Category Archives: essays

Pippa Little writes about Overwintering

Pippa Little 
 
 
  
Pippa Little is Scots, but now lives in Northumberland. She has received an Eric Gregory Award, an Andrew Waterhouse Award, The Biscuit International Poetry Prize, The Norman MacCaig Centenary Poetry Prize, The Scotsman Haiku Prize and was joint winner of the James McCash Award 2013. She has read her work in Mexico City and at festivals including StAnza. Poems have appeared in many text journals, on radio, film and online. She also won the 2012 Anam Cara Poetry Competition. The Spar Box, (Vane Women 2006) was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice, Foray (Biscuit Press) came out in 2009, The Snow Globe (Red Squirrel) in 2011 and Overwintering in 2012 from Oxford Poets, Carcanet Press.
 
 
 
 
Overwintering 
 
 
 
Overwintering (Carcanet/OxfordPoets, 2012) is coming through, emerging into the light of a new season. Pippa Little’s book explores what survives and grows from the dark energies of winter, night and loss, from the buried past and the imagination’s depths. Landscapes speak of ancient violences and hold the hope of resolution. Love survives; the richness of the world replenishes.

Little’s poems have a sensual delight in qualities of light and texture, in imagined realities and the fantastical real. “Hope is winter light”, she writes, “is day arriving, numb and slow”.”
 
 
 
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“Richly imagined, wide-ranging and subtly musical, Overwintering is a most welcome collection.”

– Sean O’Brien
 
 
 
“There’s a quiet courage here. Meaning dwells in the clear images of sense-perception but transcends them too. The real is fleet, elusive: but when it earths itself in this world, it is decidedly womanly. There’s an unexpected laughter, rueful, sly. This poetry will hold.”

– Gillian Allnutt
 
 
 
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“I have come through”. This line from the first poem in my book, ‘Solstice’, means a great deal to me. My father died at the winter solstice (which is also the birthday of my youngest son). Six months later at summer solstice my father-in-law died. Looking back now I can see the narrative arc of those and other losses in these poems, how I struggled with making sense of my life and how, like the plants and seeds that ‘overwinter’ deep in the soil through the coldest part of the year, I found courage to sit out the dark and keep faith that light would return at some point.

Perhaps like a deep winter day some poems are marked with definite shadow and others by sunlight. I arrived ‘home’ from Africa as a young child straight into the worst winter Scotland had suffered for years – I had never seen snow before. So I think that ever since then, images of winter have affected me deeply,
 
 
 
               … snowflakes’
               see-through stars
               burning gently to the bone

               so ash of us, filigree,
               lilts up as we dance beneath,
               those of us who have nowhere to go
               but the rest of our lives.”
 

                                        ‘The Seaweed Chandelier’
 
 
 
Not all the poems are wintry, though. A summer couple pretends the bandstand is a liner sailing into New York, a bag lady pushes her Tesco trolley along the quayside in ‘Stella Maris’, a tattooed shamaness and her six horses are discovered in the Altai Mountains. Friends, real and imaginary, crop up, and so do journeys, near as the churchyard opposite to far as the Mozambique border. Memories rekindled from my son’s spell in East Africa, where I was born, creep into poems such as ‘Newala’. There are animals too, the elk who eats roses from a Swedish garden, magical bees, wild birds, horses, dogs. And trains. The world is a very rich, beautiful and surprising source. Landscapes too are important – I’m deeply attached to the bare spaces of Northumberland where I’ve been settled now for more than twenty years.

The central poem sequence ‘The Karlovy Vary Trains’ describes a circular walk around Prague beginning and ending at the railway station. I’d been reading about the 1942 assassination of the Nazi Rheinhard Heydrich, so visiting the church where Jan Kubis, Jozef Gabcik and the others hid after the shooting, the place where they were discovered and dragged out, was very powerful. I always felt a connection with this perfect, beautiful yet somehow menacing city and had also been listening to a friend talk about how his family, Czech Jews, disappeared during and after the war and about his recent visits to Prague trying to find where they were buried, if they were buried at all. The railway station itself is very striking: above ground it’s modern and ordinary but its subterranean level is decaying art nouveau grandeur, a kind of living ghost-museum. I associate Prague with winter, having always made my visits then; the city’s draped in lights and Christmas decorations which give it an even eerier atmosphere.

