Indecipherable Morse on his scrambling brow: 
Dit dah dah   dit dit dit dit     dah dit dah dah/ dit dit dit dit dit   
Dit dah dit   dit dit dah dah dit dit…? Dit dah dah   dit dit dit dit   
Dah dit dah dah/ dah dit   dah dah dah   dit dah dah…?

…traipsing back to the pigeon-cooing glooms 
Of Bognor Station, following vague hours 
Holding her frail hand and stroking her thinning 
Ashy hair, the automated tannoy reminds 
Passengers in aggressing greasy-spooned English 
Of a consciously articulated estuary accent: 
It is anti-so-shawl to put your feet up on the seats –
Then the curt instruction’s followed by a sprinkling 
Of glockenspiel, like a holiday camp jingle 
(No doubt still deployed at the local Butlin’s) 
As if by way of apology at such prior abruptness, 
An upward-sliding chromatic solfège pitching… 

            And–did–those–feet…?

[Transcription from Morse Code: Why / her? / Why / now?]
 

Brittle Twigs 

So fiercely defensive of your sons –Dad used to say 
You were like a ferocious lioness protecting her cubs –
Such delicacy of soul, such gentle talons, and sharpness 
Of tongue all the more deadly for its edge of kindness;
Ardently devoted to loved ones, you spared nothing 
Of yourself in the cause of the family –daughter, wife, 
Mother, martyr, self-sacrificing clotheshorse to chores 
Of an unforgiving cottage, scrubbing clothes in cold 
Water in lieu of a washing machine, just a primitive 
Contraption called a wringer to aid your pink-raw hands 
As they worked it; or sweeping dust-coated floors 
With brooms for not being able to afford a Hoover –
But all the while your doubts collected like stubborn 
Cobwebs thick as birds’ nests up in the furthest rafters 
Of bough-beamed bedrooms, brown blooms of morbid 
Obsessions; the brittle fibre of your nerves wilting 
Like tightly bound twigs gripped in a besom; no more 
The fearsome Margaret of Anjou as our father 
Depicted you by contrast to his saturnine Henry VI, 
Monkish scholar-king not cut out for hand-wringing 
Money worries, constant fighting to keep the wolf from 
The door, fend off bailiffs and guard against snaggletooth 
Dragons of mortgage lenders; nor were you anymore 
A feisty storm-hearted mother to his temperamental heirs 
Presumptive –now you were more of an anxious lioness, 
Something was altering you, a gradual gauntness carving 
Out your visage to a vaguer engraving of a living 
Mediaeval tomb; shrivelling of vim, blunting 
Of optimism, fogging of defiance, dwindling 
Of vigilance –now it seemed you were struggling 
To protect something far more fundamental than a roof 
And family, silently battling to defend it against 
Formidable odds of flaming arrows that flared 
Over you in hot flushes (we’d thought, symptoms 
Of menopause, perhaps, but you’d flatly refused 
To see the Doctor); you fought gallant and alone for 
As long as you could hold out, dumbly besieged by 
The spillages of your own boiling oil pouring back 
Inside your battlements, your defences melting down –
And in those first skirmishes there was no sign so 
Alarming to draw our attention, except a clenching 
Of the drawbridge of your chin, a bracing of your brow’s 
Stormed battlements, a grinding of your turreted teeth 
At the clattering of panic’s portcullis, and the lowering 
Of your visored gaze gradually resigning beneath 
The tousled mantling of your mouse-brown hair, 
As if avoiding your own reflections; and that 
Something you were fighting to defend was your self, 
Your essence, personality, which you felt slipping 
Piece by piece like brittle twigs loosening from a besom; 
You kept fighting right up until there were barely any 
Twigs left bound tight enough for your thoughts to keep their grip –
Then, the last glass of resistance in your voice shattering
As you whispered on the phone through sobbing breaths
Almost echoing, as if you’d suddenly plummeted 
Down a bottomless well, I think… I’m losing… my mind, 
And I tried reassuring you in a soothing tone, Mum, 
You’re having a panic, take deep breaths, I didn’t know then 
I was catching the last wrung gasp of authentic Helen, 
Wife, mother, auxiliary nurse; that those hushed, frightened 
Words were the last brittle twigs of the besom slipping –
I’d have said goodbye then had I known you were going…


