Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: Sneak By Geraldine Mitchell


Age comes, and then
infirmity, not beating
on the door with knotty

stick, announcing its
arrival with due pomp
and medication, but

insinuating noxious
vapours into lung and heart,
round knee and hip, curling

through the brain like smoke,
invisible yet choking with
an acrid autumn smell.

Irish poet, Geraldine Mitchell’s poem speaks to those of us of certain years for whom age is gradually withering our physical presence, either in appearance or internal function, or both. The process is cruel: ‘Sneak’ is an apposite term for the slyness of decline, as the erosion – literally in the instances of ‘knee and hip’ – effects its secret ministry by almost imperceptible degrees.

If, for Larkin, the trajectory of existence is ‘first boredom, then fear’, Mitchell locates the beginning of the end in ‘infirmity’, the stage that is characterised – to put some diagnoses to her own assessment – by arthritis, cancer, diabetes, angina, and a host of other conditions too depressing to enumerate.

Yet ‘Sneak’ is not without a counter-intuitive wit: Mitchell’s trimeters are direct and to the point. The ‘knotty stick’ with which we are not generally clobbered, unless we are poleaxed by a stroke on a football field, does not arrive like an announcement. The ‘due pomp / and medication’ is a deft play on what might be ‘celebration’ in an entirely different context.

Little to celebrate in a fogging of the brain in metaphors of smoke, or an ‘insinuation’ of toxins into the rhythm of our daily breathing. Mitchell’s final tercet is a neat amalgam of the hidden agencies of demise, delivered fittingly in a bonfire of leaves, in a season figuratively associated with ‘the only end of age’.

‘Sneak’ is taken from Mountains for Breakfast, published by Arlen Press (2017), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

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