Living As An Alien


You prefer to close your eyes,
to go down into the basement.
A room at first so alien and frightening,
but then day in, day out,
there are the nurses and friends made
and a familiarity that is almost home.

You’d rather be sent back up
into a world that is full of light
and noise and life. You wear a watch
because the waiting is endless.
The next appointment, the next test,
the eternal rooms of frightened faces.
Silence occasionally broken by a phone ringing,
someone’s too loud recollection of horror.

Your son gave you one of his worry dolls
because you were always a worrier
even before cancer gave you a reason to sweat.
He wasn’t judging, he kept one for himself
and held you tighter than you’ve ever been held.
You painted a vase for a friend because you always
wanted to be an artist somehow and…

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Coming back


When they sit you down

in a dark room with no windows

and say words that weigh

more than mountains,

words that blind you

with their Antarctic diagnosis

of your hidden spaces,

words that plunge you

deep, deep under the Southern Ocean

where there are no reflections,

no shadows to sew onto your feet,

then you are not a poet.

You are a Hoff crab

choking on your own volcano,

gagging on the jokes of gravediggers,

the silence that is monochrome madness.


But when you find that the cold

is slipping into the bone,

you remember a small boy

smiling in a garden in summer,

his laughter the lightest sound

you have ever heard,

and suddenly you are swimming back up

with every last shard of your strength

till you find again the hole in the ice

and you burst through into a sky

that is hope, that is love, that is poetry.


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To those of us who’ve sat

in rooms with random magazines

and clocks that run backwards

wondering how we ever came to be

on a plastic chair with tiny, invisible

question marks crawling all over our skin.

How long?  How bad?

What next?  Why me?

There is this small boy

running onto a hospital ward

brandishing a card covered in glitter

that he made himself and other connections

to home, to love, to knowing you are not alone in this.


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Best not to think about it


There is that quiet when I am awake

and the house is sleeping.

A strange pause before the day

opens its doors to lost shoes

and unwanted socks.  Like holding

my breath. Like drowning.


It’s not knowing how high

I can count that chokes.

When I am running

from pillar to post,

bus to train,

I rarely think what

my insides are doing.


But sometimes my own reflection

In a window when there is a delay,

muffled tannoy announcements,

suspended journeys,

gives me vertigo,

as if I know I’ll be asked to jump.


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Fireworks in the garden

burst into shooting stars

in awe at the red blue green rockets

of just turned three year olds

who dance for musical chairs

and the many layers of pass the parcel.

They hug and tumble and fight

over Paw Patrol cars as we look on

in the secret gasp of wonder

that they have made it this far,

that they are walking, talking little people.


As the sky explodes with their laughter,

I think please let me be here for this.

Whatever they need to cut

from the Catherine Wheel of my body,

whatever needs to be stripped

from the Guy Fawkes betrayal

of my inheritance, it does not matter

as long as I can still hold a little boy’s hand

and hear the intake of his breath

as it sparkles with life.


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I have not felt lighter

so am doubtful when she says

it will give you a greater sense

of balance before slipping

the silicon into a white bra

and helping me with the straps

with that professional kindness

I have come to appreciate so much.

A kindness that says this is weird for you

but I do this every day for so many women

and it will be alright.  Just a tug here

and a checking they’re straight

and no one will ever be able to tell

you went under the knife.


As I stare into the mirror,

I realise she’s right.  I do feel

as if an absence I wasn’t even aware of

has been corrected.  I step out

into the deep blue

of this glorious Indian summer,

filled with a sudden lightness

as if I could walk on water,

sprout miracle wings,

soar up into the September sunshine

and sing of my new found equilibrium.


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Best medicine


Yesterday I felt a bit rattled

by all that has happened

and perhaps it’s the drugs

or the lack of sleep,

but I suddenly didn’t seem to be

doing as well as I thought I was.

You said, ‘Mammy, I love you,

I take care of you and the boo boo.’

You kissed me and hugged me

and then we made up a song together

about pirates as I pretended

I could play the ukulele.

After we’d defeated the bad guys

by chopping their heads off

and throwing them into jail,

you kissed me again and laughed.

‘See Mammy, you’re all better now,’

and I felt infinitely healed.


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Not fine


You text me

‘how long have they said

till you’re all healed and fighting fit.’

As if there is only

summer and winter,

living and dying.


Instead of this long bumpy road

back to health with its tree roots

that break through tarmac

and trip me up at unexpected moments.

Its sly puddles and treacherous potholes,

its moments of spinning on ice.

The signposts crossed out and the sat nav

not even recognising its existence.


I don’t know how to tell you

about the stopping to pick blackberries,

the view of the lavender field

I never noticed before,

the moon hung a silver coin in a velvet sky.


I used to be suspicious of journeys,

not sure that I travelled particularly well.

But I’ve surprised myself

with how far I can limp.

One foot after the other,

each day with its twists and turns.


Not much to do with the doctor’s prognosis,

yet  I continue to send these postcards

for those who also find themselves

on this road to God knows where.


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There are wings in the window.

I point out the great whiteness

of the heron as he soars impossibly huge

against a sky bruised with early evening.

You say it’s already getting darker,

the summer a fish slipping through our fingers.

Our dove hotel still empty,

but the stream has a new island I have yet to see.


I think of a gangster’s sadness at wild ducks

leaving a swimming pool as I watch

the starlings steal our blueberries.

Sparrows are not grateful,

they dance in the hedges

making nests for babies who will fly away.


Still when our little boy brings us pigeon feathers,

we coo at their lightness, their freedom,

how they tickle under the chin.

I think maybe this sickness,

this nearly losing everything,

is a kind of migration,

a mirror that never stays still,

words written on water.

And at last I have a home,

a place to float back to.


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The crack of bubble wrap underfoot,

your roly poly dance,

drawing your hand in mine,

the cutting up of diamonds.

Our neighbour says

‘it’s good to see you looking so normal’

as she drives past me in our doorway

struggling to fasten your shoes.

And I think as you kiss me goodbye

with a ‘care wool’ hug,

yes, that’s right,

how wonderful, how miraculous

normal feels

after all the pain and the needles

and the waiting for scans

that scar with their abnormalities,

their malignant growths,

their cells that multiply

in weird lumps that threaten

to catch the every day in their claws

and rip it to shreds.


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