I think if I had to sum up this collection I would say it records my questioning of ‘home’; what belonging is, and exile, in terms of personal loss. Looking back gives a wider angle of view: “you walk right through me, and keep going”; “I let the dark/ smudge you across the glass/ into my own face”. But it’s also an effort of separation, a growing up and apart: “ … the old house turned its face away/ forbidding me to enter even in dreams” and an active coming to terms with what results – “ … that way the years of speechlessness I shed”.

Re-reading that first poem, ‘Solstice’, with its image of the house in the woods, I realise the house is me – that whatever I meant by home was really in myself, in the world I make through memories, imagination and poems, that “coming through” is a process at which I must keep working. And that delight in small things, in the world around, in friendship and fellowship and love, in keeping hope – “a pocket-stone forgotten long ago/ found by your hand and known/ as a corm is married to the loam” – having faith in the making of things (a life, a poem, a bowl, a cairn) is part of that process: “winter, but with roses in it, somewhere”.
 
 
 
 
Order Overwintering (Carcanet/OxfordPoets, 2012).
 
Visit Pippa’s website.
 
 
 
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Skate, a Pighog Press anthology

Skate 
 
 
 
Skate: the wonderful world of ice skating in prose,
poetry and
pictures
Edited by Meredith Collins
Pighog Press, 2012
ISBN 9781906309794
 
 
A fascinating collection of poetry, history and images dedicated to the art of ice skating, with an introduction by Jayne Torvill from Britain’s most famous skating duo, Torvill and Dean. It’s an ideal gift not just for novice skaters and more experienced dancers on ice but for anyone who loves elegant design and intriguing information.
 
 
Skate
contains articles written by curators at the Museum of London with iconic paintings and charming photographs depicting the history of this joyous pastime. From medieval ice skates made of bone to the Frost Fairs on the Thames in London, this enchanting miscellany explores the art and history of skating. It also highlights the remarkable contribution British skaters have made over the years and the impact they’ve had on the style of figure skating we recognize today as a graceful Olympic sport.
 
 
‘Poetry on ice’ by historically renowned poets such as Addison, Blunden, Goethe and Wordsworth features alongside work by contemporary poets, to create a fascinating reading experience. Whether you’ve never gone near the treacherous surface of the rink or you can do a Mohawk turn with the best of them, you will treasure this stylish and beautifully presented anthology.
 
 
£1 from each sale of Skate goes to the charity Shelter to support their work with the homeless.
 
 
Articles by Meredith Collins, Hazel Forsyth and Jackie Keily.
 
 
Poetry by Tracy Davidson, Eugene Lee-Hamilton, William Wordsworth, Joseph Addison, Pauline Suett Barbieri, Edmund Blunden, Robert Snow, C Dibdin, Anna Kisby, Edgar Wood Syers, Curtis Tappenden, Brendan Cleary, John Liddy, John McCullough, Susan Richardson and James Thomson.
 
 
 
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Extract from The Coldest Winter on Record
17th Century Frost Fairs
by Hazel Forsyth, Museum of London Curator
 
 
The great ‘singularity of the City of London’ is the Thames, wrote James Dalton in his celebratory account of the capital in 1580, for it,
 

“Reacheth furthest in the bellie of the land [and] … the breadth and stilnesses of the water is naviagable up and down the streame.’ London is perfectly situated ‘for if it were removed more to the west, it should lose the benefit of the ebbing and flowing; and if it were seated more towardes the East, it should be nearer to daunger of the enemie and further from the good ayre and from doing good to the inner parts of the Realme.”
 
