Sep 17 2022
Poetry review – 163 DAYS: Rennie Halstead reviews a remarkable collection by Hannah Hodgson which documents the progress of her critical illness
163 Days is a very unusual poetry collection. Hannah Hodgson is writing from the perspective of a young woman seriously ill and facing an uncertain future. It would be easy to fall into a sentimental trap reviewing Hannah’s work. Her personal situation demands sympathy and understanding, but to judge her poetry through that lens would be unfair to her. Her work needs to stand on its own feet.
The collection is in two parts. The first part charts the time Hannah spent in hospital when she was 16 and 17 and suffering from an undiagnosed digestive tract problem. This section is laid out as diary entries for almost all of the time of her hospitalisation. Alongside the left-justified diary entries are the right-justified medical notes that relate to the day, giving a counterpoint to the poems, and juxtaposing the emotional reactions of a young woman facing both pain and uncertainty with the clinical and objective commentary of medical professionals.
The diary poems are very variable. Most of them are very short, four of five lines. Some are mainly matter-of-fact responses to Hannah’s day, concentrating on her physical state. Others show the emotional impact of her treatment, and these are the most powerful, characterised by startling imagery.
Inevitably, the medical science comes into conflict with ideas of empathy and well-being, and in places the medical response seems unfeeling, given that the patient is 16 and on a children’s ward. This conflict becomes apparent early in Hannah’s hospitalisation, when the medical staff insist on the removal of cards because they are unhygienic, a week after admission.
26th January My friends have sent cards - I put them on the wall in a triangular bird formation. Infection control arrives on the ward, orders them down.
PHE ENGLAND NOTICE OF REMOVAL OF.
PRODUCTS WHICH COULD INHIBIT THE ABILITY
TO PREVENT INFECTION SPREAD
When Hannah is first admitted as an emergency case, the medical staff have no idea what is the matter or how to treat her. After a month of treatment, the staff are still uncertain of the nature of Hannah’s condition:
27th February Bemused, the House Officer says: “You need to tell him he’s a very clever man, then ask him to refer you to someone else.”
Patient in good spirits. Observations remain amber, and vitals remain shaky. Physical examination reveals possible torn muscles due to extended periods of. vomiting
During the course of Hannah’s six month hospitalisation, her relationship with the medical staff goes up and down.
2nd April “I’m sick of my bleep going off and it’s you,” my nurse Denise says, so she admits to altering my observations on the iPad. She rolls her eyes an hour later when I faint, insists I’m just anxious. She won’t give me medication, is pleased when I start vomiting. She knows I enjoy crafting and smiles as my stomach tie-dyes my top yellow.
[No entry recorded]
A whole room of people jump
like cutlery on a slammed table.
The Consultant shouts:
“Yes, I’ve never seen your condition before
but I am perfectly capable!” He storms out.
Patient asked for a second opinion, but I assured her we are consulting with experts in the field—–.——————
The Consultant tells me to prepare this body
for a slow demolition of lost function.
We informed Hannah of her probable diagnosis from the Specialist Centre. She has an appointment in outpatients soon with Professor McNulty, who provided this diagnosis. She seems to be digesting the news
It’s easy to see everything from Hannah’s perspective. She is in a critical condition many times, and the staff’s uncertainty about how to treat her must have been terrifying. She endures endless medical procedures as the staff seek a diagnosis.
These conflicts are not typical of all of Hannah’s experience. The dedication of the book says: ‘I want to say more than a ‘thank you’ for saving my life repeatedly and offering the highest level of care with a smile. I wouldn’t be here without you.’
Putting the medical element of Hannah’s diary to one side, there are some parts of the diary stand out for the sheer beauty of the imagery. On the 21st January, two days after admission from A&E:
For days, my mouth has bubbled like a cauldron, unable to pronounce words before they pop.
By February, the slow progress in reaching a diagnosis is undermining Hannah’s confidence and by 19th February Hannah is feeling like a specimen:
My bowel is coiled, a snake resting in my abdomen. The doctors tests its reflexes, see if it will strike after being antagonised. There is no response. The zookeepers glance at each other, bury their faces with clipboards.
Hannah describes the uncertainty of a lack of diagnosis, seeing herself as an archaeological site that is being investigated for buried treasure:
9th May The doctor scans the ground of my hands, paces up and down my arms with an ultrasound - an archeologist struggling to discover artefacts. She finds fragments in my left inside elbow, a glimpse of riches once ravaged by another junior. […] She extracts riches of dubious value, sends them to the lab for appraisal.
By the end of May, there seems to be a change of tone in the entries. Diagnosis appears to offer some clarity, and the possibility of release. The poems become more internally focussed.
31st May The body is a Jack O’Lantern, attracting unhelpful moths. My face is calved and rotting, flame soon to retract into smoke. All insides have disappeared, nobody saw the vandals. They came in the night and took me with ladles. 12th June I am a princess locked in the tower of my skeleton.
By 30th June, facing the prospect of going home with an uncertain prognosis, Hannah reflects on her hospital stay:
In these six months, the ward has become a garden — […] There is a field of wildflowers which grows at the same rate as hair follicles from my bald patch. Once I stumbled on a parliament of crows who were soon to begin a post mortem. Finally, doctors feel my body has earned the key to its own front garden.
Hannah’s Mum packs their belongings, including:
a singular photo I keep on the mantelpiece of my chest as a threat to the body, a reminder of where I’ll go back to.
The second part of the book – ‘After Care’ – is a short collection of poems written in the aftermath of Hannah’s hospitalisation. These poems are strikingly different, often with a surreal feel that creates a vivid sense of confusion and turmoil when facing such personal uncertainty. ‘Death Inc.’ envisages a sales meeting for the dying, offering an opportunity to subscribe to a policy called Next, ‘the premier experience of death’
I’m here to inform you about Next, a new product for clients in your condition. Please form a queue and start your Next policy with an advisor after this presentation.
Hannah takes us through the options the policy offers: occasional return trips to earth, appearance in dreams, provided you complete the survey correctly. ‘We know the difference between truths, so consider everything / before you answer.’
The poem concludes with a dreadful finality,: ‘haven’t you realised yet where you really are?’
‘Dancing with a Doctor’ is a plea for a non-medical relationship with a doctor through the image of a dance. Previous attempts to establish personal rather than professional relationships have foundered:
She tried to dance with me until I fainted. I saw it then, the medical flickering, making her face a lighter. She remembers my body as a candlestick, that I am nearly spent and she tries to scrape the wax of me off the windowsill.
Now, the patient wants to be seen as a real person, not a case:
Tonight , she must remember I am sequins. Yes, a pulse, and she makes it quicken.
The surreal ‘Mermaids on the Brain’ sees the patient’s body through the prism of mermaids dying through lack of care:
I’m sorry to have to tell you this over the phone, but I’ve got you scans in front of me, and I am concerned that the mermaids we’ve discovered aren’t receiving the care they need. Their scales are falling off. This can be very painful
The mermaids are referred to specialists ‘in playing conch shells’, but nothing helps:
I note the fisherman gave you a final warning about the size of our nets.
Even the necrotic hagfish are dying. They ‘can’t breed at the rate you’re killing them.’
What stands out in this remarkable collection is the determination of the author to face up to her health issues. Hannah finds beautiful imagery to describe the inner turmoil of the seriously ill, and sets it effectively against the scientific, objective language of the medical professions. She takes us into the recesses of our nightmares and brings us back to consciousness with power derived from facing suffering, and coming through the other side. It is a plea for emotional intelligence. Highly recommended.