A poem by Tracy Ryan


I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?           — Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights 

My late good friend was a twinless twin.
Didn’t know till the age of eleven, when
on a visit to distant acquaintances
they hadn’t seen since he was born,
his mother was asked,
“Where’s the other one?”
It was only then she turned to him:
“We never told you …”
At sixty-one
he wrote to me, “It shocks me still.
Perhaps he lived and I have died.
Maybe somewhere he writes the book
I talk about, is happily married,
a steadfast father.”
                                Stuck with the work
of moving house after years in place,
he added, with characteristic smirk
“This rather Borges-like fantasy
is not unconsoling. The bugger can do
the packing for me.”
I read in the news of twins who died
aged 92, within mere hours
of each other and from the same cause;
decades of life spent side by side,
brothers in fact and then by choice:
Franciscan friars, rejected by
the military for their sight:
one’s bad left eye, the other’s right.
Their dad, a doctor, had prayed for a boy
but “the Lord fooled him and sent two.”
One was a talker, the other quiet,
but neither would say who was born first,
their feat of sameness tended like
the monastic garden they laboured at,
the little things that made it count:
the Hours they must have known by rote,
the Rule to which they gave their will,
private in life, now singled out.
Also the ones whose names were mere
repeats of babies lost before,
(replacement child we call it now):
Vincent van Gogh reading the tomb
that bore his name and own birthdate
one year before; Stendhal, or Beyle,
of several hundred pseudonyms
as if to self-proliferate
could make a man original
could banish repetition,
arriving as they did upon
a stage already set for them
to improvise: Thank God You’re Here.
Or those who entered on the heels
of a mother’s death, whether at birth
or its aftermath, over whom
a father’s loss and fancy loom
the “second Mary”: Mary Shelley
in St Pancras cemetery
spelling the words on her mother’s tomb
while still a child, later the same place,
      she’d lie with Shelley
body-double, never fully descended
from the womb.
Where do we end             and where begin?
You talk of strangeness in our skin
the difference       and the interface
tenuous, but all there is
tangled past distinguishing:
“till death,” we say, Bist du bei mir
the tenor sings
(if you’re with me …)
you wrap me round to stem the shock
that sets my body shivering
my father in the hospital
unmoving now
     except for hands
lifted my wrist and said, “A vein
the same as mine,”
then let it drop.
Twice he mistook me for a nurse –
“You’re so much like my daughter.”
His wife of more than twenty years
slept on a makeshift bed beside
him in the ward and had to call
every time he tugged the drips
and bags and oxygen away,
so many nigglers at his flesh.
She felt as if a phantom limb.
He could not tell the nurse his name.
Where do we end           and where begin?