About the poet
J D McClatchy (b. 1945) is one of America's foremost poet-critics. His five collections of...
In the shower, at the shaving mirror or beach,
For years I'd led... the unexamined life?
When all along and so easily within reach
(Closer even than the nonexistent wife)
Lay the trouble - naturally enough
Lurking in a useless, overlooked
Mass of fat and old newspaper stuff
About matters I regularly mistook
As a horror story for the opposite sex,
Nothing to do with what at my downtown gym
Are furtively ogled as The Guy's Pecs.
But one side is swollen, the too tender skin
Discoloured. So the doctor orders an X-
Ray, and nervously frowns at my nervous grin.
Mammography's on the basement floor.
The nurse has an executioner's gentle eyes.
I start to unbutton my shirt. She shuts the door.
Fifty, male, already embrassed by the size
Of my "breasts," I'm told to put the left one
Up on a smudged, cold, Plexiglas shelf,
Part of a robot half menacing, half glum,
Like a three-dimensional model of the Freudian self.
Angles are calculated. The computer beeps.
Saucers close on a flatness further compressed.
There's an ache near the heart neither dull nor sharp.
The room gets lethal. Casually the nurse retreats
Behind her shield. Anxiety as blithely suggests
I joke about a snapshot for my Christmas card.
"No sign of cancer," the radiologist swans
In to say - with just a hint in his tone
That he's done me a personal favour - whereupon
His look darkens. "But what these pictures show...
Here, look, you'll notice the gland on the left's
Enlarged. See?" I see an aerial shot
Of Iraq, and nod. "We'll need further tests,
Of course, but I'd bet that what you've got
Is a liver problem. Trouble with your oestrogen
Levels. It's time, my friend, to take stock.
It happens more often than you'd think to men."
Reeling from its millionth scotch on the rocks,
In other words, my liver's sensed the end.
Why does it come as something less than a shock?
The end of life as I've known it, that is to say -
Testosterone sported like a power tie,
The matching set of drives and dreads that may
Now soon be plumped to whatever new designs
My apparently resentful, androgynous
Inner life has on me. Blind seer?
The Bearded Lady in some provincial circus?
Something that others both desire and fear.
Still, doesn't everyone long to be changed,
Transformed to, no matter, a higher or lower state,
To know the leathery D-Day hero's strange
Detachment, the queen bee's dreamy loll?
Oh, but the future each of us blankly awaits
Was long ago written on the genetic wall.
So suppose the breasts fill out until I look
Like my own mother... ready to nurse a son,
A version of myself, the infant understood
In the end as the way my own death had come.
Or will I in a decade be back here again,
The diagnosis this time not freakish but fatal?
The changes in one's later years all tend,
Until the last one, toward the farcical,
Each of us slowly turned into something that hurts,
Someone we no longer recognize.
If soul is the final shape I shall assume,
The shadow brightening against the fluorescent gloom,
An absence as clumsily slipped into as this shirt,
Then which of my bodies will have been the best disguise?
from Ten Commandments (Knopf, USA, 1998) and Division of Spoils (Arc Publications, UK, 2002), copyright © J. D. McClatchy 1998 and 2002, used by permission of the author and the publishers.
J D McClatchy Reading from his poems