Shadows Waltz Haltingly 

Hesitation, Change, Drag, Twitch, Hesitation, Drag, 
Twitch, Fasciculation, Change, Drag, Twitch Again, 
Judder, Halt, Akinetic-Rigid, Unsteady Gait, Rapid 
Progression, Jerky Movements, Arms Flailing, Halt, 
Posture Stooping, Drag Trunk Slanting, Halt, Jerk, 
Wobble on the balls of the feet, repeat, repeat –
Thus goes the Hesitation Waltz of Huntington’s, 
St. Vitus’ Dance, known by other bitter sobriquets – 
The Terpsichorean Chorea, the Misfold Fandango, 
The Westphal Shuffle, the Basal Ganglia Tango, 
The Akinetic-Rigid Jig; and the pattern is repeated 
In strange mutations of proteins singed to huntingtins, 
Faulty gene repeats, hereditary, as with all 
Extraordinary Houdini-esque contortions of body, 
Or jerking Nijinsky-like choreographies a la 
The spasmodic jerks, rigid twitches, jolting fits, 
Ungainly angular poises and epileptic leaps 
Of pagan Russian peasants in Le Sacre du printemps –
Repeat, repeat; but the trick with this imbalanced 
Balletic feat, this preternatural paso doble, 
Tripping quickstep, stuttering foxtrot, rubber-limbed rumba, 
Juddering jitterbug, jittery jig, apart from the glide upon 
Flat feet, glissades of fallen arches, is in anticipating 
Its unpredictability, so that it seems an effortless, 
Almost automatic, puppet-like extemporisation 
Of motor and cognitive faculties, no strings visible, 
No single move seeming smooth in progression, 
Since there’s no rhythm, no tempo of which to speak
That can be tapped out from a prompt-box, no pattern 
To its stilted freestyle steps, this grotesque burlesque 
Of jerky movements, no conscious coordination, 
Nor even improvisation, nothing deliberate or 
Spontaneous about this irruption in mind and body 
Snatched up so completely in atrophic raptures 

–simply, there’s no terpsichorean preparation, 
No special spicing of rosin to help propulsion, 
No tutoring that can anticipate the shape-changing 
Gradations and transmogrifications of Chorea 
Choreography; it’s a jinx in the genes that germinates 
Rigorously, turns nerves to jelly, bones to rubber, 
The skeleton to inhibiting crib –unsympathetic 
Magic, muscular sorcery, which enchants destructively, 
Drives proteins to top themselves prematurely, mocks 
The body, rocks it into darkly shaking hokey-cokey –
St. Vitus’ Dance progresses in stages of gradual descent, 
Back arching, head stooping, arms lunging lower and 
Lower, down and down, as if descending a downward 
Flight of warping steps, collapsing coping stones, 
Each slab of body gradually giving way; each stage, 
Jaggedly degenerative, a path of splintered paving, 
Strange mutations and dismantling neurotransmitters; 
A series of irreversible leaps, phantasmagoria 
Of grimaces, cryptic gestures, unrehearsed changes, 
Strangely angular entanglements of muscle and 
Ligament, until the trunk and branches seize up, 
Limbs numb to rigid umbrages no sudden gusts 
Can sway; but this grimacing dance, this Gammaldans 
Of milk signs, this huntingtins jig, keeps going 
Uninhibited by atrophy of spirit, mind, body, 
An unforgiving whirligig… It’s then the backdrop warps 
And the scenery transmutes as the stage switches from 
The sparseness and lassitude of that last afflicted 
Lavender-fragranced room, out onto the languishing 
Lawn framed through demure French windows, where 
The late autumn light is fractured, fragmentary, 
Like shards of stained glass tinged with glimmerings 
Of green, miracles of harlequin, chartreuse –but 
Shrubberies rumble the daydream as they rustle 
In the galleries, not applauding but fidgeting as 
A limbering breeze whips up from nowhere, and sudden
Clouds scud across a cream October sun, translucent 
And vague as a tranquilizer, a primrose sphere 
Of Valium, a gauze for anaesthetising, 
A fog-light smudging off and on –then a change from 
Gloom-plunged mood-lighting back to daylight vagary, 
And on the dancing grass, shadows waltz haltingly…


