Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Morgan: A Lyric

Boyer Rickel

Come with me if you want to live, the great-chested Schwarzenegger commands in Terminator 2.

I’ve never seen it, I confess, clicking to another station.

No, too busy rereading The Iliad, Morgan says.

At the Met, Leonardo’s drawings: faces where things erupt, the flesh deformed in bubbling lumps; a man on whose chin a growth extrudes toward his nose like a mangled penis.

His deep chest made my brother-in-law a better transplant prospect, a friend tells me at a cocktail party.

I wonder if the forced coughing for over an hour four times a day concerns our neighbors in adjacent rooms.

From behind the dressing room door, his voice on the cell to his girlfriend, who thinks he’s at his parents’.

Blackout—that’s how he’d like to die, he says, a burst vessel in the brain.

A body flayed reveals the cord-work of the muscles, a visitor’s face pressed close to the glass in the room’s dim light (to preserve the drawings).

Our life contained in rooms.

The walls like teeth around the sound of a word.

The eyes of the corpse’s face are open, as if he remembers something that happened to him.

In the New York Times, a Swiss clerk explains why verse dominates the bookstore shelves: Our language, Romansh, is dying. When a patient is dying, he writes only poetry.

Is it this time or another that he wrote, in a neat blue script, the word I live for on the white duvet cover?

From behind the dressing room door, his voice on the cell to his parents, who think he’s in Brooklyn with a friend from college.

In the minuscule portable fridge, antibiotics, beer, leftovers from a Greek deli.


In eternity, there’s no distinction of tenses, I read.

I’m a lung-er, he’d say. Like the doc in Deadwood.

ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard / he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail, /

What do I do now? he asked at 30.

It’s like balancing on a razor’s edge, he said, twisting his chest just so to reach a pocket of phlegm.

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

tore his chest left bare by the shield-rim, / loosed his knees and the man went crashing down. /


Morgan didn’t ejaculate.

The fluid, too thick, couldn’t squeeze through the slender vessels.

There’d be a tiny pearl on the tip of his penis when he came.

I had to take his penis out of my mouth at just the right moment to discover this.

I was always thrilled. I sometimes thought I could taste a bit of cum.

(They were not wrong who saw desire in my devotion.)

I shoot blanks, he’d say in mock exasperation, I’ve got cystic fibrosis. You’re imagining things.


Rings from condensation (gin & tonics) mark the low blond table on which I prop my feet.

I place my hand on his chest to feel the rise as he inhales the vaporized antibiotic.

Sterile water capsules cluster at the table’s edge by his knees.

The small print of our lives.

Maybe the dingo a’cher baby, he shrills in unison with Elaine on the Seinfeld rerun, the volume punched up to rise above the motor’s rumble, pumping air to inflate and shake the vest.

Small votives flicker, dotting the shelves and counters of the apartment.

What would you like engraved on it? he asks, when I unwrap the gleaming metal flask.

Something from Herbert, the sonnet, I say, and pull a book from the shelf.

Desire itself is a kind of immortality, a critic writes weeks before his death.

Do I believe it? Did he?

Gimme back my son, gimme back my son, he shouts at the screen a beat before Mel Gibson screams into the phone.

Here it is, I say: The soul in paraphrase.

The struggle of a shadow with a wall.

An awkward silence around that word, "soul."

Listen to this, he says, reading from a novel: When all is said and done, what can we say we really know about man? That he’s just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh.

I’ve got a pipe of flesh for you.

Could you be more predictable? he sighs.

Picasso’s working premise: a viewer recognizes the artist first, the sitter second (if at all).

Up to what degree of distortion does a character remain himself?


Having suffered acute renal failure, a condition he said he hoped would kill him, should another blanket of procedures—the dialysis he was wheeled to every two to three days, the blood draws, the strict dietary regimen—be draped over the hours of cf therapy, now compromised, necessary to breathe; his pain constant throughout his entire bloated body; in this condition, age thirty-one, readying himself to die, he turned to me as I sat reading beside the hospital bed: I’m sorry I’ve kept our relationship a secret, he said. It’s time you write about us.


He sweeps a foot across a low-tide sheet of ocean, head down, in khaki pants and white button-down shirt, pant-legs rolled to his knees.

Backlit by the setting sun, the metallic blue glint of Modelo, peeking from the pants’ front pockets.

To touch a boundary, to feel some limit.

The best time for writing, he says.

A quality of being lost.

