My kind of poetry: Carole Bromley
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.
“Volodin,” the prisoner replied without arguing, although the senseless repetitions were making him feel sick.
“Name and patronymic?”
“Year of birth?”
“Place of birth?”
“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.
I think at the time
was the worst
The houseman hadn’t time
to fetch the pethidine and wait
just squirted and tugged
It was lunchtime
and everyone eating
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.
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.
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.