Morgan: A Lyric by Boyer Rickel


planted a heel/ against his chest, wrenched the spear from his wound/ and the midriff came with it—

Anger, he said, had motivated him his entire life.


Once the wand found and flushed a clot the shape of a tiny malformed rodent paw. Dendritic. Blood had conformed to the shape of a small branching area in the lung. A feeling of exhilaration swept through us all as this small triumph helped the movement of air again through the lower left lobe.


Death certifies intensity.

And the threat of death?

Thrum of the compressor motor. Cross-legged on the couch in torn orange running shorts, he sucks at the plastic nebulizer mouthpiece, drawing tobramycin deep into his lungs, threads of steam rising from the opening when he pauses to speak or sip from his drink.

Trapped, I say, at his side, sliding my hand down his spine, then under the waistband.

Is this the first night or the tenth?

Forgetfulness: misfolded proteins in the cells (remaker of the self).

He leaps to his feet, shaking free. Later, he says with a grin—or maybe not.

From a torn-out notebook page: The resistant surface of the loved one reflects the lover’s own feelings—too great to be contained within—back to him. (Proust?)

An instance turned into an everytime.

Like scales scraped from a house-size fish, CDs litter every surface—bookshelves, his bed and desk, the low coffee table and couch-back. Small suns. Sequins. Reflective portals into him, who cues a new disk after each song ends. Bands whose names—Radiohead, White Stripes, TV on the Radio—I find enchanting.

Metaphor: the word in Greek for “porter.”

Composer Iannis Xenakis speaks of aborescences, the branching patterns of sound.

On the patio, drinking bourbon under the stars; the studio, windows lit by the TV glow, a grounded frail fire balloon. We take turns downing shots and writing lines:

                        Yes, love, keep your eyes,
                        Orderly targets, plainspoken,
                        Doubting around and through the world . . .

How could I sleep with no that then to compare to this now.

In the apartment dark, wrens chattering in the bare limbs of a tree in winter—my tinnitus.


On the way to the hospital, over and over I imagine the smell, the human damp of sleep, of his girlfriend’s wrinkled pink teddy when they kissed in his doorway

You were a dog in another life, he says. I think you’re still part dog.

Rumpled pillows: evidence of brief encounters with nothingness.

After the child’s memorial, a friend’s father said he’d never seen anything so beautiful as his son’s unmade bed that morning.

So who’s the patient here? the resident asks. The two of us in jeans and T-shirts, sitting in chairs and plucking cards from a pile on the bed between.

And you, he asks of me, are you his father?

The conductor’s first baton beat is to count the silence.

On 3 Northeast, I note how small, how young the other cystic fibrosis patients appear, like underfed children. Pale, masked, gloved, in blue hospital gowns, pushing IV-poles on wheels, their arms and legs little more than poles themselves.

To touch a boundary, to feel a limit.

His new girlfriend, in a miniskirt, hops up on the bed beside him to watch a movie.

The food server, not yet twenty, loves her new lungs, she says, which she got eighteen months ago.

His rules:
        1. No leaving the room, unless to escape down a back staircase to sit briefly in the sun when unhooked from the IV line.
        2. No flowers. (This isn’t a funeral—he’ll throw them out.)
        3. No hospital clothes, just jeans, flip-flops, T-shirts or vintage button-down shirts; at night, sweats.
        4. Books lined up against the window shelf; newspapers and magazines in a stack at their side, Moleskine in the bedside drawer.
        5. And for me: no kissing or other affection in front of friends or hospital staff.

Damage returns one to the tangible world.


The mind made ready, receptive, expansive, acquisitive, creative, by the intrusion of a threat. Morgan’s sudden acute renal failure from an antibiotic he’d tolerated for years, his brain unable to calculate 2 + 2 (after failing this, and 2 x 3 and Who’s the president?, his humor intact, I didn’t do so good, did I?, he asked); his ankles the size of honeydew melons, his creatinine, a byproduct of protein breakdown the kidneys were no longer clearing, rising off the charts.

Each day I lived half-a-year’s experience, registering every minute sensation to make meaning of such an unknown, frightening impossibility. My phone calls and emails to friends and family detailed, absurdly, the perfect hair and makeup of the news-anchor-pretty CT scan staff, alongside every hopeful and awful overheard word of the hospitalist conversing with the floor nurses, the hourly changes in blood-Ox levels, CO2—each recitation a long frantic jumbled cascade I struggled to shape along a quavering voice.