The man on a walk, unable to find his house, his hold on the past intact while his present slips away, wanders in time as well as space.

And melancholy?

His favorite artist, Francis Bacon: Every time I go into a butcher’s, I’m surprised that it’s not me hanging there.

Fine sand blown in rivulets just beyond the beach house steps—or is it mist?

A sensation so precise, I regret its loss as it happens.

A music critic writes of how, when held to the light, small bright dots lit the score, the acidic eighteenth-century ink having eaten holes where the notes had been filled in by Bach.

Do my nails look blue to you? he asks, holding his hands up like a surgeon awaiting gloves.

Cully’s question about surrealism promotes a word-game competition and round after round of tequila shots, our voices...

She takes a series of photos of his coughing therapy, a rough stone wall the background for his corded neck, the vein at his temple.

His blood-flushed skin in black and white nearly as dark as the volcanic rock.

The shadow has become a figure.

No that then to compare to this now.


If a transplant fails, it’s a matter of rejection, I thought. The body, alarmed, says, What’s this foreign thing? The immune system mobilizes, and it begins to fight the invader. Massive doses of steroids and antirejection drugs are injected into the patient to counter the body’s own assault.

No one speaks of the new organ simply not working. Great things are coming for you, Buddy, a favorite nurse had said, his eyes watering, when he heard Morgan was at the top of the transplant list. Great things are coming. This was the mood of all the hospital staff, who had unfailing confidence in the transplant surgeon and team.


speared him down the guts and loosed his limbs. /

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

Morgan was a kind of solution.

I’ll be a comic, I’ll model, I’ll act, he said, half serious.

hurled next, / the bronze launched from his hand—no miss, a mortal hit. /

What happens is random, I read. The pattern comes at the end.

My breathable hourglass, he said, as he slipped the O2 tank into his daypack.


There are rooms enough for us all, I told Morgan’s friend.

He had asked, with an insinuating rise in pitch to his voice, about the sleeping arrangements at the small Baja beach house we rented twice a year with four other writers.

Character is the design of our boundaries, I’d read in an essay. And when the boundaries shift?

The writing was safe, as long as I didn’t show it to anyone. The truth, spoken, felt like betrayal. So inured to, so comfortable had I become with, the deception, once again in hiding, a place I’d spent the first third of my life emerging from; so settled had I become in the skin of this secret identity, shading my explanations of our relationship if not outright lying about it, that I sometimes doubted the truth of our past as I began to tell more to family and friends. The closed self felt more authentic than the open one. How much detail would it take to prove—to me as much as anyone else—what our lives had been, and how much did it matter?


Like a bug on a windshield, his mother whispered in the hall.

If it’s gonna happen, let it happen like that.

At times of crisis, my heart doesn’t beat, I discover—it trembles.

I aimed his wizened cock at the urinal’s opening.

A choad, he called it, a slug, a stogie, making us laugh.

Therapy cut short, rolling to dialysis: Nobody gives a shit about my lungs, he snarled.

The blood draw, the port check.

Liquids in, liquids out.

His legs inflated like pool floats beneath the pale hospital gown.

His mother took photos with her cell.

Of me, the choad in one hand, the urinal in the other.

Of the white blanket draped like a hooded cloak over his head and shoulders.

A Muslim to market, I thought, the Virgin Mary, Mary had a little lamb.

Nothing is what it is.

The blood draw, the port check.

Liquids in, liquids out.

At times of crisis, my heart doesn’t beat, it trembles.

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match, he sang, nodding his hooded head side to side as his mother filmed with her cell.

I texted updates, creatinine and BUN numbers, to family and friends.

Don’t let anybody visit, he snapped, my face looks like a balloon.

Nothing is what it is.

Like a bug on a windshield, his mother whispered.

The blood draw, the port check.

The 200 CCs recorded on the grease board, the urine poured into a plastic thermos set deep in a bucket of ice.

Nobody gives a shit about my lungs, he snarled.

His inflated feet, like pool toys that only his mother could touch.


I’m sorry, I’ll keep trying, Morgan wrote in an email. You should get what we need (meaning lubricant?).

I replied immediately: We’ll just do the things we both enjoy. We don’t have to fuck if you don’t like it.

I sometimes regretted that response.

What if the sensation he loved when rimming increased as we went further?

That had happened with other lovers.

From then on he pushed me away whenever (despite what I’d said) I attempted to ease into him.

(They are my kin who know denial begets desire.)

