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Poetry round-up: Caroline Bracken reviews three new collections

11 Jun 2022 6 minute read
‘163 days’ & ‘As If To Sing’ are published by Seren and ‘The Human Body is a Hive’ is published by Verve

Caroline Bracken

163 Days

Hannah Hodgson’s new collection ‘163 Days’ from Seren is written from the perspective of a palliative care patient. If this sounds like it might be hard going it is absolutely not.

It is a collection full of life and humour. There are difficult subjects but the poet’s craft and expertise carry the poems and the reader.

The first section ‘163 Days’ is a 44-page sequence reflecting on the poet’s longest stay in hospital. Its brilliance lies not only in the writing but in the structure of the piece.

The diary-entry form is perfect for conveying the passage of time. On the left-hand side of the page are the speaker’s thoughts in italics and on the right are the medical notes and comments in traditional font.

Wednesday 4th February

It’s winter inside my bones,
this body a snow globe.
My scars are purple,
my faith in medicine frozen.
I try to bring it to temperature slowly
before it shatters out of existence.

Low Blood Pressure, Fainting, Vomiting. No change.

This format of internal/external call and response uses the white space on the page to great effect. I found the idea of insider/outsider fascinating. The patient is an ‘inpatient’ but also an outsider to the medical personnel.

They are insiders because they have vital information but are also outsiders because they are not experiencing the conditions they are treating. The level of ambition in this sequence is astounding and something I have not seen done in poetry before.

The second section of the book ‘Aftercare’ is a series of poems about the poet’s illness but also about friendship, love, family, the body, food and all sorts of things.

Each poem is a self-contained world for example ‘Window Eating’ where not a word is wasted, quoted in full:

‘every now and then
i get this craving
for something sweet or salty
so go to the bakery at M&S
as a voyeur of scent
to listen for donuts
gaining their skin
in the fryer
to hold the warmth
of cookies in my nostrils
unable to partake’

This poet is not afraid to experiment with form, ‘Creation’, ‘post pandemic britain’ and ‘The surgery phoned to say the nurse who gave me my flu vaccine’ are fine examples of a poet pushing boundaries, her poems bringing us to places we didn’t know we needed to go.

As If To Sing

‘As If To Sing’ is Paul Henry’s eleventh collection, also published by Seren.

Of course, there is song and music throughout, no more so than in the title poem, a devastating 11-line tribute to Welsh soldiers at war and the power of song to hold them together even after some comrades have fallen:

‘Their glassy dreams lined the front
and sometimes caught the sun,
the Welsh boys, mouths open
as if to sing.

For me though, this collection is about listening, a theme that echoes throughout the book from beginning to end.

‘Answering church bells in the dark/ a clock that hasn’t talked for years’ (Dust o’clock) and ‘Speak into my good ear./ The house is bubble-wrapped/ with rain. It’s late.’ (Somniloquy) and in ‘Bridge 120’ a lovely nod to William Carlos Williams without overdoing it:

‘Glazed with rain its crypt
already hears your ghost
when you call or stamp
on leaves, a girder’s rust.

This superb economy and control of language is evident in every poem. Love is another theme in the collection, parental, filial, romantic, love of friends and place:

‘They swapped a promenade for this lane,
my parents, who cling to each other
for ballast, against an arctic wind.’ (Last Move) and in ‘Cei Newydd’

‘A panic of oars
scratched the wilderness

and the harbour came back to us,
our mothers on the pier.’

It is testament to Paul Henry’s experience and expertise that he creates his poems in such a skilled manner that they can be read in numerous ways and mean something different to each reader and at each reading you find something more than you found previously.

The Human Body is a Hive

Poetry pamphlets can sometimes suffer from poor presentation and production values but thankfully Erica Gillingham’s debut pamphlet ‘The Human Body is a Hive’ from Verve Poetry Press is not in that category.

Laid out in two sections ‘Pheromones’ and ‘Honeycomb’ with ten poems in each, the first section deals with falling in love:

‘but, in the galleries, our edges became soft ─
a lifting only possible with proximity,
like birds finding the upwash,
my feet barely brushing the floor.’ and in ‘An Expedition for Love’

‘It turns out, love’s hard to pick out in a crowd ─
I’d only caught the bronze sheen of her hair when
she turned around, her eyes like fizzy cola, just as surprised.’

This poet has a real ability with lineation, particularly the long line, allowing a thought to continue on almost to the edge of the page, where a lesser poet would have pulled back.

Her phrasing is always appropriate to the content of the poem, as in ‘Naming our Unborn Daughters’, when the first tentative ideas of having a child are discussed:

‘But what about Ella
or Emma, Eva or Evelyn
all style & simplicity, we said.’

These clipped lines reflect the hesitancy, baby steps towards something not quite formed. This journey continues into the second section, ‘The Human Body is a Hive’ is a beautiful poem perfectly realised and ‘In Vivo’ is visceral in its description of fertility treatment:

‘Ready with my feet in metal stirrups. I am waiting
with a doctor, a nurse, an embryologist, and
one specially-designed plastic dish; in vitro.

The poems take an experimental turn in ‘Greasy Spoon Conception’ and ‘Early Grief’ as if mirroring the speaker’s journey into unknown territory but start to come back to more even forms with ‘Charged Particles’

‘until the ground seemed to alter
until the flood of tears would not stop
until the hormones suddenly up & left

the use of repetition reminds us of the cyclical nature of menstruation and relentless rounds of IVF treatments.

The first word in this pamphlet is ‘Against’ and the last word is ‘Again’, such attention to detail is emblematic of the thought that has gone into the sequencing, each poem stands alone but they fit together just like cells in a honeycomb – wonderful.

The collections can be purchased from Seren and Verve direct by following the links, or from good bookshops

More poetry round-ups from Caroline can be found here

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