Former International Book & Pamphlet Competition winners Ann Gray and Hilary Menos explore why we are moved to engage with illness through poetry, and how poetry can help weather the day-to-day realities and aftermath of illness.
In 2018, Ann Gray was selected by Liz Berry and David Constantine as a winner of the International Book & Pamphlet Competition, for her collection, I Wish I Had More Mothers, an exploration of her mother’s dementia journey. The following year, Hilary Menos’ Human Tissue was likewise selected by Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt and Amy Wack. Human Tissue tells of a family’s experience of kidney donation, after the kidney failure of Hilary’s son, Linus.
Hilary: For me, writing poetry is a form of show and tell, it’s my offer to the world. I say ‘Look, I have made this — do you like it?’ I wrote about Linus’s kidney disease and my experiences of kidney donation because they happened. Illness is part of living and when it happens it gets written about. And when we talk about illness, dying and death are always waiting in the wings, and isn’t that what it’s all about? Sex and death? Love and death? Always death, anyway.
Ann: I used to be disciplined, work harder at poetry and keep notebooks. I’m lazier now for lots of reasons, now I’ll write more out of necessity. There is so much work out there, so many excellent poets writing, so much younger work that is exciting, that I feel very strongly that a poem must have something to say. It doesn’t have to be something new, but it needs to say it in a new way. So, I would say I write because what is happening to me needs to go down in words (that’s how I make sense of it) but also because I hope it might speak to someone else. They might say, yes, that’s exactly it. I had hoped that the Alzheimer’s society might stock I Wish I Had More Mothers. I have taken it to dementia conferences and I know it speaks to others.
Hilary: And I’ve been contacting the main kidney organisations hoping they will help publicise Human Tissue. I see poetry as a bridge which crosses the gap between reader and writer and allows two people to connect across time and space. We reach for poetry in times of trouble because we are social animals and we need to share, we need to get comfort from others, we need to know that someone else has suffered the same thing. A poem is a tool brought back from another place to help others deal with their own experience, deal with the the human condition.
Ann: I absolutely agree with you. Though one doesn’t have to have lost a child to be moved to tears by Rebecca Goss’ work, nor had breast cancer to engage with Jo Shapcott. The whole human condition is a minefield of love and loss and we pick our way through it with the help of poetry, art, music and being out there in the natural world, the sun, moon and stars of it. As we read Jo or Rebecca we are moved to think, yes, this living thing is hard.
Hilary: So how does poetry help? Is it a kind of secular prayer? It contains heightened language, it can sound like prayer. Our Father … Dearly Beloved … Once upon a time … Perhaps phrases like these put us into a ritual place where we can process death, dying and illness at a profound level.
Ann: Yes, totally. We can be alone with a poem, read and re-read and return to it in times of trouble, just like a piece of music. It gives comfort, like the ritual of repeating a prayer. I have no faith as such, but on a wonderful day, find myself spreading my arms to the sky and saying, thank you!
Hilary: When I read your poetry about your mother I feel your compassion, your love, your tenderness, and this makes me feel more compassionate towards others, because I feel the value of it. I feel more human.
Ann: Same for me, I can feel for you and I am there with you in your poems.
Hilary: One organisation that is focussed specifically on the crossover between poetry and medicine is The Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine, which publishes poetry written by medics, and poetry by poets writing about medical issues. One poem, ‘Triage’, which didn’t make it into my pamphlet was published in the Hippocrates Book of the Heart anthology. But what about medical language – can you make catheters and cannulas poetic?
Ann: I‘ve written for the health professionals section of The Hippocrates Initiative and both poems are in an anthology of medical writing, called In their hands. ‘Birds’ was a prize-winner and then ‘Without Us’ was commended before the Mothers pamphlet was put together. There are some great doctors writing both prose and poetry, again, I would argue, from necessity; spending time so close to death is like being on the edge of the other world, if there is one, and, yes, absolutely, it can be poetic.
