Doing the Rounds: Audrey Ardern-Jones, Indigo Dreams
The title of this debut collection refers in one sense to the poet’s career as a nurse specialising in cancer genetics. However, the cover of the book portrays a globe, and Audrey Ardern-Jones’s poems also encompass Poland in the second world war, a childhood in Africa, and travelling in India.
Nearly all the poems are about people; and what shines through is the poet’s warmth and compassion in telling her stories. The collection begins and ends with poems that hark back to grim war tales from Poland. Agnieszka is mugged and injured by youngsters while feeding sparrows:
as she lay on the pavement
she thought back to her homeland
a child rounded up
trudging with the thousands
on cobbled roads, unmade tracks
holding her father’s hand
bodies in the snow, Russian soldiers
in grey woollen overcoats
burning the ice with guns
all this she told me, on the ward
knowing my mother, like her
escaped Lwów, kept going
(‘Doing the Rounds’)
The final poem refers to Russian’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and recalls the Soviet Union’s second world war crimes:
of unspeakable atrocities
of uninvited armies
my untracked family
shot by Stalin’s bullets
(‘4th March 2014’)
‘White Roses’ is for the poet’s mother, a villanelle that captures a lifetime’s pain – “she left without giving a kiss to her mother” - with the recurrent line: “no mementoes of her family to help the despair”. In another poem, ‘Night Terrors’, which is ostensibly about the poet’s own childhood nightmares, her mother cries out for help in her sleep.
‘Only Ten More Months’ is about letters home – to Africa – during the long months at convent school, with an autumn bonfire reminding her of bush fires: “I try hard not to cry as I lick down the edges of my / blue airmail letter card – it’s October, we’ll be home/ in July.” ‘Names From Another Era’ lists the African servants that helped the family in the house – Sofite, Macaroni, and Sixpence – and the place names that have changed in modern-day Zambia, from Abercorn to Mbala, and Broken Hill now Kabwe.
Africa has left her with vibrant memories, of hawk-eagles and black mambas ('The Tree We Left Behind'), villagers' beliefs, and "dust-driven whirlwinds ... women running//and shouting in Memba Chili mupepei!/ Chili mupepe! The dry heat, the drum beat, / the wind that zipped inside itself and exploded." ('I'm Listening to Forecasts of Violent Winds').
Ardern-Jones becomes a nurse and finds herself caring for a dying missionary doctor who tells her stories about his life in Africa. There is a spiritual link between them: “later that night I felt his presence / in my nurses room / he knew he was my first ever death”. (A Place in My Heart: the Missionary Doctor in the Ward’). There is the pride she takes in her job – ‘I Speak for Nurses Worldwide’ – and fond farewells to and memories of beloved elderly relatives, admiration for a supermarket eccentric, and a man from Sierra Leone who serves in a railway refreshment kiosk. These are observant poems of empathy, as you might imagine from a nurse, and there are many in this collection to make you smile.
The language of the poems is approachable, and they often flash with vivid images. A number of the poems have achieved success in competitions, and Audrey Ardern-Jones lists tutors and mentors that have helped her over the years. But her story and insights are her own; and a fascinating tale it is, too, warmly told. The poet is artist in residence of the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, and all profits from her book are being given to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.