But I never tried again after he snapped, No, it makes me feel like a woman, and I don’t like it.


Are you okay in there?

I was reading in a chair between the bed and bathroom door. The door slightly ajar to admit the cannula that ran along the floor, curving up to the source of oxygen embedded in the wall.

How long had I heard it without hearing it? His coughing to clear mucus such a normal condition it failed to register, the sound made inaudible by day-in/day-out repetition. How long had it gone on, ten minutes? Twenty?

Call a nurse, he rasped, I can’t stop. I’m coughing up blood.

He was seated on the toilet hunched over the trash can.

I hit the call button on the bed control, ran into the hall shouting for a nurse.

30-50 CCs, the nurse calculated, holding the can close to his face. Just rest, he said. Would you like an Ativan?

Sitting across the bed from me, Morgan wrapped his arms around a pillow he’d placed on the bedcover and rested his head. His preferred napping position. I’m fucked, he said.

No saline this afternoon, the respiratory therapist instructed, no afternoon therapy at all till we’ve given the break a chance to heal.

Twice in the previous three years blood had erupted as Morgan reached his apartment mailbox, a block from Time Market, which had become his office. Twice he’d called me in a panic to come to him. The first time, just stepping into the shower, I’d thrown on pants and raced to my car without shoes, keys, a shirt, or wallet. Can you believe that? he asked, pointing out the dark pools that trailed to his front door when I arrived.

Both times the mass of sick and injured people in the er, red-faced children climbing chairs, the wet clatter of people blowing their noses, coughing behind masks, and the prospect of a long wait, had frightened him away. He’d take his chances, he said, despite the cf doctors’ insistence he be seen whenever he bled. It was probably just an inevitable torn or burst vessel that would heal on its own. The result of the insult of daily harsh nebulized drugs and hours of intense forced coughing.

This time, after the initial flurry of nurses and aides had settled, we looked again at the blood, its twisted pattern, like the tentacles of a nerve cell as it branched in the creases of the empty plastic bag lining the can. I took a photo with my phone. It looked like an abstract painting. We talked, only half-joking, about using it as the cover for his next book of poems.


The transplant team needed to look inside. A large machine with a video screen was wheeled into the room. Attached to a jointed arm, the screen could be positioned high above the bed in any orientation so that the doctor guiding the thread-like wand that traveled through lung passageways could see where to go as well as the condition of the interior tissue. Fluid was flushed in, then sucked out and collected, to be measured and analyzed. All of this visible in dramatic color on the screen.

The procedure, a bronchoscopy, was fascinating—a kind of performance—and tense. Would the lining be pink and healthy-looking, or would dull, grayish tissue suggest a problem? Would the scope find secretions, obstructions—or open canals? These probes became more frequent as the lungs’ failure to function dragged on. Whichever doctor handled the scope would narrate as we traveled this way and that through the passages.

Initially the news was always good: Nice and pink, no sign of infection, we heard in the doctor’s voiceover. I stood as still as possible with the nurses and transplant team in the room. Other staff sometimes gathered at the window in the hallway to watch. The process was dangerous. It required a precise, delicate manipulation of the scope. As with the paralyzing sedation to keep him calm, his mother signed a consent form each time.


struck him right where the midriff packs the pounding heart /

In eternity, there’s no distinction of tenses, I read.

My breathable hourglass, he said, as he slipped the O2 tank into his daypack.

and flipped him down facefirst, / dead as he fell, his life breath blown away.

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

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


In the ICU, though I barely whispered, my lips close to his face, invariably his eyelids would flutter. I’d think of tiny fish rising to ruffle the water’s still surface. And I’d tear up, kiss his brow or cheek.

If it were morning (I was often first to arrive), he might more fully awaken, his eyes opening wide, the focus distant. And I’d welcome him to the new day. Sometimes he’d nod slightly yes or no if I asked a simple question. Sometimes not.

Or if leaving for the night, No need to waken, my love, I’d say. Your mom is still here. I’ll return in the morning. After the flutter, if the lids opened, I’d repeat what I’d said.

So when people asked, How aware is he?, I’d say, He seems to know he’s not alone. Then I’d repeat what the doctors and nurses had said: When this is all over, he won’t remember anything.

Note: Poet Morgan Lucas Schuldt died at the conclusion of a double-lung transplant on January 30, 2012, twelve days before his thirty-fourth birthday. The first transplant forty days earlier failed. This essay is one in a sequence of four of the same title.