Deciphering the Maze (Indigo Dreams, 2020) is Marilyn and Howard Timms’s first collaboration in writing a poetry collection. The book is a powerful and moving exploration of love, marriage, and loss which navigates a path through Marilyn’s and Howard’s own cancers and pays tribute to loved ones who lost the way.
Marilyn’s poems have a title in CAPITALS;
Howard’s poems are titled in Upper and Lower Case
Chicago 1968 – Air spring
She has a headache from heat.
I am sweating a river
after walking home from work.
A huge metal box in the window,
the air conditioner rattles
like an asthmatic tractor.
I have proofs to correct,
Marilyn, drawings to finish.
Our pencils go their own way.
Still overheated, I’m making errors.
She’s developed a headache.
The cool of a drugstore calls.
I ask for rubbers and aspirin
the teenage clerk goes red
I’m too young to sell a rubber.
She presses a button for help
while I clam up, can’t find the words
No, I don’t mean a condom.
I break embarrassed silence
by muttering headache pills.
Oh, she says, you want air spring?
Marilyn gives a confiding smile.
The other thing we want
is a couple of erasers.
The Royal Marsden has spoken, loud and clear.
Standing on numbed legs, my husband holds me
close against his chest, his brain jangling.
Coherent sentences are a foreign country.
His chest boils under the pressure
to find the fear-dispelling words
that will make me understand that nothing
will diminish his love for me.
He smothers my hair with kisses, desperate
to give a comfort he cannot yet feel
for himself. The world is off its axis.
Lungs expanding, voice savagely under control,
he murmurs against my ear,
Remember, my darling, a radical mastectomy
can only bring us closer together.
The dear man wonders why I am helpless
with laughter, centred again.
The first snowflake fell three hours ago.
Shyly, it kissed my cheek, became a tear.
Sibling flakes drift in like wishes,
emboss the land with sullen anonymity,
glisten under a dying sun. I beg to stop.
Impossible. Half pushing, half cajoling,
you steer me through the blizzard of words
I cannot fathom. Snow is soft, hypnotic,
stealing me away. Your breath is warm
against my ear, a transfusion of defiance.
The gurney is hard, forbidding sleep.
Delirious, I count ceiling lights speeding
overhead, the anguished squeals of trolley
wheels, squeezing around corners. The stars
are closer here. If I had the energy I could
reach up and touch them. Your hand falls
from the sky, settles on my shoulder, squeezes
a coded message, melts away the snow:
Cancer is merely a word, easily erased.
Together, my darling, we are invincible.
Navvy reflection 1
In a family navigation
Llangollen beckoned me
with retro narrowboat
on inland waterway.
I ran aground on a sandbank
rounded like a tumour
hidden in murky water
stopping forward motion.
To make the boat more buoyant
I leapt towards the bank
but hit its iron-clad edge
ripped my thigh and shorts.
A nurse on canal-side walk
rushed to give first aid
pressed my inner thigh
stopped the stream of blood.
Riven by pain and embarrassment
I lay and looked at the boat.
My wife’s face quickly changed
from stark fear to a smile.
She laughed as she watched
a crowd grow around her husband
spread-eagled, with a woman
kneeling, her hands by his bits.
Navvy reflection 2
I lie on my back in a bed
baffled by the route map
of a new, long journey
via alimentary canal.
Stranded again on sandbank
I must travel through cancer.
My wife and I hit a sharp edge.
Our faces show fear, then tears.
Steering past rock-hard threats
from soft, spreading, alien tissue
we follow a polar current
with iceberg side-effects.
Dagger-thrusts of despair
are soothed and salved each day
by the firm hand on the tiller
provided by chemo tablets.
TO TURN BACK TIME
Take the heady scent of elderflower,
the sour smell of alder leaves,
mix with half-an-hour of daybreak.
Throw in a wind that wanders
through an empty sky. Drizzle
a cup of infant sun until frost begins
to soften on cloud-dark grass.
Take one swan, white as sugar;
tangle in a spill of fence wire.
Invoke the whisper of Evenlode
slinking through water meadows;
Instruct a lurking moon, still visible
in the breakfast sky, to chronicle
my father’s crab-like advance
on the hissing swan, the frantic stab
and thrust of beak at corduroy thighs
and patient hands, the unwinding of bonds.
Scour nostalgia with teasel and thistle.
Step back. Can you see them?
Freed, the pen straightens, staggers,
flails the air, then folds; adjusts
her dented dignity. Slow, ungainly plod
to river, a single stroke to deeper water.
Neck stretched, the swan surges.
Wings thresh, lift her in the water
in little leaps until she is inches clear
of the river’s grasp.
Too soon, she beats a path high
into the clouds, melts into memory.
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAIL
The splash of red on a discarded paper
that leaps and twists to each passing car
the whisk of dust as sudden raindrops
plop in the detritus that lines the kerb
the flood that paints a sheen on tarmac
renews the sun of double-yellow lines.
A joy of bubbles that pop into existence,
rise and race along the gutter, disappear
as quickly as they came, except for one
adventurer that negotiates each obstructive
twig and leaf and continues undeterred,
leaves me standing alone at the bus stop.
Wet earth steams in sudden sun, unexpected
perfume stirs my hibernating hopes and dreams.
An indignation of blackbirds in the dripping privet,
the urgent flurry of wings as they reclaim the sky,
the dawning realisation of a life returned to me,
the glamour of the ordinary, the security of tomorrow.
In Praise of Cancer’s Farewell
You’ve given me so much appreciation
of all who share my freshly amplified life
of the value of focus on here and now
with time to tell people I love them
of my loving family
giving silent strength
through text, touch, and tears
giving shocking news as a shared burden
or good news as a leap into the future
always helping me
to help myself get better
of the whole hospital community
giving support and little acts of kindness
pulling together to make the most
of my and their dwindling resources
of the gorgeous outside world
to which I thankfully returned
as my new spring turned to summer.