Tag Archives: Sally Read poet

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.”
“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.

Sally Read writes about her poem ‘Breaking Fish Necks’

© Image by Emidio Gorgoretti

Sally Read is the author of two books of poetry, both published by Bloodaxe Books in the United Kingdom. The first, The Point of Splitting, was published in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Jerwood-Aldeburgh prize for best first collection. The second, Broken Sleep, came out in 2009. Her work has been recorded for the Poetry Archive and anthologised in The Forward Book of Poetry 2006, Bloodaxe’s Identity Parade (2009) and The Picador Book of Love Poetry (2011) among others. Sally’s poetry has been translated into Italian and a Selected Poems in Italian is in the pipeline. In 2001, she was the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. She has worked as a teacher and a psychiatric nurse and is poet in residence at The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs.
What do anal sex and fishing have in common? This was the question I was most asked after I read what was for a while my best known poem, ‘Breaking Fish Necks’. In the poem the protagonist has anal sex for the first time. I stopped using it at readings; I didn’t include it on my Poetry Archive cd. I felt it would become a ‘signature poem’ and I disliked the knowing leers and questions from male members of the audience that it provoked. Then, Mia Lecomte, organiser and director of May 28th’s Madrigne for La Compagnia Delle Poete, included its Italian translation in the script. I called her up and told her I’d rather not perform it. But she pushed my writer-buttons: it’s a fine poem, it’s significant, it isn’t titillating. Plus the script is written.
When my Italian husband went through it with me in Italian he freaked, “Santo Dio!”. The mother in law has been shipped over from Sardinia to babysit so he can drive me and my tough New Yorker friend Rosie (who’s been through everything from armed burglary to 9/11) to the venue and steal me out through a side-door afterwards, under a blanket. As Rosie drawled when she read the script
“Honey, are you sure you wanna do this? You don’t wanna be the poet who took it up the Hershey tunnel.”
Why do people assume poems are real, and what’s in a poem is what a poet has done? Well, mostly because it’s true. Most of my poems are, in some way, an account of what I’ve personally been through. Except the exceptions. Anal sex is a thing I’ll bet most women have been confronted with, even if, ultimately, like me, they opted for anal virginity.
“What is it with men and the ass these days?” Samantha in Sex and the City asked (in the days when it was a fairly intelligent examination of the modern mating game). Yeah, what is it? Most men seem to want it (not all). The man at the centre of the poem ‘Breaking Fish Necks’ was always after it. And he gave me my favourite ever lines from a decade of dating in London:
Me: “You’re telling me you’re leaving first thing in the morning, that you don’t even want to spend the weekend together, and you want to have anal sex with me?”
Him: “We’d be having anal sex not building a shed.”
This same guy used to fish when he was a lad – out with his pa on the Great Lakes, bonding, drinking beer, and doing guy-things. But he stopped because he couldn’t stand breaking the fish’s neck. His dad thought it was more humane to snap the neck than let the fish flap about and suffocate on the bank. What a sweetie my guy was. And then I got to thinking (as Carrie Bradshaw might have said before she sold out to foreign location and greed), how this same guy was intent on us performing what, for me, would have been a painful, unhygienic, and ersatz act. I asked around friends: Who had, who hadn’t. The nearest I got to consent was a friend who told me it was “The agony and the ecstasy”. Oh, and someone I worked with: “Well, if it keeps ‘em happy” (bless them).
The poem, it strikes me (at a distance of eleven years since the writing of it, it does seem penned by someone else) is about women not breaking. The man able to intimately dominate and undo a woman, and not have her fall apart. The desire to illicitly find the nub, the rub, the kernel that is nothing to do with her womanhood and the gift she has of creation. And not kill her. Not really. Unlike the fish “too easily become the dead weight of flesh …” She is easier to play with. To walk away from.
The poem almost became classified as an ‘erotic poem’ – a label I strenuously resist for it and all the sex poems in my first book The Point of Splitting. Now I’m out of the London dating game, I see the willingness of a lot of women (not all) to feed desires that have nothing to do with love or procreation as sad. Many of us are help-mates in the perpetuation of our own loneliness, or ultimately, childlessness. About to turn forty, my peer-group is witnessing the impact on women of a legacy of contraception, abortion, and work-above-all-else. Women who, suddenly, want a baby. After two decades of assiduously trying not to fall pregnant, it’s now not so easy. The term ‘Culture of Death’ springs simply and silently to mind.
The vagina has become a second class erogenous zone.
How, in hell, did we let that happen?
Breaking Fish Necks
The next afternoon we tried anal sex
and as you coaxed my neck with your thumbs
I thought of Wolf’s Creek
and the fish you wouldn’t catch,
plump trout necks you couldn’t bear to break
and take home dead to your mother.
In the warmth I knew my arse
was soft, the downy peach.
But what was beyond drew you in:
a core, sensitive, harsh
like a peachstone –
its coarse ridges, fine strings
caught in grooves
where flesh is torn raggedly away.
Here, at the kernel
of spine, cat’s-cradle of muscle,
you tried to undo me, cupping my hips
with your hands, breaking me patiently.
As we paused, I did loosen
but held together
around this hardness,
in the brace of your arms
till we rolled apart
and I healed slowly over.
You stopped fishing years ago.
You only used the stillness,
the bronze film of water
to will the fish deeper.
You couldn’t watch them
choke on air or feel the snap
of delicate bones
between forefinger and thumb.
Or walk the mile home
swigging a beer
with a wet chill on your hands,
and flashes of silver skin
too easily become
the dead weight of flesh
slung at the bottom
of your pack.
from The Point of Splitting (Bloodaxe Books, 2005).
Order The Point of Splitting.
Order Broken Sleep.
Visit Sally’s blog, The Far-Near.
Read more of Sally’s poems at The Poetry Archive and The Poem.