It has been claimed that, when shove comes to push, all poems are ultimately about sex or death. For most of my time writing poetry – I was a late starter, 28 years old before I wrote my first poem – I would have resisted reducing it to such a stark, not to mention apparently self-obsessed, binary choice.
Certainly, since I first attended a poetry reading, in 1997, I have known that there are male poets who write poetry of varying qualities in an effort to get laid. The younger ones typically pretend to be more politically correct versions of Lord Byron – though hardly any of them have the decency to go and die fighting for Greek independence, as Byron did – while the more mature sexually motivated poet tends to moon about the place, pretending to be Robert Graves, in the hope that some young – or, if it’s a slow night, not so young – female of the species might briefly take pity on him and then set about forgetting him as quickly as she can manage.
But those dudes were frauds. Real poets like the one I aspired to be wrote poems about all sorts of big grand things above and beyond their own petty existence. They even sometimes wrote poems ridiculing those auld fellas who pretended to be Robert Graves in the hope it might gain them temporary access to a young lady’s underwear drawer. The male poets in question actually existed; the lady’s underwear drawers were mostly conjured in my malicious imagination – which, I admit, delights in attributing to the apparently high-minded the lowest possible motives.
I was more tired, more breathless, coughing up phlegm from the depths of my lungs, which were permanently in full fight mode against some nonexistent infection
It was easy for me to mock. The same year I published my first collection, 2005, I also became one of what I now know single friends call “the smug marrieds”. And I remain gratefully married – to Susan Millar DuMars, also a poet – if not exactly as smug as I used to be. Indeed, my new poetry collection, Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital, includes a love/lust poem for her titled Susan, inspired by a poem the French surrealist André Breton wrote for one of his wives: “Your most intimate bit is a nectarine / with a bite taken out of it.”
A few months after we were married I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called sarcoidosis. It is one of those conditions hardly anyone outside the medical profession – and those who have it themselves, or know someone who has it – has ever heard of. And it is usually not a big deal. It causes an inflammation, usually in the lungs, which in most people burns itself out over about 18 months without any need for treatment.
But in this regard at least I am not most people. The condition persisted and during 2014 became more and more of a hindrance. I was more tired, more breathless, was constantly coughing up clear phlegm from the depths of my lungs, which were permanently in full fight mode against some nonexistent infection. The first stanza of the opening poem in Sex and Death, Sarcoid Years, deals with what was by then my new reality:
Sarcoid hours, the big blue dressing gown
your flag flapping about the town hall of you.
Your dream is a man running for a bus
and catching neither it nor his breath.
One o'clock is a book fallen open on your chest;
two is the cat nagging briefly at the door
then giving up.
I spent a lot of time asleep, going to sleep, or trying to wake up. The winter of 2014-15 was dominated by breath tests and biopsies, as the extent of my sarcoidosis was confirmed. My lungs were now scarred to such a degree that I was now only using 60 per cent of the oxygen I took in. There was also the charming sideshow of three kidney infections in the space of 18 months, caused, we think, by the fact that the sarcoidosis was causing my body to manufacture far too much calcium.
This had some darkly comic results that appealed to the satirist in me. I gave a Culture Ireland-sponsored reading in Amherst, Massachusetts, with a hideously swollen testicle. And, no, this is not a metaphor for one of the poets reading alongside me. I’m told the distended testicle added a rare urgency to my reading.
Over the next couple of years I was put on a variety of heavy treatments, including steroids, hydroxychloroquine (a derivative of quinine) and methotrexate (which is also used as a chemotherapy for cancer patients). None of which reversed the decline in my lung function, which by early 2018 was well below 50 per cent. At which point I was told I would from now on be given an intravenous infusion every eight weeks of a substance called infliximab, a powerful anti-inflammatory. The hope being that this might stabilise my lungs; otherwise a transplant might in the end be necessary.
I am never going to be “cured”. As my consultant puts it, I won’t die of sarcoidosis but I will die with it. In the poem The Medicines I try to face my new medicated existence using humour as a kind of insurance policy against the ghastly affliction of self-pity, to which so many middle-aged males succumb:
This is the yellow pill that prevents me
Throwing up on people,
Except when absolutely necessary,
And this is the orange pill
That stalls my hydrochloric acid
When it tries to ruin my cup of tea,
And this is the green pill that helps me
Stop killing people,
Except when absolutely necessary.
The treatment appears to be working. Life now has a new cycle. I am always low energy in the couple of weeks leading up to an infusion. Then in the week or so after it I am buzzing with energy. I have been known to burn off surplus energy by painting windows at midnight and the like. My libido, which until last summer had been a pretty dead duck, springs quacking to life – a potentially dangerous thing indeed for a 52-year-old male of the species. Middle-aged lust is, I have come to realise, a protest against death. And all but those who have fast-forwarded to death experience it to one extent or another. In the poem Advice to a Modern Odysseus I suggest some countermeasures a gentleman of my vintage might take:
Spend hours convincing yourself the object of your lust
is the sort who takes milk in her Bovril and probably
eats cold Brussels sprouts by the basin load;
though even if she did, you know
it wouldn't matter in the least.
I am not afraid of dying, and, until the erotic side effects of this new treatment hit in, last August and September, I thought I was okay with sex being largely a thing of the past. But I now realise I am terrified of being disabled, and withering away in bed, a bitter bag of bones unable to work. So when I start painting windows at midnight, I think it’s this fear I’m pushing back against.
Dying is the easy bit; it’s the going on that’s difficult. But on good days, like the one described in the book’s title poem, one realises that there is nothing to do with life but embrace it and, metaphorically speaking, of course:
to make wild
love to the whole world.
Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital, by Kevin Higgins, is published by Salmon. It is being launched at the House Hotel in Galway on Friday, June 14th, at 6pm; all are welcome