Example poetry

Caroline Bracken reviews three new collections

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‘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 ‘163 Days’ collection from Seren is written from the perspective of a palliative care patient. If that sounds difficult, it definitely isn’t.

It is a collection full of life and humor. There are difficult subjects but the trade and the expertise of the poet carry the poems and the reader.

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

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

wednesday 4e February

It’s winter in my bones,
this body a snow globe.
My scars are purple,
my faith in frozen medicine.
I try to bring it up to temperature slowly
before he disappears.

Low blood pressure, fainting, vomiting. No change.

This internal/external call-and-response format makes good use of the white space on the page. I found the insider/outsider idea fascinating. The patient is a “hospitalized patient”, but also a stranger to the medical staff.

They are insiders because they have vital information, but also outsiders because they do not experience the conditions they treat. The level of ambition in this sequence is staggering and something I’ve never 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 kinds of things.

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

‘from time to time
I have this desire
for something sweet or savory
so go to the bakery at M&S
like a perfume voyeur
listen to donuts
win their skin
in the fryer
hold the heat
cookies in my nostrils
unable to participate

This poet is not afraid to experiment with form, “Creation”, “Britain after the pandemic” and “Surgery phoned to tell the nurse who gave me my flu shot” are beautiful examples of a poet who pushes boundaries, her poems taking us to places we didn’t know we had to go.

Like to sing

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

Of course, there are songs and music everywhere, not 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 with their mouths open
like to sing.

For me though, this collection is about listening, a theme that resonates throughout the book from start to finish.

‘Answer the church bells in the dark/a clock that hasn’t spoken in years’ (Dust o’clock) and ‘Speak to my good ear./The house is enveloped in bubbles/with rain . It’s late.’ (Somniloquy) and in ‘Bridge 120’ a nice nod to William Carlos Williams without overdoing it:

‘Frozen with rain his crypt
already hear your ghost
when you call or dab
on the leaves, the rust of a beam.

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

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

‘A panic of oars
scratched the desert

and the port returned to us,
our mothers on the pier.

It is a testament to Paul Henry’s experience and expertise that he creates his poems in such a skillful way that they can be read in many ways and mean something different to each reader and with each reading you find something more than what you found before.

The human body is a hive

Poetry pamphlets can sometimes suffer from poor presentation and poor production values, but fortunately Erica Gillingham’s first pamphlet “The Human Body Is A Beehive” by Verve Poetry Press is not in this category.

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

‘but, in the galleries, our edges have become soft ─
lifting only possible nearby,
like birds finding the updraft,
my feet barely touch the ground. and in “An Expedition for Love”

“It turns out that love is hard to spot in a crowd ─
I had only caught the tanned shine of her hair when
she turned around, her eyes sparkling like cola, just as surprised.

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

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 cut lines reflect hesitation, small steps towards something not quite formed. This journey continues in the second section, “The Human Body Is A Beehive” is a beautifully executed poem and “In Vivo” is visceral in its description of fertility treatment:

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

The poems take an experimental turn in “Greasy Spoon Conception” and “Early Grief” as if reflecting the speaker’s journey into uncharted territory, but begin to return to more uniform forms with “Charged Particles”.

’til the ground seems to change
until the tears don’t stop
until the hormones suddenly rise and go

the use of repetition reminds us of the cyclical nature of menstruation and the endless cycles 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 been put into sequence, each poem stands alone but they fit together like cells in a honeycomb – beautiful.

Collections can be purchased from Seren and Verve directly by following the links, or from good bookstores

More of Caroline’s poetry summaries can be found here


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