The Dancer*

I soon had that routine:
Wake; eat; chlorpromazine;
Day room; eat; medication; take a turn
Around the grounds; repeat;
Patches of sleep; wake; eat…
And so on. There was nothing else to learn.
I strayed, unpresent and askant,
One among all the mutually irrelevant.

Irrelevant, askance:
Such is the vigilance
Of those who quit the kingdom of the sane.
Work, the great world’s affairs
Are nothing to them. Theirs
Is tendance on the crack in a window pane,
A sister’s enigmatic smile
Years past, a headline that conceals a secret file,

Marooned on their own islands
Of individual silence.
One day in the refectory as I,
Hazed with an inward stare,
Sat vacant on my chair,
I felt a sudden presence occupy
The next — our shoulders close, but held
Apart, like two magnetic norths, pressed and repelled.

And stirring to advance
A slight and sidelong glance,
I glimpsed her in a floral dressing gown,
Her hair a dusty blond.
She did not look beyond
Her own held space, and maybe had sat down
At random, not because she chose
Especially me to sit beside, from all of those.

And yet she was aware
Someone, something, was there —
Not from that outer realm of sense and health;
Rather, a witness, or
A co-conspirator
From her imagined, inner commonwealth.
What she did then played out the script
She wrote there and alone could fathom and decrypt,

An act of her sick mind,
And work of art, to find
And fashion some small order in the chaos.
She rose, and checked to see
That I (or one in me
Whom she projected from her conjured dais)
Was looking at her and, assured
My eyes and my attention watched with one accord,

Began to spin tiptoe
In balanced vertigo,
A dervish, arms outstretched, her body pending
In what seemed, as she wheeled,
To be its own force field,
Sweet as the honey from the sun descending
Through the refectory glass, exiled
But sanctioned in that light, inviolable, wild,

Her whirling fingertips’
Centripetal ellipse
Drawing every glimmering shard and shiver
Of the mind-shattered day
To one restored array:
What she was bound in madness to deliver.
Dark paean. I, who months alone,
It felt, inhabited my own exclusion zone,

Watched and bore witness to
The beauty that she drew,
The wounded state of grace she verified —
Last gift from my unwell
Hallucinated cell,
I thought. The dance was done. I turned aside,
And back, and she was gone, and where
She’d been — a vortex crackled in the vacant air.

*This poem is based on a passage in an autobiographical essay by John Burnside, entitled “Who Chose Them?”, which appeared in the London Review of Books, 10 September 2009.


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