My kind of poetry: Carole Bromley

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I was trying to decide between three possible posts for this Sunday, when my mind was made up for me by two things. On Wednesday I had a great time as a support reader at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, where the launch of Emma Storr's debut pamphlet Heart Murmur played to a full house, and where she sold all but three of the copies available. If you want to know more about Emma Storr (and you should) check out the Cobweb post via this link. If subsequently, you may decide you want to buy a copy of Heart Murmur, then follow this link to Calder Valley Poetry.

Emma is a retired GP, and had invited Carole Bromley to be her other guest support reader. And, as it happens, Carole had just come back from Newcastle and the Hippocrates prizegiving (as well as having, last year, gone through complicated surgery) and both of them read hospital/medical-related poems.

So much, so hospital. It all coincided with my having a complicated programme of appointments with consultants to agree treatments/surgery for bits of skin cancer and for long-term prostate cancer. So, yes; I've got hospitals on my mind.

Sooner or later we’ll all end up there, as patients or visitors. Either state is stressful. I’ve been in and out of hospitals for about 70 years. Hours spent in X-ray, or sitting by a bed in an intensive care ward, or having morphine nightmares in high dependency, or observing with an odd curiosity the sociology of general wards, or marvelling at the linguistic ineptness of a minority of consultants, or at the insouciance of tanned anaesthetists, or being put through the rituals of admission.

I love the NHS, which has saved and prolonged my life and the lives of those I love. But I’ve never got over the sense of being depersonalised, processed. I think it must be like going into prison. That’s what I think when I read the sequence in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, when the apparatchik Volodin finds himself in the Greater Lubyanka. Here’s part of the sequence I mean:

 

“May I dress?” asked Innokenty … but the barber left without a word and locked the door.

………………………………….

After a while he got into his underclothes, but just as he was pulling on his trousers the key rattled in the lock, and still another warder, with a fleshy purple nose, came in holding a large card.

“Surname?”

“Volodin,” the prisoner replied without arguing, although the senseless repetitions were making him feel sick.

“Name and patronymic?”

“Innokenty Artemyevitch.”

“Year of birth?”

“Nineteen nineteen”

“Place of birth?”

“Leningrad.”

“Take all your clothes off”

Half dazed, he took off those he had on.

 

And so it continues. In the novel, the whole system is designed to demoralise the prisoner, take away all his resistance, individuality, his selfhood. I’m not saying that’s what the NHS is remotely after. But the passage invariably pops into my mind when I’m once more repeating all my details - birth date, address, doctor, all that - and when I’m in an awkward cubicle taking my clothes off and trying to deal with one of those amazingly humiliating backless surgical gowns, and trying to fit my stuff into a plastic shopping basket, which I may have to carry down a corridor full of normal people in their normal clothes. It’s all necessary, and simultaneously dreamlike - something you hope to wake from, soon.

I spent some time musing about how many poems about hospitals I could think of. I struggled. Hilary Mantel writes brilliantly about the experience of being in hospital; Norman MacCaig’s 'Visiting Hour'  says all I ever want to say about hospital visiting. And UA.Fanthorpe cornered the market in poems about patients, and doctors and hospital administrators. But, I thought, there must be loads of others. And then could not bring any to mind. I know that the books I take to read in hospital ... never poetry, until recently. Invariably, Solzhenitsyn. Cancer Ward (which freaks the staff out); One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.

When I look at poems I’ve actually written, it seems that what bothers me about hospitals is not the physical experience, the small humiliations, the pain, the discomforts and so on. I prefer my poems to grit their teeth and soldier on, and not make a fuss. What intrigues me is the way that being in hospital is like being deported to a foreign country whose language you only vaguely understand. But I'm always delighted when someone comes along to throw a new light on the whole nervy business, and thus, effortlessly, we come to today's guest poet, Carole Bromley.

Carole lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. For several years she judged the YorkMix poetry competition, which became a major event under her care. Winner of many prizes herself, including the Bridport, Carole was a winner in the Poetry Business book and pamphlet competition twice and has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/Doorstop, most recently a collection for children, Blast Off!  She is currently working on a new children’s book and also a pamphlet collection about her recent experience of brain surgery. She is also currently judging two competitions, one on the theme of Snow for the Candlestick Press and the other the YorkMix Poems for Children Competition. And this is Carole Bromley's website. So there you are. There are absolutely no excuses for not finding out a lot more about her.

She sent me four poems for this post, all from a pamphlet-length collection she is hoping to publish, and which is based on her experience of brain surgery in Hull last year. They all have her trademark accuracy of observation and understated technical craft. Here we go. I think we should start with the pain and work our way to relief and release. I won’t say much about this first poem except to note the way one short phrase – “everyone eating syrup sponge”contextualises everything that happens around it. Oh, and also to note that it is, after all, possible to write about self-pity without sounding full of self-pity.

