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Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

In this vital pamphlet, Hannah Hodgson, who lives with a life-limiting illness, addresses disability, hospitalisation, and isolation at a time when the disabled and unwell are frequently treated as voiceless statistics.

With no romance or affectations, this pamphlet painstakingly examines what the ill want from the well. One often reiterated wish is for no self-pity; a demand of able people to not ‘hijack tragedy’ with their tears. In ‘Dear Visitors’, the speaker has ‘become a tiger’ and the ward ‘a zoo’, who asks of those who have ‘paid their entrance fees at the nurse’s station’: ‘Don’t maudle, as the captive here that’s my job.’ The speaker goes on to tell the visitors to be themselves, ‘Reveal a little / of your flesh, trust I won’t rip you apart.’ – to bring the things that the speaker loves into the sterile clinical setting – ‘Talk of the wild, talk of home’ – even to help them escape the sterile reality: ‘meet me at midnight with the bolt cutters’. Later in the pamphlet’s arc, in ‘Everybody Loves a Dying Girl’, the speaker bluntly states: ‘I wish to reject my sainthood – illness doesn’t cure me of a personality’, dispelling the widespread dialogue that suggests unwell and disabled people should be eternally optimistic and ‘inspirational’. 

The poems shift seamlessly between the concrete and the abstract. This is prevalent in ‘There is an Art to Falling’, a poem written after Kim Moore. Here the speaker offers seemingly everyday imperatives: ‘Drink water – if you can, // eat something – if you can’, before crossing over to the abstract: ‘reignite the furnace of your body, / blow on its embers’. Similarly, in Kim Moore’s poem ‘The Art of Falling’, imagery moves fluidly between commonly used turns of phrase: ‘to be a field and fall fallow, to fall pregnant’, to imagery such as ‘leaves / like coins of different colours, dropped from the pockets of trees’. One could be forgiven for thinking that the concrete and the abstract could not possibly exist in as small a space as a single poem, but impressively, the mercurial nature of these pieces proves otherwise.

The particular relevance of this poetry in 2021 is palpable. One only has to look at society’s treatment of the disabled and the chronically ill pre-pandemic. Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow addresses themes that have become eerily familiar to us all over the past year. Throughout its pages, we encounter a man left with ‘staff unable to move him – his death a macabre art installation’, a consultant who cries, ‘deserted by her superpower’ as so many of our essential workers have been during the Covid-19 pandemic, the removal of a mother’s body by porters and ‘the bed space marked vacant / on the computer system’, the constant stalling and rhetoric that comes with the delivery of bath news: ‘another step in the wrong directionthere’s no easy way to say this’. There are also poems that speak of shielding, giving voice to those who have had to remain inside with little contact with the outside world for many months due to being at high risk of Covid-19 complications. In ‘10th April 2020’, the speaker reveals that ‘The GP rang this afternoon, / trying to talk about a DNR order. I refused, / instead told him about starlings murmurating / and all the living I have left to do’.

This pamphlet features symbols that we have come to associate with death in poetry, for example, the crow, as in ‘Leaflet dispensed by crows who circle around the resus bay like overstated authority figures’. Again, this poem feels startlingly topical in its imagery: ‘Each cell is a police officer / clad in riot gear’; ‘As the Prime Minister of your body, remain calm – / pretend everything will be fine (even though it won’t)’, but in addition, it seems to be communing with poems such as Ted Hughes’s ‘Examination at the Womb Door’, in which death is the overriding force: ‘Who is stronger than hope? Death. / Who is stronger than the will? Death.’ However, the notion of the ‘womb door’ in Hughes’s poem synthesises birth with death. Birth and death are also synthesised in Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow, for example, in ‘The only person I knew with my condition’, in which the speaker discusses a fellow patient, whose name the hospice has added ‘to the roll call of the dead; / wooden hearts which hang / above the nurses’ station, / the opposite of a baby’s mobile’.

I was captivated by the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘Decompose With Me’, written after Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Small Female Skull’, as we experience the pain of this world alongside the speaker, and leave changed. This is the work of a poet of honesty with an effortless ability to articulate the near inexpressible. 

Olivia Tuck 17th May 2021

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

As with Ted Hughes’ animal poems that go beyond animal nature toward ourselves, so it is with Richard Livermore’s animal poems. There are several in his latest collection, The Mummiad: New Selected Poems, his second book from Bibliotheca Universalis, where one feels uncomfortably closer to the true nature of some of our fellow humans, or even to ourselves. In ‘Jaguar’, the big cat could equally be a too-young man dared by the gang, lurking in the shadows of a city nightscape, ‘a tiptoeing/ shadow of death, jam-packed/ with muscle and power’ who lies in wait to kill his prey ‘with a single bound;/ black flowers adorn him,/help him hide in the dappled/ half-lit undergrowth/ he is in his element in.’ The feeling of being under threat is stirred up from our collective unconscious in part by his mastery of echoes aural and visual of Paul Celan, news items, as well as memories perhaps we all have of walking down city streets or secluded country lanes at night, of ‘being what he can see/ in the dark. . . .’ In ‘Lioness’, this point that we have more than a little in common with the behaviour of animals and wild animals at that, is made clear when the poet brings us up close to those for whom ‘you are nothing but the next meal, the next occasion she can feed.’ Then there are the wildebeests, the tiger, lion and ‘the serpent in the garden,’ the ‘dragon in the armadillo,’ the gecko carrying on as normal in a war-ravaged land. Yes, it’s animal behaviour being described, we are animals, thus through the poet’s alchemy of imagery, Jungian allusion and the poems’ padding, four-legged rhythm we hear also our human behaviour being described. We face up to it on these pages. The poet reminds us we face up to it nightly on the news, too, as in the violence of the state recalled in ‘Black Wind’: ‘Arrest that wind,/hands up, don’t shoot,/I cannot breathe.’

As one might expect from a collection titled The Mummiad, the vulnerability of the body, birth and death, time, fate and rather than the intervention of the gods, more likely their absence, are recurring themes. In ‘The Body in Question’, the body of younger years is missed, but not without appreciation for the benefits of getting older in terms of experience and understanding. One of the many things I admire about Richard Livermore’s poetry is he never overdoes things – he knows just when to stop. Through technical skill he manages to articulate complex feelings and subtle ideas for us all, concisely, leaving plenty of space around each poem for our own reflection. In ‘Daisy, Daisy’, he explores his own birth both through its historical circumstance and its innocent, everyday occurrences – we are indeed born into both and this poet’s attention to both brought this reader, for one, up short with the realisation that the philosopher’s dictum ‘know thyself’ begins with this examination of all aspects of our moment of entry into the world. Life, give me your answer, do, each poem pleads. The leavening in it all is the poet’s characteristic play with words, his calling upon our shared inherited gift of language with all its idioms, rhythms and mythology, so that, for instance, when he writes, ‘-time has me by/the late and earlies’ there’s recognition and delight.

The only niggling disappointment about this book is that the quality of Richard Livermore’s writing has not been matched by the copy editing, where each poem’s translation by Roxana Doncu into the Romanian is printed not on the facing page but overleaf. Seekers of lexical similarity will have to flip back and forth – no great hardship since there’s plenty to detain one on every page.

Beth Junor 25th September 2018

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