I thought I’d rescue some poems from my hard drive for the next fortnight. There are hundreds of them, like raggedy orphans, hanging about in files, and destined never to see the light of day. So, experimentally, I’ll put them here, and see if there’s any response. Better that than to leave them lingering, digitally.
Outside The Royal Hospital, Sunderland, Winter
They stand like mannequins, like parody commissionaires
careless of who you are, your luggage, the triangular
labels emblazoned on your urgent cases. It’s so bleeding
freezing, you can’t tell if it’s breath they’re exhaling,
all that ectoplasmic ice. They grind the slap heels
of second-best slippers, and hang on like grim death
to the one end of the clothes-rail they’re permitted.
Like hospital: all tubes. The bags are opalescent, held
up by hooks. There used to be goldfish in mine, mind.
I won it by tossing Victorian pennies, and it came up
tails. Lucky. There’s no difference between a housecoat
and a dressing-gown. Eyes sideways, I shuffle past,
starting the long green corridor to the sweltering wards
with the strip-light pinking above me. Towards me come
visitors, women and children first, the men stalking them
glumly, reaching for keys, pretending to read the walls.
The lift fills up with lolling heads. They crowd around
a waxen patient (being perked by a pair of porters)
as if they were consultants, itching to double a pulse.
Disembodied, the registrar informs them that the doors
are closing. We set off by the skin of our teeth. One,
two, three, this is mine. The patient is jettisoned first,
keepers still crackling jokes like discarded cellophane.
The rest of us follow, blithering, in her wake.
Mother is strapped to the bedboard by pain. It’s Christmas,
and the tree’s been freshly baubled. They sleep her.
After three hours, I pass out again, by the double doors,
the squat lobby, and the lift. He’ll kick off, admits
one blunted nurse to another. Could be the football, more
likely some tantrum. We head for the distant turnstiles.
A ragged chorus still crowds the entrance, busting its lip.
The sisters light up. Their throats sparkle like whetstones.
I wrote this one in March 2005, after going to visit my mother at the Royal about two years earlier, when she was first diagnosed with cancer. What stuck with me was the theatricality of the place, and also – as most people must have spotted when they go to hospitals – the gaggle of patients smoking outside the front entrance. They were outnumbered by the nurses. It’s a poem made up of composite flashes – and there are inventions – for instance, I never called my mother ‘Mother’, and I never visited the Royal at Christmas-time.
The form of the poem – the regular, slightly formal structure of them – came about in the process of writing. It’s common enough as a way of structuring a poem. You find the shape, and then you settle into it. I think it might have made the poem emerge as slightly stilted. I’ve certainly long since given up trying to get it published. But there are phrases in there I am still happy with. Maybe I could have done more with that hospital/ football match metaphor at the end. The passage that’s most true to life is the one about the fathers pretending to read the signs on the walls.
You can hear the poem here: