This pamphlet on Stone’s husband’s battle with Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis (SBE) – ‘a bacterial infection that produces growths on the endocardium (the cells lining the inside of the heart) […] and, if untreated, can become fatal within six weeks to a year’ – is a stark, honest account of marriage when a spouse has a life-threatening illness.
These poems are written with a sparing style. Stone allows the narrative arc to unspool through the domestic, with the speaker in the bathtub in ‘Unwinding’ or watching her husband’s illness take hold in ‘Pallor’. As Mr Stone’s serious illness becomes more apparent, the language of detachment seems to take over. This is evidence in the titles of several of the poems: ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, ‘Mrs Stone Waits for News’. There is often a sense of dissociation in these poems, as if the speaker is existing in ‘survival mode’, however, finer, specific details bloom through like dandelions in the crack of a pavement: ‘tissues scented / with lavender’, ‘the gold pinstripe of her white dress’, ‘liquid, which should be clear, / darkens to rust / with too much blood’. This may sound like an impossible dichotomy, but in my experience, trauma is both vague and vivid, sharp and blunt, often simultaneously, and this pamphlet deftly demonstrates that phenomenon.
Like in Rebecca Goss’s collection Her Birth, as well as in the work of Hannah Hodgson and Helen Dunmore, this pamphlet takes us into hospital, and we see the full, unsterilised truth of it. In In ‘Mrs Stone Drives Home from the Freeman Hospital’, the worlds of inside and outside the hospital merge, the rest of society seemingly continuing with ‘the blossom and barbecue smells of late May’ despite the Stones’ reality, yet the psychologically inescapable fact of her husband’s hospital room haunts Mrs Stone: ‘Even in my car waiting to head home, / I am in that room with you’. In ‘Bear Hug’, Mrs Stone connects with a woman, remarking, ‘we share the same complicated / relationships with our mothers’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, there is a piercing moment of powerlessness and inability to protect a loved one felt by many relations of the unwell, shown simply through the words, ‘I had not done enough / to bring you back’. Foreshadowing is also woven into the narrative arc, particularly during the poem ‘Mrs Stone Tries to Stop the Rain’, in which Mr Stone wonders, ‘Is this where the infection began? Pressing a sponge to soak to pooling water, / bacteria creeping into barely visible cuts on his hands?’ By this, I was reminded of Jenny Downham’s YA novel Before I Die, in which Tessa, the protagonist, who has cancer, reflects on her pre-diagnosis days by exploring her childhood, through hindsight, using startling imagery of potential signs of what was to come: ‘the butterflies crisped up in jam jars’ ‘my Uncle Bill got a brain tumour. At his funeral…the grave earth wouldn’t come off my shoes’. This seems to be a human eccentricity, how we look back into our pasts for warnings that we did not heed or see, yet the fact is that sometimes we just cannot ‘see things coming’.
The scenes of this pamphlet are perhaps more familiar to us as a consequence of our experiences over the past year and a half than they would have been pre-pandemic. Arguably, the scenes in ‘Mrs Stone Visits Her Husband’ – ‘the cold gel’ which ‘seeps / into the broken skin of her palms’ – would not have been so instantly recognisable to us all if we had not had to wash our hands so frequently or confront serious illness and death on a daily basis, collectively rather than individually. The almost-godlike quality with which Mrs Stone depicts medical professionals caring for her husband corresponds with our pandemic-formed view of NHS staff; in ‘Mr Stone is in a Loop’, ‘nurses glide’ around Mr Stone’s bed (this ‘gliding’ instantly prompted me to think of angels). In ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, she declares, ‘I don’t need faith. The gods are here.’ This need to put our trust in medical personnel surely rings truer now than it ever has done.
Something else that feels familiar as a consequence of Covid-19 is the craving to regain life exactly as it was prior to an episode of uncertainty and loss. In ‘Mr Stone’s Bionic Heart’, the speaker reports how she ‘took Valium so [she] could sleep / with [her] head on [Mr Stone’s] chest’. Later, in the pamphlet’s closing poem, ‘Mrs Stone Lies Awake’, Mrs Stone states, ‘I’m trying to get back to where we were. / Praying it’s as simple as putting my head / on your chest and falling asleep’. Perhaps it will be this ‘simple’; perhaps it will not. As we emerge from lockdown, we are yearning for ‘normality’; perhaps this is conceivable, perhaps it is implausible. All we can do is try.
Olivia Tuck 17th August 2021