By Shaista Tayabali

Gustav Klimt, Fulfillment, 1909

Gustav Klimt, Fulfillment, 1909

Firework of My Eyes

Let me see

if I can make
poetry of this;

let me see
if I can whisk
fear out of this

scintillating scotoma –

I like the way it fits
the visual fire

the zigzagging
iridescent shimmering
quagmire of this.

Hold still, my
whirling dervishes,
so I can count you,

claim you,
calm you;

hold still
so I can draw you,


We aren’t the first
to do this.


Once, in 2010, it happened just before my nephew’s baptism, while I was in church and all I could do was hold on to the chair and trust that I would see again. They begin as spots of flickering lights, which devour my visual field in shimmering arcs – teichopsia – from the Greek for “town hall” because of the zigzagging patterns of fortified walls.

“Don’t look into the light,” suggested a doctor. As well tell me, “don’t breathe.” How can I survive without looking into the light? The scotomas are temporary events. They pass, and I am left with a classic migraine with aura. Is it neurological? Is it cardiovascular? Or simply rotten luck?

To be a writer, you have to write. The words take time to form themselves. I am trying to write, trying to earn my place, but I am always struggling to keep the faith. I am never lost entirely to self-pity, but I do fear uselessness. As the daughter of artists, however, there is one anchor I use to keep myself afloat: in all the murk, I am always able to determine colour.

And that thought cheers me even as I swipe at the dervishes to keep still.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting her Strap, 1985–86

Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting her Strap, 1985–86

Dancer In The Dark

My eyes dance,
my soul trembles,
my nerves collapse under the strain –

I close my eyes,
the dancer whirls,
I seek her limbs in vain –

hold on to me! I cry,
but she will not settle down;
she scintillates and obfuscates –

until, exhausted, dissipates
and I am sane and still again,
and I am sane once more.


In 2011, I had an MRI scan to check my brain wasn’t harbouring anything illicit. Being a complex miasma of systemic lupus erythematosus, vasculitis and glaucoma, anything is always possible with me.

Lying in the white tube with ear masks on, warned kindly by the radiographer that “It will be very noisy!” I thought about Amal, the nine-year-old Palestinian girl I had written a poem for the year before. I realised that all children of Gaza and other war-torn areas, who have shrapnel discovered by MRI scans, lie in just this tube, listening to just this machine gun fire exploding near their head. Far more horrifyingly scary for them.

Brain image

fMRI scan of the author’s brain

Thinking about Gaza perhaps didn’t help, because post scan and dye injection, I had a bit of a turn, and it was all oxygen masks, cannula in my vein, briskly wheeled off to A&E. But then something interesting. The emergency doctor on call lit up when he discovered he could write POET in his notes, as he had of late been craving poetry. Naturally I recited a couple of my poems, including the one about the team of medical ‘ologists haunting me – doctors are always amused by that one – and as a treat, he responded by letting me see the mind-bending technology of my own MRI images. I look a weird little alien in X-ray language. I had better stick to poetry.


The Great Pretender

Say smile
and I do.
Say light
and I open
my eyes.

Say dark
and I close,
staying close
to the guides,
all the while
remembering light.

Federico Barocci, Head of the Virgin Mary, 1582–84

Federico Barocci, Head of the Virgin Mary, 1582–84

There were still swathes of snowdrops around. Spring hadn’t sprung yet, but March 2013 took on a martial air when my glaucoma surgeon determined that the time had come for a third tube in my eye. 

One: Trabeculectomy.
Two: Molteno implant.
Three: Baerveldt shunt.

I contemplated leaping out of the window but there were all sorts of ophthalmic instruments in the way.

I opted for demure acceptance. 

To help the poet pretend to herself, she must employ art. I chose London and the brilliance and grace of the sublime art of Federico Barocci at the National Gallery.


Federico Barocci, the Madonna and Child, 1582–84

Federico Barocci, the Madonna and Child, 1582–84 


Federico Barocci, The Annunciation, 1582–84

Federico Barocci, The Annunciation, 1582–84

The Virgin Mary, the angel and the sleeping cat soothed, but not enough, so I tripped next door to a concert in St Martin-in-the-Fields (the Church with the Ever Open Door). The Mozart was fine, but by the end of Beethoven’s Serenade I was swiping away tears by candlelight. At the interval, my companions turned to me and said, “Wasn’t that a wonderfully light and airy piece? Lovely! Delightful!”

Er… right. Stop thinking about The Tube, I admonished self sternly.

I gathered myself with Haydn and Schubert and by the second Mozart Flute quartet I was all smiles – the cellist, one Christopher Suckling, was the most expressive musician I have ever seen, second only to Lang Lang – and anyone with that level of enthusiasm deserves a smiling enchanted audience.

So there it is – the darkness and the light. I look into both. There is poetry and art in both.

Jan Steen, Sick Woman, 1665

Jan Steen, Sick Woman, 1665 


She was ever in the light,
her head softly pillowed,
even with her fading sight,
she gathered in the gold.

Give me silks and satin,
velvets, even cotton,
let me arrange the palette,
in blues and orange autumn.

Do you see the sky behind me?
Or do I mean the sea?
Do you feel the tempest?
Do you see beyond me?

One dark shadow, yet to overcome –
can you hear it in my heart?
That faintly murmuring, faltering drum,
that stops, and starts.


Shaista Tayabali is a poet, writer and blogger residing in Cambridge. Diagnosed with lupus and glaucoma in her teens, she spends much of her time in the hospital filling the hours with reading and writing. Her work can be found in various journals: Hektoen International, IGI-global, The Blue Hour. She is currently working on a memoir of her life with chronic illness. She blogs at