Sally Read’s first collection The Point of Splitting (Bloodaxe Books, 2005) was shortlisted for the Jerwood-Aldeburgh prize for best first collection. Her second collection, Broken Sleep, came out in 2009 and her work was recorded for The Poetry Archive in the same year. Her poems have been anthologized in Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade (2010), The Picador Book of Love Poems (2011), and Poems of the Decade (2011), among others. A selection of her work, Punto della Rottura, translated into Italian by Andrea Sirotti and Loredana Magazzeni, is due out this month.
Read, an ex-psychiatric nurse, is based in Santa Marinella, Rome, where she is Poet in Residence at The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs. The Day Hospital is out with Bloodaxe on 22nd November.
“Across one day in London, twelve elderly men and women sit in flats, walk, or wait, and speak about their histories, their hopes, their loves, their disappointments and griefs – and above all seek to express who they are and what their life has been. Most are immigrants – Irish, West Indian, Polish, Italian, and German, struggling with a feeling of rootlessness.
Drawn from Sally Read’s experiences as a community psychiatric nurse in central London, these twelve monologues are the voices of schizophrenia, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Authentic and moving, they form a vivid portrait of the capital – its richness and its sadnesses, its waves of immigration, and its living witness to the devastating effects of World War II. Four of the voices are Jewish refugees who arrived in London as children, leaving parents to die in Nazi-occupied Europe. Candid and vivid, these monologues make us privvy to entire lives through a poetic voice that is at once brutally realistic, and beautifully realised.
Above all, these poems give marvellous expression to people whose speech, memory, and coherence is often marred by illness. The result is a stunning insight into other people’s stories, and how we may come to measure our own.”
“Direct, searing, and very, very truthful”
– Bonnie Greer
“Read defines herself by her risks … violence and elegance walk hand in hand – her style is not unlike that of Plath’s middle period. There is real pleasure in the disparity between her light lyric touch and the menacing and/or visceral description she frequently employs; she disarmed this reader and defied the expectation”
– Kathryn Gray, Magma
If ever a book wrote itself, it’s my third collection The Day Hospital—although it took ten years from the experiences that informed it, to its birth.
Years ago, I was a psychiatric nurse in London, specializing in the care of older people. The catchment area was central London. Looking back, it seems as though at least 80% of our patients were of non-British origin. And a startling proportion had ended up in London as Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Europe. In 1998, a group of over 65s inevitably thought much about the war. Sometimes, over afternoon tea, it seemed that Hitler was still alive, and that we all kept a gas mask under our chair. Too, the patients gave a strong sense of where they were from—as though they’d just arrived by ship and barely unpacked. This strong attachment to country of birth bleeds through, especially in old age. Many dementing men and woman, who had lived in London for as long as 50 years, began to speak almost exclusively in their mother tongue.
But it was one particular lady who made me want to write a poem about her. She had come to London to work as a young woman, leaving her mother behind in Nazi Germany. The guilt and grief she felt at her mother’s disappearance (she never knew by what means her mother had died), had made the woman mute. She also tore at her clothes every day; every day making new the Kriah—the Jewish rending of clothes in grief. The relationship that developed between us broke her silence. We came to share a certain tentative and limited confidence, that—bearing in mind her history and pathological reservation—was remarkable. It made me want to give her voice when she died. I thought I owed it to her to give witness to her terrible story, to give words to what she couldn’t bring herself to entirely utter.
But, aged 28 and still a nurse, I couldn’t write the poem. The experience, my attachment to her, was too strong. Over the course of the next ten years I wrote numerous lengthy poems about her. And yet nothing seemed to capture her or her grief. I was also still finding my poetic feet, and wrote exclusively in a close mixture of first person and self—hence, I was the nurse writing about the patient. It was ten years from both my exit from nursing, and the death of this lady, before the way was shown to me. For some reason I began watching old Meryl Streep films—first of all Sophie’s Choice. Streep’s immersion in character, her Method, made me realize with a clang what I had to do: the dramatic monologue.
The morning after I’d watched the film I wrote the lady’s, ‘Anna’s’, monologue in, of course, her own, fictionalized voice . Almost superstitiously, I collected Streep films—The Bridges of Madison County, Plenty, The Hours, The French Lt’s Woman. The subject matter wasn’t relevant: what struck me was her ability to get absolutely inside the psychological framework of a person—and particularly to find that one slash of grace within their character, the redemptive streak. This was not to let them off the hook or to sentimentalize them, but to give them the capacity of being understood.
As far as my own ‘voices’ were concerned, I had the job of fleshing out a person who—for example—couldn’t remember their own name, or who repeated the same story over and over, or who had attacked a nurse. It was only by considering, fully, a person’s history, and the dynamic of emotion and expression coupled with that history, that I could make these people live on paper. The process wasn’t so very different to the way I nursed: I always sought to find the young face in the old, to hear about people’s jobs, dreams, what—at the end of the day—they put store in, what had made them happy.
After watching each Streep film another ‘person’ would come to me, another voice, and with astonishing ease.
Of course, the characters in my book are fictitious. The blessing of a ten year gap between knowledge and writing is that I can barely remember the facts about my patients’ lives anyway. That, coupled with a disciplined approach to fictionalizing means that none of the people are ‘real’. But what came through in the writing was the essence of a person—an emotion, a turn of phrase, a fear, a mindset. The voices grew in number—an Italian Jewish man who throws himself from a high roof, a depressed Irish lady with agoraphobia, a Russian lady with vascular dementia, a Londoner with advanced Alzheimer’s.
Meanwhile, the creation of these souls was working in me, and troubling me. Once again, even at a distance, I felt bogged down by so much misery. More, I was up against existential and practical problems—even with the faithful and holistic approach to character that I noticed in Streep’s work, how do you write a monologue for someone who has no memory for his story, if his emotions are incomprehensible, if he can barely speak? I used the word ‘soul’ at the start of this paragraph, and it’s a word that comes easily these days. Then, it didn’t: I was an atheist; I didn’t really believe in the soul. But when I was confronted with someone apparently stripped of their personality and functioning, did I really believe that that person ceased to exist?
The spiritual process that this set in train has been recorded elsewhere. I was an atheist when I began writing the monologues, and a devout Catholic by the book’s completion. It’s hard to say if this would register for the reader. The saving element for many patients I would, now, call grace. The moments of lucidity, and even joy, in patients, I would also call grace. Even in pain, I would locate the divine. As one Jewish character, Ruth, puts it “In the guard’s footfall to murder, there is a vacuum and there is God’s vigil”.
After about a year I had twelve voices written, and they spanned the course of a day. It does look like a cross section (albeit displaced, sad, unwell) of a certain London generation. Soon people whose parents were killed in the death camps will all be dead. The World War Two pilots and soldiers I nursed will be dead too. And the wave of Irish and West Indians who came to London in the 1960s. Soon, old ladies, I suppose, won’t wear felt hats, or live in chintzy flats over sex-shops in Soho. The book is a day, and twelve voices that I hope, in a small way, I’ve saved.
Order The Day Hospital here or here.
Visit Sally’s Bloodaxe Books author page.
Visit Sally’s blog, The Far Near.