Phlegm: a love poem

1 February 2017

I’m reading Maggie Nelson
occasionally stopping to cough up phlegm
in some indeterminate post-fever stage of the flu

she’s living on a canal with a junkie boyfriend
or that’s how I read it

the poems might as well be called ‘no good will come of it’
raging despair oozes out of them
toxic as the canal’s stinking sludge
or my almost fluorescent yellow-green phlegm

I hack
‘Spit,’ says my mind
I spit out on the tissue
‘Good girl,’ I say out loud

I learned this

my mother, not big on emotion or touch,
excelled at sickbed ritual
earlier tonight I was telling my girlfriend
(scavenger of sleep, getting what she can between my bouts)
how it calmed me as a child, calms me now

the bucket by the bed in case you were sick
the towel laid across the bed underneath you
in case you didn’t quite get to the bucket
its strange comforting roughness
the smell of disinfectant
when the bucket came back fresh

then I instructed her in percussive therapy
another thing I learned from my mother
it breaks up the phlegm

she pounded me on the back as I lay angled off the sofa
head resting on my forearms on the ground
up/down from the waist to the top of the shoulder blades

then helped me back onto the sofa
where I lay sweating
while she looked on with patient palpable concern

I notice we get on better when I’m sick
she less defensive and kinder
I more vulnerable, less autocratic

at night a Buteyko technique I found on the internet
eases the coughing
to begin, you take a breath
and hold it ‘till discomfort’
the aim is to create air hunger

lately I’m learning to tolerate
the right kinds of discomfort
to honour the hungers my mother discounted

Maggie tells her boyfriend
it’s not the content / I’m in love with, it’s the form

how can you separate
a slender torso, small breasts, their exuberant nipples
a clitoris that is a chameleon to the tongue
now rampant, now indiscernible
somehow melded back into bone
from the love, the rightness
the great goodwill

her habits with time which are mine with money
no planning
then blaming the shortfall
on some unexpected but perfectly foreseeable circumstance

her face turned to me on the sofa
its energy and joy
dark circles under her eyes
because I’ve been keeping her up at night
coughing

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