 
The importance of the river to the communication, economy and culture of the capital is a recurring theme in sixteenth and seventeenth-century literature. Foreigners were particularly struck by the vast number of merchant vessels thronging the quays and wharves and the smaller craft ‘used by groups of people to cross the river, or to enjoy themselves in the evenings’. According to the Venetian, Alesandro Magno in 1562, the boats were ‘charmingly upholstered and embroidered cushions are laid across the seats, which are very comfortable to sit on or lean against’. By the late 16th century there were three-thousand watermen operating a water-taxi service on the Thames, but sometimes there were no boats to be had and one tourist complained that he had waited so long ‘that we could in the space of time have made the entire journey on foot and performed some errands along the way’. When the boat finally arrived it appeared to be reduced by ‘worms and time to such a condition that it could have been used as a cork’ and the two watermen seemed broken: ‘they stretched their bodies to their entire lengths while rowing, [they] succeeded only in making very slow progress’.
 
 
 
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The Other Side of Winter
John McCullough
 
 
Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about

on islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch – the printing press nuzzling
the swings – then part, slip quietly under.

Still, there is no end of crystal weather.
I hoard coal, stare mostly at the chimney’s back,
fingering the pipe he gave me on the quay.

Even now it carries his greatcoat’s whiff:
ale, oranges, resolve. I remember his prison-ship
lurking out from shore, huge as Australia.

I’ll write, my dear sweet man, he said
then squeezed my thigh and turned, a sergeant
again, bellowing at a flock of convicts.

I do not have the nerve to light it.
The mouthpiece is covered with teeth marks, sweat.
I look out at my museum-garden,

the shrubs locked in glass cases,
the latticework a galaxy of frozen dew.
There is no snow in New South Wales.

I cannot put the pipe down. It makes things happen.
Last week I heard a crash and ran outside to find
a jackdaw flat on the lawn. It must have fallen

from the sky, its wings fused together
by hardened sleet, its neck twisted as though broken
from straining to see the incredible.
 
 
 
from The Frost Fairs (Salt, 2011).
 
 
 
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from Skate (Pighog Press, 2012).

Order Skate.

Order Skate’s companion publication Ice.

Visit the Museum of London’s website.
 
 
 
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Penelope Shuttle writes about Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980–2012

© Image by Jemimah Kuhfeld

© Image by Jemimah Kuhfeld

 
 
Penelope Shuttle has lived in Cornwall since 1970, is the widow of the poet Peter Redgrove, and has a grown-up daughter Zoe, who works in the field of sustainable energy.

Her first collection of poems, The Orchard Upstairs (1981), was followed by six other books from Oxford University Press, The Child-Stealer (1983), The Lion from Rio (1986), Adventures with My Horse (1988), Taxing the Rain (1994), Building a City for Jamie (1996) and Selected Poems 1980–1996 (1998), then A Leaf Out of His Book (1999) from Oxford Poets/Carcanet, and Redgrove’s Wife (2006) and Sandgrain and Hourglass (2010) from Bloodaxe Books. Redgrove’s Wife was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize and the T S Eliot Prize in 2006. Sandgrain and Hourglass is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her latest book, Unsent: New & Selected Poems 1980–2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012), is drawn from ten collections published over three decades plus a new collection, Unsent.

First published as a novelist, her fiction includes All the Usual Hours of Sleeping (1969), Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree (1973) and Rainsplitter in the Zodiac Garden (1977).

With Peter Redgrove, she is co-author of The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman (1978) and Alchemy for Women: Personal Transformation Through Dreams and the Female Cycle (1995), as well as a collection of poems, The Hermaphrodite Album (1973), and two novels, The Terrors of Dr Treviles: A Romance (1974) and The Glass Cottage: A Nautical Romance (1976).

Shuttle’s work is widely anthologised and can be heard on the Poetry Archive website. Her poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and her poem ‘Outgrown’ was used recently in a radio and television commercial. She has been a judge for many poetry competitions, is a Hawthornden Fellow, and a tutor for the Poetry School. She is current Chair of the Falmouth Poetry Group, one of the longest-running poetry workshops in the country.
 
 
 
Unsent 
 
 
 
“Adventurous, searching, interested in the luminous instant of reality that dwells in the perpetual now of the poem, Penelope Shuttle is a poet who clearly shares Picasso’s view that ‘If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the point of doing it?

If a poet’s work is her personal experience of the universe then this book takes us deep into that Shuttle-verse …”
 
 
 
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          ‘ … but I don’t really know how poetry gets to be written.
          There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a
          great deal of hard work.’
 
