InThroughOut: Poems of Illness and Recovery

by David Gilbert

May 29, 2016

These are the poems I will be reading at this year's Critical Voices Arts and Health Festival. I hope you like them. I hope you will come and hear me read them, and to see a wonderful array of artists and healthists.


Please note: These are best viewed on a PC, not a smart phone. The latter disrupts line breaks.


These Middle-Men

These middle-men, these old men, these mothers, the wheel, the chosen and praised, despised, the praising and querulous, the erudite, unvoiced, ancients at the mountain and wall, these exotic diehards, sand falling through long, long fingers as they traveled. The tablet, nail, ghetto, sewed on stars, these boxed and crated, the wheels, tracks, tattoos, sheds and piles of shoes. These Jews, their silences, these jokes about the two men and three arguments, these dreams of the desert, the calling of names, covering of eyes, the squabbles, the fights, the ladle, the soup, sharing of recipes, medicine when you couldn’t sleep, things better left unsaid, these grandmothers, second cousins, bitten fingernails, paired ironed socks with blue crosses, the smallness of you against the bigness of it, your useless words, that useless god, these candles you were told outlasted night, these doubts, this wheel




I slid between rooms
Severing wires

Unscrewing bulbs
And scissoring magazines

Limbs became heavier
And heavier to operate

I sat cross-legged
Fending off evil

While the bedroom wall
Grew dangerously thin

The black house began
Its whispering plots

My brother was sent
With poisoned Jaffa Cakes

Then came the scraping
And bleeding sound

Of thousands of chairs
Falling over themselves

Midnight’s rush
Of telephone calls

Rose wailing and wolf-like
Four men arrived

Serious and muscular
The quiet jab came

And my mother’s voice:
Please look after him


Morden Via Bank

Fell asleep at Tufnell Park missed Camden Town went sailing via Charing Cross, came up at Warren Street. Well, what the hell, I thought turned right, zigzagged unfamiliar streets walked into a foyer, took a lift to an office that sort of looked OK sat down at a desk, scanned the in-tray then got up to make a coffee. Don’t think anyone noticed till lunchtime when a guy with blue eyes said: Hey, Dave. You all right? You look kind of pale. Must have been a rough night. A woman with glasses said: Have you done something to your hair? Suits you. Then she left me with papers to read and file. Drafted a couple of emails then realised I had a one o’clock meeting with the senior management team: Nice tie said the Chief Executive before we got down to business. It’s been a long day, I thought later as I wrote an overdue Board paper on Exception Reporting. I hadn’t even had lunch. It was already getting dark. I put my coat on, headed back to the station and wondered whether I’d get home too late or find another one.



Sparrows rat-a-tat the double-glazing.
Matted feathers, smatterings of blood
and smeary wing-prints stain the glass.
The garden is a reddened blur.

There’s a soot-blast at the fireplace.
Seven blackened birds with gaping beaks
tilt their heads and fix us with yellow eyes.
One has a broken leg. Still it hops.

A screeching. The puffed up Robins
have done for Max (we taped the cat flap).
A swarm of collared doves descend
to join the magpies strutting the roof.

A scream. We turn. A thousand wrens
stream like jets through the letter box.
We hack at them with tennis rackets
fall back and jam the kitchen door.

They batter for hours, then all goes quiet.
The fuses blow. We wait into the night
tune and re-tune the old radio:
Nothing but the blast of birdsong.


Close Obs

I'm curled into a ball
on a thin mattress on the floor
covered with a crinkly nylon sheet
smelling faintly of sick and piss.

Outside the heavy brown door
sits Len, muscly, tanned,
with the Mirror crossword.
Not much older than me,

he's done his fair share
of hurtling down corridors
readying needles full of Depixol
to slam into the arses of lunatics

like me I suppose.
As my sobbing slows
I hear him humming tunelessly
and clicking the end of his pen:

'Mate, your mum said
you didn't use to be such a dickhead.
Let's see. Try this for starters:
French for dead-end, 3-2-3?'

I don't know whether he's
smart enough to be taking the mick
but I'm damned if this mad man
will ever tell him the answer.



I want to help
on your first night in

because I heard them stay you
in that room

and through the door’s grilled window
is a still body in the dark.

Though I can make nothing
from the outline of you

I recognise your shuddering
at secret sounds.

I want to talk in cliches:
'Here, we are all boats

harboured in strange waters'
and want to say:

'Yes, I will be your lighthouse –
A steady pulsing lookout'.

But in truth, at best
here, we are all dogs.

See how we stray
and roam the dock in packs

sniffing at the dregs
ready to turn on each other.

No, none of us know how to help
and I will not help you sleep.


Visiting Time

It takes a while to notice
the absence of flowers or get well cards.

The visitors arrive in dribs and drabs
without grapes, bowing their heads

as if in prayer, or maybe to avoid
being recognised. We herd ourselves

into a corner far from the worst –
my friends the shakers, the lurkers, the prowlers –

and sit, hands clasped on our laps
mirroring each other’s spaces,

the unspoken guilt rising like smoke:
Will they find forgiveness for leaving

loved ones here so as finally to get around
to cleaning the house and breathing?

And surely, we are safer now?
Who of us can blame them,

their trust pinned on furtive telephone calls:
'Doctor please, what’s wrong with him?'

