Stroke by Matthew Dickman

This poem really struck me, because I have a close friend who’s just had a stroke, in his fifties. I believe Matthew Dickman was only in his early forties when this happened to him. I wanted to know what it felt like and Matthew is forensic about how his body and brain felt, so now I have a sense of what my friend is experiencing. This poem first appeared in Rattle.

The hotel sign blinking
in the brain

of my body
stops blinking but not

the whole sign,
you know, just a couple

of the letters,
the H and T.

Then the E and L
so all that is left

when the whole left
side of my body

comes to an end
is the O.

I am sitting across
from a beautiful

woman, drinking coffee,
and she is asking

me what I did.
What were you doing

when you were
in your twenties,

she asks.
And I am

saying something like
I was doing

a lot of drugs
but the words

come out all slurred,
they come out

like pushing your tongue
through a clay door,

the word drug
becoming droog.

And then free-will
floats up and out,

really it flies, it leaps
off the ledge of me,

and I remember
while falling

from my chair
to the ground, trying

to apologize.
The half of my brain

that was still
alive, as alive as

a deer
standing in a meadow

in the morning
licking dew off

the blades of grass,
telling what was left

of me that I was just

You’re just tired
the left side

of my brain said,
you’re just tired,

this is normal.
The normal not normal

blood clot
in the right side

of my brain
wiping everything

away like a teacher
wiping chalk away

with an eraser,
the blackboard

full of signs and cosines
and then just long

strokes of white,
a white field in winter,

a white sky
before rain. A white

sheet of paper.
Through the tunnel

of my body
I could hear someone

ask me
are you ok?

My whole life someone
asking me,

and so often it was me,
are you ok,

are you feeling well?
I’m just tired,

I thought.And then this
thought: I’m not.

A hand on the hand
I could still feel.

They are coming,
the voice said,

it’s ok,
you will be ok.

The sound then
of the ambulance

from far off.
The sirens getting

closer, lights
and sirens approaching

my body
from a street far off.

That’s something
I never thought of

That sirens are always

a body, that’s the whole

reason for them,
to let everyone know

there is a body.
I thought of my son

at home,
seventeen months old,

pointing to the window
in the living room,

siren, siren,

siren,and up, up, up.
I was lifted up

onto the gurney,
my shirt cut off

in the ambulance,
and arriving

at the hospital,
the triage nurse

are you Matthew Dickman.

Yes. Up, up, up,I thought.

is not a design,
not an idea.

Death is the body,
I know

this now, it’s your arms
and legs,

your whole cardio
vascular system.

It is the whole of us,
only we walk around

enough to think
it isn’t.

The blood clot is doing
its job,

it’s doing exactly what
it was made to do

and the only thing you
need to do

when you are dying
is to die.

Nothing else.
You don’t need to

fold the laundry
or clean

the kitchen floor,
you don’t have to

pick your children up
from school.

the rest of your life,

there is only this one

You don’t even
have to be good at it,

you just have to
do it. A list of chores

with just one
chore. In the operating

room I’m awake,made
to stay awake,

while the surgeon
threads a “line”

through the artery
in my groin

and up through all
the rooms, through

the room of my legs,
and the room

of my chest,
through the room

of my neck
and into the room

of my brain.
When I put my son

to bed I give him
a bottle of milk,

and rock him and sing,
it’s time to rest your body,

it’s time to rest
your mind,it’s time,

oh it’s time
to rest your brains.

The surgeon is able
to grab the clot

and slip it through
and out

of all the rooms,
into the one

he’s working in.
I can hear everyone

in the operating
room clapping

because they
are happy,

because it took
that one try

to get it all,
to remove

the clot, and then
the left side of me

begins to move again,
and there it is,

I have to pee,
my body is done

with this death.
And now there is nothing

to do but wait
for the next death.

I have never been more
inside than that

moment. I have never
wanted anything

as much as I wanted
to stand up

in that room
and walk out through

the automatic
doors to you,

to walk right into
your arms

like walking
into the sea.

Matthew Dickman: ‘When I suffered a stroke in April 2018, I wasn’t sure that I would write poems again. Of course I could physically write a poem. I was lucky that I was in a public place when the stroke occurred and got help right away. It’s just that mentally I felt lost and alone and angry. But with any of the trauma I have experienced in my life it was always poetry that called me back to myself, back to the world—even if that world had changed dramatically. This poem was a calling back.’

8 thoughts on “Stroke by Matthew Dickman

  1. Wow.

    My younger sister suffered a stroke a few years ago and had similar surgery, so this poem really hit me and I wondered if similar things had gone through her head. Thankfully she is okay now and like the person who commented before me, I was holding my breath and willing the poet to be okay as I read to the end.


    • Yes, it definitely gives an insight, doesn’t it. It struck me because a friend of mine also had a stroke, and I came across this poem just at the right moment, to be able to empathise with his experience.

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