Image by James Clarke

Poem introduction

My eldest brother is a doctor - I was a schoolboy when he was a medical student and one day he came back from working in the operating theatre in Cardiff when he was a dresser to a well-known brain surgeon by the name of Lambert Rogers. He came back as I say and told us a very strange story, a haunting story, and years passed and it still haunted me and eventually I put down what he said in this poem. You ought to know that brain surgery is done under a local anaesthetic - it was so since the First World War, this for blood pressure reasons. The operation in question took place in 1938 when they didn't have the scanning devices they now have which can pick out a lesion in the brain very cleverly, whereas in the past sometimes a surgeon, searching for the tumour or whatever it was, broke down more brain tissue than was necessary. 'In the theatre' - a true incident.

In the theatre

In the theatre

'Only a local anaesthetic was given because of the blood pressure problem. The patient, thus, was fully awake throughout the operation. But in those days - in 1938, in Cardiff, when I was Lambert Rogers' dresser - they could not locate a brain tumour with precision. Too much normal brain tissue was destroyed as the surgeon crudely searched for it, before he felt the resistance of it...all somewhat hit and miss. One operation I shall never forget...'

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
gramaphone 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.


from New and Collected Poems (Hutchinson, 2003), copyright © Dannie Abse 2003, used by permission of the author

Recordings

Dannie Abse Reading from his Poems

1Epithalamion

2Photograph and White Tulips

3Mysteries

4Hunt the thimble

5Horse

6Return to Cardiff

7Cousin Sidney

8A new diary

9Not Adlestrop

10Snake

11The Relic

12Pathology of colours

13Peachstone

14In the theatre

15Tuberculosis

16Pantomime diseases

17O Taste and See

18Refugee

19Meurig Dafydd to his Mistress

20Lament of Heledd

21Touch Wood

22A Letter from Ogmore-by-Sea

23Last Words

Books by Dannie Abse