The Man with Night Sweats

Thom Gunn - 1929-2004
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat 
Wake to their residue, 
Sweat, and a clinging sheet. 

My flesh was its own shield: 
Where it was gashed, it healed.

I grew as I explored 
The body I could trust 
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.

I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry, 
My flesh reduced and wrecked.

I have to change the bed, 
But catch myself instead

Stopped upright where I am 
Hugging my body to me 
As if to shield it from 
The pains that will go through me,
      
As if hands were enough 
To hold an avalanche off.

More by Thom Gunn

Black Jackets

   In the silence that prolongs the span
Rawly of music when the record ends,
   The red-haired boy who drove a van
In weekday overalls but, like his friends,

   Wore cycle boots and jacket here
To suit the Sunday hangout he was in,
   Heard, as he stretched back from his beer,
Leather creak softly round his neck and chin.

   Before him, on a coal-black sleeve
Remote exertion had lined, scratched, and burned
   Insignia that could not revive
The heroic fall or climb where they were earned.

   On the other drinkers bent together,
Concocting selves for their impervious kit,
   He saw it as no more than leather
Which, taut across the shoulders grown to it,

   Sent through the dimness of a bar
As sudden and anonymous hints of light
   As those that shipping give, that are
Now flickers in the Bay, now lost in night.

   He stretched out like a cat, and rolled
The bitterish taste of beer upon his tongue,
   And listened to a joke being told:
The present was the things he stayed among.

   If it was only loss he wore,
He wore it to assert, with fierce devotion,
   Complicity and nothing more.
He recollected his initiation,

   And one especially of the rites.
For on his shoulders they had put tattoos:
   The group's name on the left, The Knights,
And on the right the slogan Born To Lose.

The Hug

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
    Half of the night with our old friend
        Who'd showed us in the end
    To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
        Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug, 
        Suddenly, from behind, 
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
        Your instep to my heel,
    My shoulder-blades against your chest.
    It was not sex, but I could feel
    The whole strength of your body set,
           Or braced, to mine,
        And locking me to you
    As if we were still twenty-two
    When our grand passion had not yet
        Become familial.
    My quick sleep had deleted all 
    Of intervening time and place.
        I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