Desk Shutters

I glanced at your eyes after you’d departed, 
Could hardly avoid the way your filmy eyelids 
Refused to stay shut after father’s blunt fingertips 
Eased them down each time: almost imperceptibly 
They sprang back up like two tiny desk shutters –
Your foggy brown-grey eyes: coins sinking in a well, 
Blurry and vague; pebbles just beneath the surface 
Of a stream –even from the initial distance 
Of the doorway, when my eyes first roamed across 
The room to your peach-duvet tomb, your eyes 
Were open, blankly staring up at the ceiling, 
Petrified by what I desperately hoped was some 
Divine insight, an elevating revelation, 
Anything but oblivion –God, hopefully, Whom 
You’d not long before murmured you wanted to see; 
So eager, you seemed, but humble, asking permission 
Just before you passed away: Can I go now…? As if 
You’d been patiently waiting, checking beforehand 
That you’d seen everyone there was to say goodbye to, 
But were now keen to go… Moving closer: your flat 
Brown pupils, dimensionless, seemed almost as if 
Pretending to be pennies –two bisected moth-wings 
Camouflaging themselves as tender once placed 
Upon them to ‘pay the ferryman’, as was once custom, 
Though, likelier, to weigh the lids down… How to 
Describe your emptied eyes? Chalkier, vaguer, 
Mere impressions rubbed off onto bone-china domes 
Of yellowing sclera, delicate, perishable 
To the slightest brush like butterflies’ flimsily 
Filmed wings; or, to mix metaphors, a mackerel’s 
Stymied stare on ice at a fishmonger’s, vague glare, 
Stygian astigma –globed adumbrations; the glint 
That lit them, dimmed, misted, caliginous, no longer 
Seeing anything, turning in on themselves, 
Discarded optics, un-telling, unreflecting; 
Gummy mementoes seeming as if they could simply 
Be unpeeled like stamps or transfers, come off on 
The fingertips as gossamer; no longer inhabited, 
Light-extinguished, rinsed of purpose, mere after-prints 
Of something lifted out from them– spirit? Some spark 
Which once illumined them, now elsewhere, relinquished; 
Released from the irises, as a zephyr of air escaping 
Silently through a pin-puncture; this body, this shell, 
This husk, this wax simulacrum, this sculpture of your 
Priceless essence, pale impression of personality, 
Spirit, your You, now decanted into an invisible 
Vessel still-living eyes aren’t privy to… We arrived 
At your bed-ridden shore shortly after your departure; 
Your deskbound husband, our newly shadowed father, 
Told us you’d passed calmly, your scalp delicately
Cradled like a fragile egg in his warm brown hands; 
We came too late for you to look on us one last time, 
Your sons whom you barely recognised, but who’d 
Followed your guide through the dwindling light 
Of Wuthering Heights –its whispers brushed off on us 
Like hoarfrost in our youths, inspired us to write –
But now we stood wordless, our shadows thrown on you, 
Now a small crumpled form, both witnesses to 
The last part of your narrative vanish before us –
Was that why your eyelids refused to stay closed 
And kept springing open like tiny desk shutters…?

Alan Morrison’s Shadows Waltz Haltingly is published by Lapwing Publications, Belfast (2015)

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