          – Elizabeth Bishop, from Letter to Miss Pierson
 
 
 
Although my New and Selected Poems stretches over thirty two years I remain no wiser as to how poems get themselves written, as ruefully noted above by Elizabeth Bishop.

Since I began writing in my teens, nothing has so enthralled me as poetry; before my first attempts at writing, reading poetry had thrown a similar glamour over me, as it continues to do. Words are made of the breath of life, its essence, and they land on the page still breathing. That, I think, is the mystery and the surprise, for me, and then follows the hard work.

But what kind of hard work is involved? The whole process of editing and re-shaping and learning further meanings from that first draft is an addictive and deep pleasure for me. Seeking to keep the spontaneity alive is also an exciting challenge.

It takes a long time. Many of my poems are in various draft versions for years. Some poems prefer to develop at the speed of geological time, it seems! There is also the phenomenon of the now-and-again poem, as all poets know, which arrives as a free gift. It falls on to the open page through some kind magic and needs only the tiniest of tweaks. But these are rare and seldom occasions. I think perhaps that they only happen if the poet’s radar is switched on all the time.

Here’s some background. I published my first full collection of poems in 1980, when I was thirty three years old. The publisher was Oxford University Press, and my editor there, Jacqueline Simms, created a wonderful and unique stable of poets, including Jo Shapcott, David Harsent, Michael Donaghy, Hugo Williams and Fleur Adcock, to name but a few. By 1998 I had published six collections with OUP, and in that year my first Selected Poems appeared. In 1999 OUP’s superb poetry list was shut-down by The Press, in an act of unparalleled cultural vandalism. The poets dispersed, and continued to play highly-significant roles in the life of poetry in the United Kingdom and beyond, winning numerous prizes such as the Forward Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, and the Griffin Prize. But nothing to me in my publishing life has been sadder than that wilful destruction of a living poetry list.

My 1998 Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In a review in the TSL, Gerard Woodward said: ‘Shuttle is a poet of immense reach, both in the range of her subject-matter and the breadth of her language. She is both an acute observer and an inventive fiction-maker. One senses that she has her life perfectly in tune with her poetry, so that it registers the slightest variation in her state of being. In this sense, the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love that can be traced through these poems collocate into the drama of a life lived in the full flood of being’.

I published a seventh collection in 1999, A Leaf Out Of His Book, with OxfordPoets/Carcanet. They also took over the distribution of my OUP books, including the Selected Poems, which went out of print a few years later.

There was a considerable gap before my eighth collection, Redgrove’s Wife, appeared from Bloodaxe Books in 2006. This was due to the death of my husband, poet Peter Redgrove, in 2003, after some years of ill-health. Redgrove’s Wife contained a number of elegies for Peter, and for my late father Jack Shuttle, who had also died in 2003. This collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Collection, and for the T S Eliot Prize. A ninth collection, Sandgrain and Hourglass, appeared (also from Bloodaxe, 2010, Poetry Book Society Recommendation), again containing elegies for Peter, Dad, and my friend, artist, musician and poet Linda Helen Smith who died in 2008.

I’m most grateful to Bloodaxe Books for their generous and sustaining support over the past six years, and for publishing in October 2012 Unsent, which contains all the poems from my OUP 1998 Selected Poems, with further selections from the three subsequent collections.

It also contains a volume of sixty-two new poems entitled Unsent. Whereas I had tempered my two previous volumes of elegies (Redgrove’s Wife and Sandgrain and Hourglass) with poems covering a wide range of other topics, Unsent is a book of elegies. I wished to include this volume in my New and Selected Poems to create a triptych of elegies. They seemed to fit naturally together. One theme which emerges in this third volume is the question – how long do you  continue writing and publishing elegies? And I try to find and suggest some answers. I felt that to publish Unsent as a stand-alone collection would be asking too much of a reader, an overwhelm. There comes a time (and this is delineated in these poems) when I must cease ‘to weep on the world’s shoulder’.
 
