Celebrating 70 years of public service

Merryn Williams reviews an anthology of poems about the NHS which express both gratitude and anxiety

Poems for the NHS: celebrating 70 years of public service 
ed. Matt Barnard
Onslaught Press
ISBN-13: 978-1912111749
112pp     £10

How lucky we are to have our National Health Service. However much we don’t want to think about what goes on in hospitals (more of that later!), we are profoundly relieved that they are there, and that we don’t live in the Third World. Many of the contributors to this volume are eager to express their thanks. ‘Without the NHS, she would not be here’, writes Joanne Limburg of herself, and Fiona Ritchie Walker, whose grandfather remembered the old days, notes:

Without your saving skills in 1956
ten of us would never have been here.

And Kate Noakes recalls ‘the countless times you’ve saved me, thankfully’ from asthma attacks.

Yet the book isn’t all about celebration. Most of these poets are, or have been patients, or are mourning the death of someone close to them. A few work for the NHS, like Roy Marshall, whose “Student” describes his part in preparing corpses. There is one political poem, “Picket Line, April 2016”, by Hannah Stone, in which we are surprised to see junior doctors with ‘scarves not stethoscopes’ round their necks. Not much is said about the financial pressures on the service or the fact that ambulance crews are regularly attacked.

One poem, “Ultrasound”, is joyful. Ali Thurm has had three children in her local hospital and is awed by ‘the mystery of seeing inside my own body and the anticipation of imagining what kinds of people these unknown babies will turn out to be’:

Stinging scorpion, archer,
capricious goat or water bearer

pixellated star of the silver screen
your constellation rises to meet me.

The metaphor isn’t about actually believing in a horoscope; it’s about mystery.

But many other poems are very dark. While paying tribute over and over again to those who work in the health service, several writers have grappled with death inside a hospital and are not at all sure that they will survive. I was particularly impressed by Alexander Hamilton’s “Dancing with a Crab”:

There is no ‘excuse me’ when dancing with the Crab.
Being a wallflower is not an option.  You won’t know he’s there
until he sidles up and says, ‘Are you dancing?’
No good saying ‘Are you asking?’
This is an invitation you can’t refuse.
Taking your hand, he leads you out of your life. 

Another who has struggled with the Crab is Gordon Meade, as described in “Reflections of the Man in the Iron Mask”:

From here, I am able to smell
the fear of the previous patients.

And Rachel Burns winces as a nurse injects ‘nuclear venom into my veins’. No, we would all much rather not be in hospital.

The quality varies, of course, but there are so many powerful voices here: Wendy French, Owen Gallagher, Lucy Hamilton, Thomas McColl, Gill McEvoy, Lucy Newlyn, Carole Satyamurti, Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle (‘the dead are writing on the ceiling/but the surgeons don’t look up’), Angela Topping. Ruth Valentine, in “Long-Term Prognosis” is perhaps the poet who best expresses the paradox about hospitals. They make us well, they give us hope, but they are also the place where most of us go to die:

When you leave your white hospital bed to someone
with more need of their attention, hope will climb      
up the steep side of the undersheet, lie back

relieved, against several pillows, and, docile, watch
the thermometer homing in on its open mouth.
Hope will be sitting cheerfully up in bed,
surrounded by cards and x-rays and relatives,

while you are wheeled along the corridors,
no longer in pain, a sheet over your face.

Larkin had things to say on the same subject. I must force myself to re-read him.