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R.I.P., My Love

Let us be apart then like the panoptical chambers in IC
patient X and patient Y, our names magic markered hurriedly on cardboard
and taped pell-mell to the sliding glass doors, "Mary", "Donald", "Tory";
an indication that our presence there would prove beyond temporary, like snow flurry.
Our health might be regained if aggressive medical action were taken, or despite
these best efforts, lost like missing children in the brambles of poor fortune. 
The suffering of another's I can only envision through the mimesis of my own,
the alarming monitor next door in lieu of a heartbeat signifying cardiac arrest, 
prompts a scurry of interns and nurses, their urgent footsteps to which
I listen, inert and prostrate, as if subject to the ground tremors of 
a herd of buffalo or horses, just a blur in the parched and post-nuclear distance.
I listen, perhaps the way the wounded will listen to the continuing war, 
so different sounding than before, the assault of noise now deflected against
consciousness rather than serving as motivation for patriotism and targets. 
Like fistfuls of dirt loaded with pebbles and rocks thrown at my front door,
I knew that the footsteps would soon be running to me also.
The blood pressure cuff swaddled around my arm pumped in its diastolic state
independently like an iced organ ready for transplant
as I witnessed with one circular rove of my eyes my body now dissected
into television sets, like one of those asymmetrical structures 
that serves as a model for a molecular unity in elementary science classes.
And the plastic bags of IV fluids that hung above me, a Miró-like mobile or iconic toy 
for an infant's amusement, measured the passing of time by virtue of their depletion. 
Sometimes I could count almost five and then seven swinging vaguely above me at 4 am.
I remember the first, hand-held high above me when I arrived via ambulance at the ER,
the gurney accelerating as a voice exclaims on the color of my hands "they're blue!". 
Another voice (deeper) virtually yells out into the chaos that she can't get a pulse.
Several pairs of scissors begin simultaneously to cut off my clothes, their shears
working their way upward like army ants from pant cuff and shirt-sleeve, 
a formulaic move for the ER staff which, despite its routine, still retains
a sense of impromptu in the hurriedness of the cutting both deft and crude,
in the sound of their increased breathing, of their efforts intensified by my blood 
pressure dropping, the numbers shouted out as if into night fog and ocean.
It's not a lack of professionalism but the wager of emotional investment that I feel.
One attendant, losing her aplomb for a moment, can't contain herself from remarking 
(as if I'm already post-mortem) on what a great bra I have;
"Stretch lace demi-cup, Victoria's Secret," I respond politely in my head.
In turn, when they put the oxygen tube into my nose I thought immediately
of Ali McGraw on her death bed in Love Story and how good she looked in one.
And then the catheter where I pissed continually into a bottle like a paraplegic
let me in on the male fear of castration 
my focus centered entirely on that tube, its vulnerable rigging
which I held onto tenderly throughout the night like something dying 
against my thigh or something birthing. I held on though the IV in my forearm 
overextended with a kind of pleading, the needle hooked deep into a mainstream vein 
the way in deep sea fishing lines are cast into the darkest water,
my body thrashing about in the riverweed of its fluids.
The translucent infrastructure of IVs and oxygen tubes superimposed itself upon me
like a body double, more virulent and cold, like Leda pinned and broken by her swan, 
like the abandoned and organ-failed regarding its superior soul ascend.
So completely and successfully reconfigured within its technological construct
my body proper no longer existed, my vital signs highlighted in neon 
preceded the spiraling vortex of my interiority,
the part of me people will say later that that's what they loved
when they roam about in the cramped rare book library of their memory
for a couple of minutes and think of "Tory". 
Movement can only be accounted in shadows, Virilio informs us,
the reconciliation of oneself in one's disappearance.
An anachronistic sundial, I turn my profile
and the fluorescence falls unfractured, unmediated onto the postmodern tenebrism
of absence against absence, my quickened inhalations against my backless gown.
My love for you, my love, for my friends, untethers and floats, 
snaps apart and off me like the I.V. tubes and monitor wires
the flailed arms of an octopus unfolding without gravity,
as I reach up in a Frankensteinian effort to shut off my monitors,
the constant alarming of the human prototype my own body keeps rejecting,
while death moves closer, a benign presence.
It stands respectfully just outside the perimeters of my life
and adjusts itself the way the supervising nurse did the monitor perimeters 
to suit my declining vital signs so I could get some sleep.
I felt a relationship with death, a communication, it was more familiar
than I ever imagined, what I had always returned to as the sign of me, the self
we attribute to the mysterious and perfectly ordered Romantic notion of origin.
What I'm trying to say is that it was not foreign. It was not foreign,
but it was not a homecoming either.
There was no god, no other land, no beyond;
no amber, no amethyst, no avatar.
But there was a suspension, there was an adieu to recognition
to the shoes of those I love, like Van Gogh's, a pair but alone
the voices of loved ones, their tones, their intonations, like circulation,
closed-circuited but effective.
There was a listless but clear-thinking comfort that into my own eyes
I would go, although not "into" in the Bachelardian sense
which implies diminishment; there was none of that.
It was just the opposite: expansion but without a pioneer's vision.
What we regard as the "self" extended itself, but I wouldn't say in a winged way,
over the Bosch-like landscape of brutal interactions
and physical pain and car alarms and the eternal drilling of disappointment
the exigent descendence of everyday that everyday you peer down or up
its daunting staircase, nauseous with vertigo
gathering like straw the rudimentary characteristics of courage, gumption, innovation
and faking it to the hilt like a hilarious onslaught of sham orgasms.
Transcendence might be the term Emerson would lend it.
What I'm trying to say is that it wasn't lonely.