Struck down by stealth
Poet Michael Rosen's last collection described life after his son's death. His latest book tackles his battle with chronic illness. Hilary Wilce finds it life-affirming
Michael Rosen's first poetic memoir was almost unreadable in its pain and its loss. Carrying the Elephant dealt with the sudden death of his teenage son from meningitis, and how he struggled to find his feet in the changed world afterwards. Now, two years later, comes This is Not my Nose: a memoir of illness and recovery, in which Rosen revisits the years of his life when he grew slowly and unknowingly ill and how it felt to be eventually diagnosed and treated.
No subject matter, thank God, could ever be as dreadfully compelling as that of his first memoir, but this second autobiographical offering from one of the UK's leading children's poets is still gripping stuff. Illness crept up on him by stealth. First there was a swollen eyelid and streaming eyes. Then his voice became lower, his face and fingers swelled, his hair turned to frizzled wire, and he could no longer keep warm.
"Jim sat on the bus in his shirt. I sat on the bus in a shirt and a jumper and a jacket. He said he was fine. He said he wasn't cold. I was cold. I was cold like when your ribs go stiff."
What do you do when you are ill and don't know it? If you are Michael Rosen, you write poems, work as a writer in a school, and make schools' TV programmes. You ignore it when girls in your writing class ask you what you're on that makes your voice so slurred, and try not to think about how long it takes to do simple tasks like hanging out the washing. Just do one thing in a day. "That's all Ican do. One thing. Do that one thing ok and the day was ok."
Slowly, very slowly, you turn into someone else: a bloated figure, craving sleep, who can no longer run for a bus or beat an egg, and whose decisions about jobs and relationships are probably not those that would have been taken by the previous you.
If you know illness, you will know this book, with its growing catalogue of symptoms, its evasions and frustrations, and the hospital visits where doctors treat you less like a human being than an exciting new case for their students.
"It's his kidneys, sir. He's got renal failure, sir. What? He shouted.
Kidneys? Just because we're on the renal unit here doesn't mean that he must necessarily have kidney failure... No, he's hypothyroid. Look at the myxoedemaon his ankles. He's only 34, you know. Can you stand up Mr Rosen? Will you please walk along the line of the carpet, putting one foot in front of another."
If you don't know illness, you may think he's exaggerating. Can a doctor called Dr Gesundheit really not see one iota of humour in his name? Can your fellow hospital inmates truly be such a gallery of grotesques? Can they really be as insensitive as to tell you that you look so bad: "You're like the Dead Man, man?"
Well, yes, it can, and they can. Rosen has captured exactly the flavour and texture of chronic illness, with its slow erosion of everyday life, its accommodations, strange trajectories and often bizarre hospital interactions.
The great news in this case - and who wouldn't want good news for a man like this who's spent his career bringing words and children together, and who has been dealt more ill fortune than any one person should have to deal with? - is that after more than a decade (he became ill in 1968 and his thyroid condition was not diagnosed until 1981) a new man rapidly emerges.
With treatment, his old self reappears, bony and quick, so excited to be active again he runs a half marathon and tries to make reparations for what he believes the illness caused him to do by visiting people to "say that I was sorry for what I had done and not done. I could tell them that the reason why I had and had not done those things was to do with what I had become and not with who I was now."
Unfortunately no one wants to know. And Rosen discovers that illness is a guest who doesn't leave. On the contrary, it's part of him now; he really is a new man, a different one, and the person he was before, he realises, is never coming back. Slowly, though, as his horizons widen again, he moves on to concerns beyond himself: development in east London, if that's the right word for it; the Falklands War; the torpedo he sees on a Connecticut front lawn; the balloon at an airport labelled Hong Honk.
Some of these poems are good, many are funny, a few, it has to be said, seem trivial and lightweight, put there to bulk out the 88 pages. But overall, as illness recedes, the tone grows sharper, and paradoxically more bleak and more chirpy. Rosen has lived several lives, and is now, with a relatively recent new partner and child, living another, and it is when he integrates all of these that his voice is at its most powerful.
"Could I have imagined anything like the sight of my father holding my boy's hand, walking down the passage and into the front room, to see a child of mine in a coffin? Or the sight of you and me sitting in the middle of the same room, as this new baby shuffles her way along the sofa's edge?"