Leave my soul alone

I’m re-reading the excellent book Into the Silent Land by neuropsychologist Paul Broks and was reminded of a part where he recounts an eerie poem about a 1938 operation to remove a brain tumour.

The poem is by Welsh poet and doctor Dannie Abse and, looking it up on the internet, I discovered that the poetry archive has a wonderful entry for the piece online that not only includes the text but also a recording of Abse introducing and reading the poem.

The uncanny incident, probably caused by stimulation of the cortical surface, was witnessed by Abse’s brother, also a doctor, when observing an operation by the famous neurosurgeon Lambert Rogers.

In the Theatre
by Dannie Abse

(A true incident)

Sister saying—‘Soon you’ll be back in the ward,’
sister thinking—‘Only two more on the list,’
the patient saying—‘Thank you, I feel fine’;
small voices, small lies, nothing untoward,
though, soon, he would blink again and again
because of the fingers of Lambert Rogers,
rash as a blind man’s, inside his soft brain.

If items of horror can make a man laugh
then laugh at this: one hour later, the growth
still undiscovered, ticking its own wild time;
more brain mashed because of the probe’s braille path;
Lambert Rogers desperate, fingering still;
his dresser thinking, ‘Christ! Two more on the list,
a cisternal puncture and a neural cyst.’

Then, suddenly, the cracked record in the brain,
a ventriloquist voice that cried, ‘You sod,
leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,’—
the patient’s dummy lips moving to that refrain,
the patient’s eyes too wide. And, shocked,
Lambert Rogers drawing out the probe
with nurses, students, sister, petrified.

‘Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,’
that voice so arctic and that cry so odd
had nowhere else to go—till the antique
gramophone wound down and the words began
to blur and slow, ‘ … leave … my … soul … alone … ’
to cease at last when something other died.
And silence matched the silence under snow.

Link to poetry archive entry for ‘In the Theatre’.

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