 

 

     THE UNPACKING

 

     I think at the time

     the nose-unpacking

     was the worst

 

     The houseman hadn’t time

     to fetch the pethidine and wait

     just squirted and tugged

 

     It was lunchtime

     and everyone eating

     syrup sponge

 

     After the screams

    which surely came from

    someone else’s throat

 

     after the begging

     Oh, I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it

     plates clattered onto trays

 

     My neighbour was crying

     on my behalf

     I rang my husband

 

     Please come Please come

     I lost all pride

     I put it on Facebook

 

     longing for comfort

     a child again

     needing its mother

 

     All afternoon I cried

     That night the doctor came back

     Shook my husband’s hand

 

     said how sorry he was

     he’d had to hurt me

     He was so young

 

     He was showing two students

     how to do the procedure

     Beforehand I joked

 

     I’ll tell you if he’s rubbish

    Afterwards he said

     I’m sorry love I’m sorry

 

     (Third prizewinner Poem and a Pint Competition 2018)

 

Life in hospital, Carole reminds us, is made of longeurs, black comedy, tedium, discomfort, pain, fear and boredom, punctuated by small triumphs and fleeting pleasure. Nearly all of these find their way into the next poem, which I think is in the spirit of Ivan Denisovitch’s day.

 

     SODIUM 136

 

     A new form of torture

     to raise my sodium level

     which is dangerously low.

     They measure out five glasses

     of water into my jug

     to last me till midnight,

     write 1 litre fluid restriction

     on the board over my bed

     so the tea trolley passes me by,

     the milk-shake woman doesn’t come,

     the pourer of custard shakes her head.

     Slowly the level creeps up.

     After five days I’m fantasising

     about gulping cartons of juice.

     I have a tug of war with a nurse,

     will not let go of the jug

     which she wants to remove,

     tell her if I wanted to cheat

     I could put my head under the tap

     and drink. I win, the jug stays.

     The tea lady leaves me half a cup

     and whispers I won’t tell them, love.

     I do not touch it. 117, 118,

     123, 124 and then, overnight,

     SODIUM 136. I weep with joy.

     They rub out the notice.

     I gulp down glass after ice-cold glass.

   

     (Commended in Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2019)

 

It’s beautifully observed, isn’t it? It’s deceptively simple, but listen to the way it shifts from measured and matter-of fact, through childish - “the milk-shake woman doesn’t come, / the pourer of custard shakes her head”  to frantic: “I will not let go of the jug” and finally to joyful. For me, after a week of no solid food, it was porridge. Very Ivan Denisovitch. I suppose the spirit of both these poems is ultimately comic (which is a more serious business than is universally acknowledged). The next one is less apparently comforting.

 

 

 

     AFTERWARDS

 

     Make a fist for me, she says.

     Now, push your heel against my hand.

     Now pull my fingers towards you.

 

     How is it I forgot this

     when I remembered the words,

     Do you know where you are?

 

     She tells me it’s so she can compare.

     Afterwards. I had not thought,

     really thought of afterwards

 

     only of an end to the pain,

     the way the ward is blurred,

     the endless, endless nausea.

 

     So matter of fact. Afterwards.

     It isn’t logical but I want to say

     My brain is a long way from my feet.

 

     (Published in Algebra of Owls 2018)

 

This is a poem that sticks in the mind. With great economy, it does something very complex . It’s the business of using clear plain language to recreate confusion. At the heart of it is the reminder that when you’re in pain, all you want is for the pain to stop. There is only the moment, and no ‘afterwards’, so that when ’afterwards’ happens we don’t know how to deal with it. It’s disconcerting and disorienting.

The last one I liked not least because it made me think that it would be interesting to speculate about what folk take to read in hospital. I tend towards Solzhenitsyn, as I’ve said. After him, later Dickens. A teacher I loved was given days to live, and asked for a copy of Middlemarch in hospital. I have never coped with Henry James. I think I never shall.

 

     READING HENRY JAMES IN HOSPITAL

 

     What Maisie Knew. I haven’t read it

     for fifty years. I knew nothing then,

     only the rhythm of his prose,

     that Maisie was the centre of consciousness

     that I would need to sit up late

     to finish it before the tutorial,

     swigging from a tooth mug

     the port I stole from formal dinner. 

     For me the book will always taste

     of peppermint and port and the summer of love.

 

     I turn the pages with my cannula’d hand,

     wander away from Sharon glued to Corrie,

     from Jean flipping through Take a Break

     from Joan’s painful voyage to the toilet.

     ‘I say, I say, do look out’, Sir Claude

     quite amiably protested. Sister trips

     over the zimmer Jean parked by my bed,

     tells me not to keep my frame there.

     I do not have a frame, I protest.

     Jean looks up from her article, Yet.

     

     (Second prizewinner Poetry Space Competition 2018)

 

I like the wry, dry ironies of this, the intercutting of reality and fictions of all shapes and sizes. It’s a great poem  to read aloud. I like the timing of the punchline. I like the way it reminds us that when we’re in a hospital bed, we’re all dark watchers, and, like Maisie, the centre of consciousness. Hospitals make egoists of us all.

Thank you, Carole Bromley for being our guest and being so generous with your poems. Next week we’ll be heading northwards and speculating about northwords. See you then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Jean Sheridan

Fri 31st May 2019 14:33

Hi John - Let me echo Greg's good wishes for your health, and successful interactions with the NHS. What terrific poems - great stuff, Carole Bromley. Sorry you had to go through it to write so well about it. Jean x

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Greg Freeman

Wed 29th May 2019 09:23

Thanks for the blog, John, and best wishes from all at Write Out Loud with your continuing healthcare - and to Carole too, of course. Last year we featured a review of an anthology of poems about the NHS to mark its 70th anniversary https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=84565 By coincidence - or perhaps not - a poem by Carole was the first one to be quoted in that review.

Moira Garland

Tue 28th May 2019 13:19

Thanks John for yet another really good post, and for sharing Carole's poetry - always worth reading. And she is always so enabling, and encouraging of other poets.

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