Reading this little chapbook of poems, eleven in all, I kept thinking ‘Why am I moved by these glances into the life of a hospital?’ The answer when it came was something to do with the compassion and care threading its way through the tone of Sally Flint’s poems. It brought to mind the article I had read by Gavin Francis yesterday in the review section of The Guardian. The article revolved around that masterpiece from 1967 by John Berger, A Fortunate Man. Gavin Francis presented the reader with a brief account of Berger’s book, ‘a collaborative work that blends John Berger’s text with Jean Mohr’s photographs in a series of superb analytical, sociological and philosophical reflections on the doctor’s role, the roots of cultural and intellectual deprivation and the motivations that drive medical practice’. The article also quotes Berger as stressing that he is ‘a storyteller’:
‘Even when I was writing on art it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.’
Sally Flint’s pictures of the ordinary and echoing history of hospital workers, those whose lives are touched by the intimacy and importance of what they are committed to, strike a bell of familiarity: one almost gets to know the characters as one would within the margins of storytelling. In ‘The Hospital Punch’
‘Henry, the anaesthetist, who swayed
like he’d sniffed nitrous oxide all his life,
un-wrapped one of the biggest sterile bowls
used to collect swabs in theatre.
He carried it like a ceremonial platter
to the staff room, leered over his spectacles
and said, ‘What we need is alcohol.’’
Within the narrative a baby/child has died and Nancy, one of those who will be at this ceremony of recovery, is ‘swollen-eyed / as the grey-faced parents she’d consoled’. Within this world of professional commitment and loss boundaries are melted as Big Marlon, the porter, brings glasses ‘out of store’ and tips into the bowl a hip-flask of rum whilst whispering the half-bitten cliché ‘It’ll warm the cockles’. As the wake continues the question of bringing the dead back to life ‘wouldn’t sink’:
‘It was nobody’s fault, we chorused.
Life wasn’t ours to give or take,
except for the exceptions—
when we’d fought and won.’
This carefully-poised poem, poised between the banality of a moment and the stretching eternity of responses to death, the echoing in our minds of Donne’s meditation in which he says ‘No man is an Island’, concludes with a sharply-drawn picture which could come from Black Mountain Michael Rumaker’s story ‘Exit 3’:
‘Slowly, Henry began feeling
dents in the locker doors
when the junior doctor said he couldn’t stand
the heat. As the sun slipped
behind the hospital chimney
he swung at the window, made his fist bleed.’
This little press, Maquette, from the University of Exeter, is worth keeping an eye out for and they can be contacted at 7 Grove Terrace, Teignmouth, Devon TQ14 9HT. Later on today I am looking forward to reading the third volume that has appeared from the press, A Plume of Smoke by Jos Smith.
Ian Brinton 8th February 2015