Feb 12 2024
Poetry review – HALF OTHER: Emma Storr admires an extraordinary account of the joys and sorrows of twinship by Peter Wallis
I’m so glad I was sent Half Other to review. It’s a wonderful, varied collection with a strong narrative about identical twins, one of whom becomes seriously unwell in adulthood with a rare brain cyst. I found the book particularly interesting as the mother of twins myself (non-identical) and as a doctor, although neurosurgery is a little beyond my expertise as a GP.
The book is divided into two sections, Identical and Unidentical. In the former we meet John and Peter at birth, born nine minutes apart ‘in the time it might take / to heat a pan of frozen peas’. Family life and memories of school predominate. While there are occasional dark poems, overall this introductory section is a celebration of twinness, the boys enjoying their novelty status and closeness. Their identity is so entwined, even they are unsure who is who in family photographs and there are no childhood images of them as individuals.
In “Ark”, John and Peter line up wooden giraffes, camels and other animals on Nan’s ‘savannah of lino’. The pairing is obvious, genderless and very satisfying:
Like wooden footprints, like dancers unable to move, change places or choose, like us. On course up the gangplank, our river of twins was flooding the Ark – Noah and his sons, poor singletons.
The flood of twins boarding the boat is a glorious inversion of the Biblical story and suggests the power of twinship as well as the pity expressed for those who are mere singletons.
In “Novelty Race” John and Peter have the advantage in a three-legged race at school, striding in and winning, although it is a bittersweet victory, ‘a half-sporting triumph’. Everything is shared – prizes, spoken sentences and later, traumas.
One of the poems I enjoyed most in this first section was “In Round Through Off” in which Peter learns to knit. This activity becomes a survival technique, a distraction from pain and suffering. Feeling homesick and scared at Aunt Gwen’s house in the summer holidays as a young child, Peter copes by knitting:
I knit, obsessively, too – blanking out thought, time, blanking myself with ceaseless activity, In, round, through, off, my mantra for fingers. Needles tick. In, round, through, off. Squares grow like months of a year completing a life. In, round, through, off. I steadily work at my blanket.
The repetition and pleasing idea of needles ticking off time instead of the expected ‘clicking’, helps us appreciate the way Peter is marking the long days away from home.
Identical lays the foundation for the following poems in Unidentical, when John and Peter’s paths through life take very different directions due to the craniopharyngioma (brain cyst) that John develops. Peter returns to knitting as a way of managing the extreme stress of witnessing his twin having repeated brain surgery:
I carry on. In, round, through, off, as if knitting your life, breath by breath.
Repetition is an important feature of the second half of this collection, both in form and subject. The first poem “Scan” is written in short couplets, poignant and devastating. Death lurks round the corner as John gives Peter his wallet:
like removing your teeth and it lies in my hand like a cloven hoof.
There are five subsequent poems titled “Scan”, all numbered, and in each John’s wallet reappears, always associated with a negative image because it carries such huge emotional weight, as in “Scan #23”
I hold your wallet gutted, like something just caught I hold the gape
The closeness between the brothers highlights the pain Peter feels as he sees his twin go through many operations, lose his sight and end up with a ‘forehead dented like a badly patched road’. Peter is guilty, ‘my untouched face is a mirror of lies’, fearful and bewildered. These emotions are beautifully expressed in the poem “NHS Targets” in which the speaker fantasises about inhabiting various personal items in the hospital that surround John.
I want to be the gown you wear done up at the back like Houdini. [“Hospital Gown”] I want to be the catheter snaking up under your sheet. I want to insinuate myself but be discrete. It feels that necessary. [“Catheter”] I want to be you so you don’t have to. [“You”]
Many poems capture the desperation and boredom felt by a relative waiting in hospital for news, always dreading the outcome. Despite the life-threatening situation, Peter often manages to inject humour as well as pathos, evident in “What can I say” and “Daily”.
Three poems are written in list form giving different definitions of the title word. “Admission“ starts with ‘ :of entering :granted :right or permission’ and ends ‘:the price paid’. This structure is a very effective way to make us reflect on John’s admission to hospital and Peter’s reaction. The multiple meanings and subtext emphasise the trauma both twins are experiencing. “Nurse” and “Discharge” are also written in this style.
John’s treatment for the craniopharyngioma continues for many years and his recovery is slow and difficult. However, hope and joy emerge as time passes. The two facing poems “From Westminster Bridge” return to the theme of celebration of twinship on the occasion of the 21st birthday party of the UCL Twin Research Unit. The first one starts: ‘Twins swarm, and mass together, / clot; bright haemoglobin at a wound’ whereas the facing poem begins:
Joe Public can’t believe his eyes, stops, applauds the day turned biblical. A plague of twins, writhing in unison beside the pond,
Not a rain of frogs, not boils, nor a cull of first-borns, but the joy of twins. Released into the community, they stroll away, in pairs, a kind of homoeopathy.
The last poem in the book “And What Good Has Come of It” makes me weep. Peter goes to visit John on their 62nd birthday:
And as he opens the door one step above, I look up as if into a mirror, just a little distorted, and he throws up his arms, and cries, Let joy be unbounded!
Absolutely. Let joy be unbounded for both John and Peter and this astonishing, moving poetry collection that speaks to the pain and pleasure of twinship and the close bond between brothers who have shared and survived the challenge of severe illness together.