And so our threadbare minutes hang
without the meeting of eyes

or the dread 'How are you?' Instead:
'The nurses seem nice. Are you eating?'

Let’s not mention the children of friends
doing well, careers, weddings, holidays

or hope. But here is mine: next time
bring flowers.


Two Types

There are two types of suicide:
Those that dabble
and those that are done with doubt.

The former can easily fall prey
to slight miscalculation of the dose
a sudden unbalancing gust at the edge
or late arriving ambulance.

I didn’t know which I was at first
but each night’s hesitation at the seventh or eighth rung
of the spiralling steps of the water tower
gradually told. I could only

watch with awe the ones
in bare feet, who beat a deliberate track
to the cold, deep, moonlit reservoir.


Stepping Out

Even then I was sorry
for the man who drove the white van.

Afterwards, the police
made us both a cup of tea

milk and three sugars for him
black for me.

It was hard to see
a man so shaken.

Now I have
an almost invisible scar.

But he saw 'this mad lad'
stepping out

took in the dull thump
then had to explain

to them, his wife, his mates…
Or else keep it in

and the next day
get up and drive again.



When we met and held on
in the lengthening days
a couple of weeks after rain,
they were underground

the wet warm soil made ready
while we – astonished strangers –
faded into each other
and a subterranean signal sent

for the buried colonies to rise
for avenues to boil
for lawns to blister in the sun.
They swarmed

through pavement cracks
spilling into eyes and gardens
clouding the sky on silvery wings
the bodies in this once blue town

whited out and harried
until we all became
senseless scurrying shadows
drawn together, the odds stacked,

while they mated on the wing
the males soon to die,
the queens to feed off the vestiges
and live for another 15 years.

All is luck. I walk and I walk
without knowing where
grit between teeth
tongue and throat furred

picturing through the blur
us last night
heads lowered against the hurt
trying to find the long way back.



I couldn’t work out what was happening.
I walked to the end of the rickety pier,
drew a bucket of cold water from the lake
and saw things I had not seen the day before

though the weather seemed much the same:
Silvery fish darted under the surface,
water boatmen skedaddled on its skin,
ripples from a long gone motorboat

lapped the large flat stone at the shore’s edge
and the brown stems of giant lily pads curved
down into the murk. A cormorant flew
low and fast across the bay’s wide mouth

and out of sight, while the deep cells continued
their slow work of invisible rewiring.



When I trusted enough
you threw me a lifeline
and we flew to your Finland.

It was dark by two thirty
and on the first night
a blizzard from the steppes

dipped the temperature
to minus twenty one.
Even your countrymen

drove wildly on that ice.
The news was full of it.
An alcoholic fisherman

was found belly up
by the silent morning dock,
swollen fingers stuck

to a frozen cigarette.
I was glad to feel at last
the shock of weather

that had been and gone
six years without me noticing.
‘I glove you’ I joked

into the bone-stripping cold.
Then, breathing the burning air
in thermals, layers and hats,

like a pair of Michelin Men
or throwback to the ward –
two shuffling roly-polys –

we slid blindly to the store
and stumbled back laden
with enough Lapin Kulta,

chocolate and pickled herring
to last a lifetime – a new
big fat lucky lifetime.


Walk with Adam

The muggy evening walk to the Sainsbury Local
for white sliced bread, bananas, honey, milk
and something else we couldn’t remember.

A black cat, then a grey tabby
both rolling over so we could tickle their tummies,
them for a while following us.

Me talking about my job, how busy I was
and trying to explain the EU Referendum
Him, why he likes Jayden so much.

Him taking a photo of a tree against the sky
that came out too light.
Me explaining apertures and shutter speeds.

Him admiring the grass by the road,
clipped tight to the edge and mown smooth.
Me, preferring it wild, with daisies and dandelions.

The tall security man having to point out
the big sign: ‘Eggs’
so we could find the eggs.

Us having to phone mum to remember
what we had forgotten. Him blaming me.
Me, him. Her not remembering either.

Him fishing out a big box of Magnums.
Me putting them back. Me relenting.
Us on the way home, sharing a packet of Rolos.


The World Is Full of Toilets To Cry In

Old smelly ones of course, uninspected, with cracked floor tiles, damp inglorious seats and broken locks, where one tap gushes forever hot and the dryer doesn’t work, even if you bang it several times. And where you’re not so poorly as to fail to notice the plethora of metaphors.

I can feel more at home in posh ones, conference centres, government agencies and four star hotels (you can sometimes sneak in if you’re desperate) where Mozart streams in from unidentifiable wall speakers and the soap and incense sticks, in your justifiable fury, are easily nicked.

There was one (soon after she left me) where the urinals were ringed in a hazy ultraviolet light like the one that went round and round in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (though maybe I’m wrong. She said I was a lot of the time. Maybe it was white). It could be some sort of futuristic antiseptic. But it had me so captivated that I forgot. For a while.

But mostly I prefer the everyday ones, in railway stations or shopping centres, just about clean enough mostly, to let you know you’re alright in the end, not too shiny to make you feel awkward for feeling so rubbish. And at least you’re never alone. I don’t mind paying 20p for one of those.

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