Hilary: My biggest difficulty writing Human Tissue was trying to write about some very personal experiences but without falling into the bloodletting trap. Sometimes it feels as if readers would prefer poets to just open a vein onto the page. They want blood. But – as they say – if you get your tits out all they look at is your tits! Obviously all poetry comes out of lived experience, but a poem must be more than that; the experience has to be transmuted into something separate, different, something which stands alone and carries its own truth. It must allow for a connection between my experience and that of the reader, making space for others to bring their own stuff to the poem and find their own meaning in it. It’s hard to judge whether or not you’ve done this.
Ann: I think it all boils down to the same issue. If you open a book about cancer, for example, and you think, ‘Do I really want to know about his cancer?’ Then the poems aren’t good enough. I wrote two poems about having leukaemia. I needed to write them, but I’m not at all sure they are good enough or strong enough or different enough to go anywhere. I would be thinking, as I wrote it, do we really need another book about cancer? I thought I was so unique and was so devastated when I was diagnosed, but a year later I know 1 in 12 people have some kind of blood cancer, so if I want to speak about it I know I’ve got to have something pretty stunning to say or they will think, ‘so what?’. I think my terror is always a “so what?” poem.
Hilary: I guess you just have to write what you need to write, and then wait until you have some kind of vantage point or perspective on it, in order to see whether it’s worth putting out there. There’s a lot of waiting in poetry, I find.
Ann: Whilst I agree with that, I found myself impatient with the writing about dementia, cased in poetic language that made it more beautiful. I found myself wanting a poetry that could scream about it, the incontinence of it, the biting and fighting on the really bad day, the sheer tears of it, and I wanted to write from the perspective of drowning in it. I came to this as time went by and the long poem that really screams was written after the pamphlet, so you won’t find it there.
Hilary: I’d like to read that poem. One difficult thing about writing poetry in which someone can be so clearly identified is the fact that you are making public information that may feel very private. I didn’t want to give specific medical details about Linus’s health – that’s his business. I had to find ways of writing what I wanted to write which still protected him. How did it feel writing such intimate poems about your mother?
Ann: I have always been influenced by writers like Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Matthew Dickman, so many others, and reading their work gave me permission. I understand what you’re saying, but I think there is a tenderness in all my writing about my mother and father which allows me to talk openly about their difficulties but protects them because it is never unkind (I hope!)
Hilary: There are big differences in form and style between our two pamphlets, but both aim to tell a story. I was really impressed by the way you built a narrative through a series of glimpses into your mother’s life.
Ann: I found it really good to get a collection of my mother-poems together and I was able to chart the narrative in years and months, which was interesting and poignant. I had several poems which had individually done well but hadn’t fit into a published work, so I was able to work them together. I have to say, it’s something I enjoy, having the work and then making it into something whole. Also, I had neglected my work for a long time and getting the poems together for a deadline was a challenge and made me focus!
Hilary: They work together beautifully. I Wish I Had More Mothers is a real testament to your love for your mother. For me, I sometimes found it difficult to know when a poem was working for my pamphlet; I saw narrative gaps and wrote poems to fit the gaps and almost every time I ended up booting those poems out. I left more and more to the reader to work out and worried that I might lose any sense of narrative because of it.
Ann: I think your pamphlet is stunning. Your poems feel more crafted and more ordered than mine which spill out from the heart across the page without much form. I would be interested to know how hard you worked at them – in comparison, I feel I may have been lazier! I think your language is often more direct but I also think there are similarities in that we both wanted to tell what it was/is like, and that needs a poetic bravery.
Hilary: Thank you. I work on a poem for ages. I like the constraints of a tight form – every poem in Human Tissue is 18 lines, except one which stuck at 14 lines and just wouldn’t budge. I guess I want the sense of tightly controlled emotion, of keeping a lid on it. But I love the immediacy and honesty of your poems, and I think your looser form is really suited to your subject matter – it reflects the slightly rambling, disjointed nature of people with dementia. This style is really difficult to pull off and relies on either lots of work or an excellent ear for cadence and line endings. I’m thinking of Sharon Olds. You think it must be easy to write like her but it really isn’t.