 
 
Cloud to Cloud
 
 
When I couldn’t
bear another day,

I cloud-watched
for dear life –
no two skies alike

Those skies
made plain to me
where my thoughts began
and where they ended

I saw the witch Kikimora
and her white Cat
scudding from cloud to cloud

          Stop weeping
          on the world’s shoulder!

          Kikimora
          spat out her good advice
 
 
 
Your Three Hats
 
 
Your three woollen hats
found such pleasure in covering
your bald head.

King Solomon could have found
no more faithful servants.

Your retinue of Musto hats
ensured
that while two could be lost
somewhere in the house

one would always be available
          at the drop of a …
to take its rightful place
on your crown.
 
 
 
I hope that this new collection of elegies can be read, seen, experienced as part of my life story in poetry, a continuum where ‘the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love’ of my earlier poems are carried on into the narratives of loss, bereavement, and renewal of self.

Now I catch myself thinking of this book as a time machine. It travels me back to the poems of my first collection, when I was a young woman and a new mother, and it fast-forwards me through the rich and complex years with Peter, our shared life as poets, the ups and downs, the landscapes of Cornwall ever-present …. as in this poem about Mylor, a creekside village close to the town of Falmouth where we spent our years together and where I still live.
 
 
 
The Well at Mylor
 
 
At Mylor
the water of the well

bears the armour of the light,
it hides and escapes

and stays still
under its hood of rock

amid a galore of graves
and green leaves,

spring of fresh water
beside the sea,

a find, a treasure,
a pedigree,

no idyll
but the essential source,

now retired
from its work of sole sustenance,

living among memories
of former fame,

a saint’s hand dipping in
like a taper unquenched,

coins splashing down
for reverence, not luck,

from time to time,
a self-baptism,

secret and quick,
for some

prefer their ritual
out of doors,

water understands this,
and loves the brow

fanned with its body
for reasons the water easily guesses,

for it is the one who blesses,
freely,

freely it runs
its long unceremonious

caress
through my fingers,

and on my lips
tastes ferriferous,

blood-hint at the periphery,
pell-mell mint at the heart.
 
 
 
I’m sure I’ll continue to write elegies, for they are a way of continuing to talk to Peter, to Dad, to Linda … but I don’t plan to publish any more elegies. (Though, as the old song has it, never say never!). The poems in Unsent have been a process of release and re-awakening to possibilities for me though language, rhythm and experience. They have liberated me into whatever new kinds of poems I’ll be writing next. Those poem-drafts are already beginning, taking me to new places and opening new doors. What else are poems for?
 
 
 
 
Order Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980–2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) here or here.

Visit Penelope’s Bloodaxe Books author page.
 
 
 
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Sally Read writes about The Day Hospital

© Image by Dino Ignani

  
  
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.”
 
 
 
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“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
 
 
 
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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.
 
 
 
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Islands, the Universe, Home

 
 
 
“You have to mix death into everything,” a painter once told me. “Then you have to mix life into that,” he said as his cigarette ashes dropped onto the palette. “If they are not there, I try to mix them in. Otherwise the painting won’t be human.”

– Gretel Ehrlich, ‘This Autumn Morning’
   
 
 
 
What is this wild embrace? This slipping away of heat from air at daybreak, these clothes made of bird cries being peeled from my body? …
 
Lao Tzu exhorts us to listen to the world “not with ears but with mind, not with mind but with spirit.” Some days I hear what sounds like breathing: quick inhalations from the grass, from burnt trees, from streaming clouds, as if desire were finally being answered, and at night in my sleep I can feel black tree branches pressing against me, their long needles combing my hair.”
 
– Gretel Ehrlich, ‘The Fasting Heart’  
 
 
Order Islands, the Universe, Home (Viking, 1991).
 
 
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High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

  
 
“We point out our wildest lands—the Amazon rain forests, the Arctic tundra—to inspire humans with the mighty grace of what we haven’t yet wrecked. Those places have a power that speaks for itself, that seems to throw its own grandeur as a curse on the defiler. Fell the giant trees, flood the majestic canyons, and you will have hell and posterity to pay.”
 
– Barbara Kingsolver, ‘The Memory Place’
  High Tide in Tucson (HarperCollins, 1995)
 
 
Order High Tide in Tucson.
 
  
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