I augment in hospital the morning and evening pounding by respiratory therapists with sessions mid-morning and afternoon. It’s done in rhythmic sets on Morgan’s upper back, upper chest, each side along the ribs, and finally along his middle back while he lies on his stomach. For each area I pound in patterns to pass the time. This work is repetitious and physically challenging. I sometimes need a change of clothes after a session. But the variation in movement over the surface of upper back, upper chest and sides, as I aim to loosen phlegm in as broad an area as possible, defeats my efforts. The moments drag, the Seinfeld dialog in reruns on the TV high up on the wall a slow drone beneath the thudding. Except when Morgan’s on his stomach. Here I pound in precise rotation: three groups of eight, left-right, three times, just above the small of his back; then up two inches; then up again, returning to begin the series over. That regularity makes the work pass in a flash. The sound, the rhythm, a meditation, a mantra collapsing time.

At home, the rhythm of his life is shaped by his therapy, 2 ½ hrs. four times a day, with 90- to 120-minute breaks between and a brief 4 AM wakeup to nebulize, inhale as a mist, a drug to open bronchial airways before sleeping till 7. Maintaining an absolute rhythm, an unvarying pattern day in and day out, is essential not only to staying well as long as possible, but to his sense of control over the disease.

In hospital, with its shifting array of IV antibiotics in 4-, 6- or 8-hour cycles, amid the visits of various teams—pulmonology, hospitalist, medicine, nutrition, etc.—on their rounds, that control of pattern is nearly impossible. Hospital time, after several days, becomes an expanse of no-time. We lose track, debate, Is this week 5 or 6? Did you come in on a Tuesday or Wednesday? Search for events outside the room—a hurricane, baseball World Series, mall shooting—to locate our place on the calendar.


Exact repetition can remove us from time. Is this the antithesis of—or a state akin to—the endless expanse, the unbrokenness we feel, when faced with chaotic variation?

An article in The New York Times summarizing recent research reports that rhythm in music is more expressive than pitch, timbre or dynamics (loudness, softness). The amygdala and other areas of the brain registering emotion become most active when the music’s established meter is altered. That anomalous hitch in the step—that mild extension or contraction of duration—the foot poised above the sidewalk an extra instant or the extra unstressed syllable on the poem’s penultimate line, gives a subtle thrill, reminds us we are alive.

I recall the first Philip Glass choral work I heard in the 1970s, prone on a balcony bench of Finney Chapel, which served as a concert hall at Oberlin College: simple patterns of sound in whole- and half-steps, repeated in exacting harmony. Attending as if in a trance, I’ve never forgotten the surge of pleasure my body registered at the first slight rhythmic variation:

Ta da ta da dummm
Ta da ta da dummm
Ta da ta da dummm
Ta da ta da dummm
Ta da ta da dummm
Ta da ta da ta da dummm.


Vocal folds (or chords) tend to thicken as we age, destabilizing pitch. A note sustained begins to jitter/shimmer involuntarily. Lung tissue loses elasticity, the thorax stiffens, respiratory muscles weaken. Though I’ve known this for some time, having heard the quaver in my mother’s voice develop in her late eighties and early nineties, I’m still shocked when the drawn-out two-note chant, Saaaaaat Naaaaam, in yoga class, a clear sonic line I’ve effortlessly sustained for years, crumbles. I have to push air consciously with greater force to repair the brokenness; or the opposite, relax to thin the stream of air, making it continuous, whole again, the sound so small it hides in my throat.


If breath is stunted, quick and intermittent. Or jarred into near patternlessness with each deep intake. Caught short, the air blocked, the rhythm wrenched. If pockets of alveoli, encased in mucus too thick to bring up through pounding and coughing, harden into scars, the air drawn in hitting walls, a labyrinth with no exit. If waves of hack, of cough, of plosive is the meter, the music of your breathing.

Morgan: There are days when I feel the sum of my coughing and everything I’ve brought up that day. Phlegm. Blood, on occasion. And in those circumstances the question becomes: what does the poem sound like that’s written by someone who feels stranded in a body so dysfunctional that too often it feels more like a dumb piece of meat than anything enlightened or desired? The answer, so far as I have one (and so far as it is one), is to leave as much breath and breathlessness on the page as possible. Fill the poem with language that is urgent, concussive, maybe even slightly awkward. Let the density of poems’ sounds be their hyperventilation. And conversely, the wordplay that spins ‘meaning’ off in multiple directions, let that be their ventilation.


A year after Morgan’s lead CF doctor mentioned the likelihood of double-lung transplant to save Morgan’s life, a year spent largely in the hospital to address infections, Morgan successfully completed the extensive testing making him eligible for the surgery.

