Thursday 29 October 2020


Lee Krasner, 1981, nocturnal widow of Jackson Pollock

Is it insomnia if you don’t even try?
If you can hear the pigeons crooning, wakefully,
nudging each other towards dawn?

If it's already dawn and there was never
any night, am I in tomorrow or today?
In despair is where I will be later in the day.

If Eva knew I was awake, she would celebrate;
no time to waste, just celebrate
the golden, living hour. Here I am, here you are

and nothing in between, but the small, 
round, white tablets I must take
that keep me rounded up into the pen of

habitual complacency. Medical complacency.
Cawing crows. A black pen in hand driving
me forward on inked truths I can barely see.

Blink blink blink no more.
The insomniac body can only endure
the dark before the light.

Once light sets in, the sleeping begins.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

Salvador Dali, surrealist insomniac 

In 1889, Van Gogh wrote: “I fight this insomnia by a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress, and if ever you can’t sleep, I recommend this to you.” I have yet to employ camphor... 
Meanwhile, the French author Colette described insomnia as "almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge.” And Vladimir Nabokov, another famous night creature, once commented that “sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world.” 

How are you sleeping through this pandemic? The same? Differently? Grouchily? Ecstatically? Are you avoiding bed or leaping in, with sighs of relief? I have had a complex relationship with bed and 'somnia probably since I was a child, desperate to keep reading, but certainly since I became a steroid dependent human with lupus. Being a writer, a creative, I take heart from the artists of old, who may have been holding on to the edges of sanity but wasted no night light hours... 

(images from:

Wednesday 7 October 2020


It would have been Clive James’s eighty-first birthday today. 

Lots of people have October birthdays; friends of mine, a goddaughter of mine. But the birthday of a friend you can never meet again, a friend who also, now, has a death day, imbues the month with even more autumnal poignancy than usual. 


He was, after all, the one who went viral with his Japanese maple leaf farewell. The death of the tree preceding his own was just the sort of joke the kid from Kogarah lived for. In his absence, it is harder to find the jokes, here, on the ward we shared. 

Clive’s yawns were leonine. He turned the infusion bay into his drawing room by holding no measure of that sound in discretion. He always fell asleep at a certain point during the drip of immunoglobulins into his vein, something I have never been able to do in my ten years of intravenous therapies. Aside from his genuine sleeps, the famous critic was also able to drop into utterly phoney narcoleptic faints when approached by an undesirable fan. One eager gentleman in particular acted extraordinarily upon Clive’s ability to stay conscious in the face of a bore. Poor dude, I tried to think, the milk of my human kindness attempting to overcome the bald truth: the gentleman in question really is an unstoppable torrent of opinion. 

There are many lonely people shepherded by ill fate into this place. Clive was not a philanthropist.


Sometimes, in his eagerness to skedaddle home, Clive would forget some portion of his garments. His cardigan. A scarf. But also, his slippers. Shuffling off in his socks, I ahoyed him back. (His drawing room, remember.) I was as unimpressed by his fashion as he was entertained by mine. His was sixties French philosopher, black, with crumbs. Mine was, is, anything to brighten the spirit. My soft, olive green beret had been eyed covetously so many times, that when the latest carcinoma had been shelled out of his skull, I offered it up. He swiped it without a hesitant beat. Goodbye, beret. I miss you, still.

It is only the start of autumn, mizzling days. The fire of joy is yet to come. We are seven months into a pandemic some of us are better suited to. (To or for? Clive would know.) My rabbit warren between home and Addenbrooke’s is traversed less because those three weekly infusions Clive and I shared are now weekly subcutaneous injections I attend to in my own home. Occasionally, I sit out in the garden, but the bees investigate the sticky serum too closely and drive me back indoors. No sub cut for Clive. No surgical masks or social distancing from his beloved granddaughter. No, just the freedom of a poet unbound. 


We were always joking about the spectre. And then one of us would look seriously at the other. Don’t die, said the look. The trouble is, I believed him when his look promised he wouldn’t. Or when he wrote, ‘my infusions have been stopped temporarily, hence my absence from class’ or, ‘I’ve had an op and it went quite well, so I’m coming alert again.’ 

Think about death all you like. It doesn’t help you prepare. Not really. Every poem is a brushstroke, feathering death away. Does it come mightily or lightly? Neither, I think, for Clive. Eighty he may have been in grown up years, but when it came, surely it cradled him softly, like the hug of a tree. No more thorns. The bark didn’t bite. He left the fire for us, and a deep impression in the blue vinyl armchairs, of joy.

All images via The Guardian website article 'Clive James: A Life in Pictures'

Sunday 4 October 2020


In my last poem, I mentioned the sun going down. I spoke of the dark. It was an intimation. A week later I developed a migraine which led my right eye into dancing yellow spots, which in turn, turned into black cobwebby trails like seaweed growing across, floating across, my field of vision. 

The doctors took a look and decided there were no tears, my retina had not detached, but they could see the dispersed, disturbed jelly and told me either this would settle or my brain would adapt. I waited three weeks for this settling or adaptation to take place but nothing has changed. The seaweeds are as bad as ever and at times, worse. I have been back to the eye department, and next week I meet the Vitreo-Retinal consultant. 

Adaptation is all very well when you have some vision to compensate. My right eye has been doing all the compensatory work for the past fifteen years or more. And now where will I turn for solace? Well, I keep finding new places on Zoom. 

I was listening to the 'How To Fail' podcast with Elizabeth Day featuring Ruby Wax, who mentioned she had taken her 'Frazzled' cafe mindfulness meet-ups online. I joined in the next day, and had a chance to meet and talk to Ruby herself; she found me full of light, which cheered me in my shadowlands. 

Another day, I attended a book lecture given by Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha for the Sri Lanka Literary Society of the UK, on his book 'Strangers on the Camino' - an account of the ancient Spanish pilgrim voyage he made with his son Shivantha. It was a non-religious, lighthearted, yet moving, and therefore spiritual, journey of love renewed, and fun to share the moment with Sri Lankans across the globe, in different time zones. 

And finally, today, I joined a reading group, newly formed by Naomi Alderman, award winning English author of 'Disobedience' and 'The Power'. I stayed in my pyjamas, in bed, reading Clive James' 'Poetry Notebook', which is far more formal than his latest collection, but was perfectly calming. As calming as the small group of us reading in our individual cubby holes, in silence for 50 minutes until our ten minute chatty catch up at the end. Naomi's reason for beginning this group for the winter ahead... 'This was very much a feature of my Orthodox Jewish childhood. Going to someone's house on Shabbat and all of us just sitting together reading in silence and occasionally going "listen to this sentence". I miss it.' I could fully relate to the memory through a different route - being on our family holiday, and all five of us sitting in a reading nook of our borrowed hill station house, immersed, silent but for the chomping of salty wafers (Indian-speak for crisps)...    

It has been quite the week for me, recovering from my second round of Rituximab, haunting the eye department till 10pm (the doctors did apologise) and finally sticking the old sub cut needle in yesterday. I only did one... I think I could have skipped 'em altogether, but one tries to be diligent, even in private. Unless one is the leader of a certain nation in crisis, in which case all bets are off. 

Images: Cleveland Art: Fish and Rock, Mindfulness by Oscar Ortiz, The Wijesinhas at Fin Isterre, final illustration by Angie Wang