Poetry review – SHIELD: Emma Lee finds a powerful message within Jamie Hale’s very personal poetry
Jamie Hale was warned by their doctor that they would not be a priority for critical care treatments due to underlying health issues as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. Shield is a sequence of unrhymed sonnets that explores the implications of that painful decision. In the first sonnet, ‘crying silently and telling him this’ the narrator writes a letter to his doctor asking not to have a Do Not Resuscitate order,
i'd rather die fierce as myself, every time every bloody time, so i tell him what i do wave my accomplishments my desperate shield of fragile silk; i hide and tell him i have value over and over and over and over as if i wasn't sat at the keys crying silently and telling him this.
When resources are scarce, their use has to be rationed in some way. However, whereas a widget’s use can be rationed by employing it on reduced hours, making rules to ration resources for humans is harder because humans differ in their levels of need and abilities. Rules, no matter how robust their logic, will always be unfair to someone. But the government’s introduction of a rule that disabled people would not be resuscitated in order to free up ventilators for non-disabled people was not robust, but, in fact, cruel. A disability is not a measure of talent or ability. Forcing people to justify their existence and prove they are just as entitled to help as anyone else, is unjust and prejudiced. Here a list of those justifications feels fragile. A young adult will not have a list of accomplishments an older adult may have, but a young adult has potential and hasn’t had the opportunity to demonstrate it. A shield is meant to protect, but the list of accomplishments is as delicate and transparent as a flimsy fabric. Disabled people frequently have to go through this process of justifying themselves in order to access welfare benefits and assistance. It is demoralising, to put it mildly. When the stakes are life or death, it is devastating.
In sonnet xii, ‘they’ll save anyone before you’ the narrator is watching the settings on their ventilator, remembering a brother’s advice,
remember love is based on tides as they come in closer remember to bring your own ventilator remember if they're overwhelmed they'll save anyone before you.
Familial love isn’t consistent, so the image of tides is apt. The pandemic was also referred to in terms of waves. Treatment required ventilators and their use had to be judged and prioritised. Someone with a good chance of recovery would be prioritised over someone who periodically needs a ventilator. It’s hard to feel that love when you’re regarded as disposable.
In sonnet xviii, ‘the final, beautiful, honest, word’ Hale tells us
sometimes i dream that someone sees the poetry in these stark words and draws it out says to me my comments are tender stories but please let's make this art take these ghosts let someone else give them the final, beautiful, honest word.
The desire here is to make connections, find someone who understands and would convert the words into poetry – something that might live on if the worst happens. The final sonnet, ‘say the epidemic gave them, at least, a fighting chance’ turns to death
if i die take my ashes and put a pinch in each envelope of flower seed favours left after our wedding send them to friends think of the seeds Ed planted in Lombardy growing wild and weedy under lockdown say the epidemic gave them, at least, a fighting chance.
This death brings hope, ashes mixed with seeds and planted so their flowers grow. It brings back a memory of seeds planted by a friend who was prevented from traveling to tend them during the pandemic so the resulting plants grew wild and were allowed to bloom in contrast to the narrator who was in peril from a ‘do not resuscitate’ order.
Shield describes a journey through what it feels like effectively to be told your life is not considered worthy, your accomplishments do not matter. It raises wider issues about how a life’s worth is measured, how the disabled have to work harder to make their achievements known and recognised. This book invites us to shift focus from the label to the person. It’s also a tribute to a spirit of determination.