When I get new lungs, Morgan asked, will I even be a poet? What will my line be like then?


You deserve better, Morgan said, pushing me aside.

No, it’s okay, I told him.

His struggle to breathe in his final years made sex seem like work if he couldn’t come quickly.

It isn’t just my condition, he said. If only I could start drinking again.

Then, dropping his voice (was he embarrassed?): Now that everybody knows, it’s not as exciting.

Transgressive is the word he actually used.

(They were not wrong who assumed our love involved a trade of need for need.)


My tongue probing his ass could bring us both to the verge of cum.

Morgan was a kind of solution.

slashed his right shoulder and down he went,/

At 25, older than he thought he’d ever be: a surprise party, thrown by his girlfriend.

Anger, he said, had motivated him his entire life.

The night he told me he loved me, I told him dead was what I often wanted to be.

back slamming the dust with a jolting groan/

I’ve not been touched there in twenty years, I said. His hand snapped back as if he’d been scalded.

What do I do now?, he asked at 30.

gored him in the hip with a slashing spear/ and the bronze lancehead hammered through his flesh,/

It wasn’t his body saying, Get out of here! It was the new lungs saying, Where are we?

Dying was a kind of solution.

the shaft splintering bone as he pitched face-first,/ pounding the ground

Why do you do this?, he asked. Why do you take care of me?

I’ve never been the hero, I said. I don’t want to be the hero. I’m the hero’s sidekick.


I’m not kidding, Morgan said after another close call, I’ll never have sex with you again if you come on me.

A threat in a tone of near panic.

I suppressed a laugh.

He seemed pathologically terrified of my cum, as if it would contaminate or burn him should it splash on his skin.

You cough up cupfuls of mucous every day, I said. How can you mean that?

(They were not wrong who sensed there might be many Morgans.)


Using language collected during the day, he often wrote at dusk while sitting on a boulder at the base of the stone steps to the beach.

His shoulder bag nearby held books and a few cans of Modelo.

The heat, the alcohol, the pulsing of the waves.

We’d had slow, easy sex not long before in the house.


The bed, on wheels, a boat.

His bloated body floated down the icy hall.

The red-shirted transport team.

I can’t breathe in this position, he said.

One at the head, one at the foot, blue-gloved, walky-talkies crackling at their belts.

Clank of metal doors. My hand on the rail. The elevator’s hydraulic wheeze.

Angie (Angel Angie, I thought), Bay One of the unit, drew back the covers to reveal the two-headed port sewn into his groin: purple, blood out; blue, blood in.

To filter what the kidneys can’t.

The mild whir of the motor, hour on hour.

A sip of water, please?

When he slept, I brushed the hair from his brow.

The machine monitoring oxygen beeped—the cannula had slipped from his nostrils.

They’re dead, I heard a senior nephrologist say to an intern, out of Morgan’s earshot.

The dull horn marking time, marking the fluid drawn off in half-liters.

I can’t breathe in this position, he said.

I tucked a pillow between his knees.

The head of his bed motored up—until the clang of an alarm, a kink in the line of the port.

Down, then up, again and again to get it right, turning on his side.

The mild whir of the motor, hour on hour.

When he slept, I stared at the empty crossword boxes.

Inside the yellow mask, the heat and moisture of breath.

The dull horn marking time, marking the fluid drawn off in half-liters.

Gloved, masked, Angel Angie draped the blanket over his genitals.

I’ve got no shame anymore, he said, then clenched my fingers as she peeled the dressing from the skin, taking hairs from his inner thigh.

I can’t breathe in this position, he said.

The machine monitoring oxygen beeped—the cannula had slipped from his nostrils.

Down, then up, again and again to get it right, turning on his side.



[Note: Poet Morgan Lucas Schuldt died on January 30, 2012, at the conclusion of a double-lung transplant, twelve days before his 34th birthday. Two years earlier, at the time of a near-fatal medical crisis, he told me it was time I began writing about our life together. This piece is composed of excerpts taken in fragments and parts from a book-length manuscript.]



Boyer Rickel’s publications include two books of poetry, remanence (Parlor, 2008) and arreboles (Wesleyan, 1991), a memoir-in-essays, Taboo (Wisconsin, 1999), as well as a poetry chapbook, reliquary (Seven Kitchens, 2009). His poems and prose have been published most recently in such print and online journals as evening will come, Free Verse, The Gettysburg Review, Guernica, The Laurel Review, No Tell Motel, Seneca Review and Transom. He is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the NEA and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.