This is a very vital work for a variety of reasons. Prose and poetry are juxtaposed and interrelated as Jeremy Hooker acknowledges he has occasionally undertaken since his Welsh Journal (2001) and it is very revelatory in that regard. The prose records four visits to hospital Hooker, nearing 80, experienced having been affected by a serious kidney condition, and by the end we find he is not yet receiving but anticipating dialysis. The play of the book is between hospital diaries and poems Hooker wrote during the same passage of time, and it is fascinating to note the mutual influences, one upon or against the other.
There is a long opening stretch of prose, about 30 pages, which can acculturate the reader to Hooker’s style and voice. Here one very pertinent assertion is made early on where our author cites Barry Lopez saying that ‘All great art tends to draw us out of ourselves.’ (p16) Lest this seem to work against the ego, and Hooker admits he is not fond of psychologising, Freudian or otherwise, elsewhere he does assert that our self, ego or individuality is what distinguishes us from other species, albeit that Hooker is very much in tune and sympathy with the aims and attitude of ecopoetry.
Although Hooker’s voice tends to the open, good natured and optimistic, he does cite a quote used by John Cottingham from Malebranche ‘To myself I am but darkness’ (p63). He also asserts elsewhere our relative inability to know ourselves, maintaining in a religious mode that only God can know us fully; but Hooker is very much more spiritual and earthy than he is religious.
Hooker is perhaps fortunate in the sense of seeming to be relatively untroubled; if there is a darkness to the self he seems quite reconciled to it, and few doubts or veerings off are encountered, the disposition of the prose is reassuringly positive and stable. We hear about the occasional ‘bad night’ or indeed ‘a night when I thought I might die’ (p11) but not lengthy details or dwellings upon it.
This then makes for a very interesting reader experience. We are as it were allowed access to the ground and forming of the poems, besides which the prose is also highly engaging, albeit that there is anxiety about the seriousness of his condition. In hospital he needs help with movement, sometimes spending long spells in his chair, and with bathing, and is fitted with a catheter. Nonetheless he remains mentally highly alert, and most of the poems are thoughtful, vivid and well formed. I’d regard it as a brave gesture to risk such a precarious journal, given that things could not unequivocally be expected to have a positive outcome; this revelatory predilection is generous and emotionally frank, almost unsparing.
From the prose we are given quite a bit not just of Hooker’s daily activities, and he seemed to enjoy having a window side bed when that happened, and indeed he has a moving poem ‘In Praise of Windows’, some references to his reading and listening, radios 3 and 4, but also his attitude to poetry in general, albeit in passing, but adding up to a kind of orientation. He speaks movingly of his admiration of David Jones, Keats, Lawrence and Edward Thomas, although he cautioned against the ‘danger of Thomas worship’ (p18). Hooker favours the existential, experience, sense perception, even touch, but is pretty much opposed to what he alludes to as system building or excessive idealism. He is unabashed at identifying himself as keeping a poet’s notebook, and some of the nurses found him ‘posh’, though surely not aloof.
Among the selection of poems we conclude with two dedicated to his great grandson Archie. As Hooker says ‘You will not know me,/ Archie, unless in a poem’ (p94). ‘A squib for Archie’ is quite a strong final volley, where he reflects on the peculiar contrariness of death and birth, age and youth, ‘a generation of Toads,/ bouncing in buggies…ferocious with innocence’ who ‘mean no harm’ but ‘intend no good’. Whereupon the final lines here,
‘So beware, oldies,
dads, grandpas, great
Step aside, and instead
of falling, wave as they pass.’ (p95)
and, again, Hooker seems unpessimistic at the mutual incomprehension of succeeding generations, particularly in these changing times.
That Hooker has chosen to be so open about his life at a vulnerable or challenging time I take some reassurance from; the effect is unusual, unanticipated and intrinsically human. It did take a little while to get into Hooker’s poetic voice after the opening 30 pages, but the poems are assuredly well fashioned full of insight, engagement and verve. It is intriguing to reflect on how the poetry and prose differ, certainly, could one deduce one from the other, well probably not, which is one thing that makes this book enlightening. This is a very candid and gently provocative book that I can’t help but feel breaks new ground where others might follow.
Clark Allison 11th January 2022