Ann: Ah, If only! I write with the music in my head, the line breaks, the ordering of the words. I read and re-read and read aloud. I know immediately if it will work or not. I can craft perfectly adequate poems, but those are worth nothing. I have some form in there, the occasional sonnet! I’ll use form if I want it to work in a particular way. I’ve written a sestina, ‘All Day Breakfast’, when my mother was obsessed with breakfast and prepared it every time my father turned his back, so the kitchen was awash with Weetabix and grapes. The sestina was repetitively satisfying for that story! I’m tired these days and if the writing is difficult, I’m less patient. I have to find a way to deal with that and persevere.
The heart of what we are saying is that if the personal poems are good enough, in whatever form they are in, the story becomes universal and that is the job of a poet, to speak to the world.
I Wish I Had More Mothers
by Ann Gray
Would having more mothers make the loss of one less painful? Following her mother on her dementia journey, Ann Gray shows us that in the chaos there can also be tenderness, humour and love.
We both loved this moving, tender collection of poems which explores what it means to have and to lose a mother. The poems in this pamphlet are lyrical, carefully crafted with a lightness of touch and, so importantly, “unafraid to be kind”. At once a joyful and aching read. – Liz Berry
Ann Gray has a Creative Writing MA from the University of Plymouth. Her most recent collection was At The Gate (Headland, 2008). Her poems have been selected for the Forward Book of Poetry Competition, won the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the Forward Best Single Poem in 2015. She was Poet-in-residence at Cambridge University Botanic Garden for the Thresholds University Museums Project, curated by the Poet Laureate in 2013, and is currently a Co-Director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, now in its 7th year. She lives in Cornwall where she cares for people with dementia.
Not Fade Away
It’s not the letters, the Scott to Zelda,
nor the dress, nor the shreds of feather
boa, the black silk cat suit she wore
that night at Quaglino’s when she swore
she’d never drink again, not with men from
Oxford; it’s late afternoons, nights long gone
what went wrong, that’s what she’s left with.
Cradling a teapot, jiggling its lid
her fingers threaded through the wool,
the jolly orange wool of its cosy, she pulls
back the pages of an album to scan
faces she can’t place; or was that the man
who left the notes she found, folded in a drawer.
Can’t find the cat. Have you fed her? Love you more.
When my mother is dead
Who will be my mother when my mother is dead –
who will draw the blue curtains when we play in the woods
who will put us to bed – who will sing ‘Speed Bonny Boat’
la la-la la nodding her head – who will sit in the back
with the little ones smelling of sick – who will taste salt
on her lips when we’re miles from the sea – who will bottle
the blackcurrants, send me out to pick mint, have girlfriends
called Auntie, keep our secrets. Who will know all our secrets
when my mother is dead – who will sleep in her bed?
Who will say, my firstborn, my eldest daughter, remember
the midwife who couldn’t climb stairs, send my father
on his cycle to say, you’d better come home soon – who will write
to her mother every Sunday, run to the post – who will
talk to the strangers who call at the door, look at their dusters
fill their flasks with hot water, cross palms with silver, have her
fortune told. Who will make Tuesday a day to speak French.
Who will sing in the choir – Hallelujah – who will fling flour
who will embroider the kneelers that hang in the pew – who’ll
know who to pray for – who will clean out the rabbit – who
will cherish the needle case, made when I was six – who will
answer the phone if I’ve forgotten a recipe I never wrote
down – who will play the piano, breathe into the flute – who
will sit still while we brush out her hair – who will wear the worn
flowered apron, the knotted rag on her head, who’ll flap rugs
out of windows, dust under the bed – who will jump up and down
when we’ve won – who’ll be north pole – be the sun?
Ghazal: time is gone
Was there a time when I could talk to you?
Was the way you lived always fraught for you?
You complained I was cheese to the chalk of you,
all my wildest plans had no thought for you.
Your life, a bottle tightly corked by you,
is blowing away, way to the North of you
and everything I ever thought of you
lost in the present need to care for you,
to bristle when passers-by balk at you
or when small children stand and gawk at you.
I want to swaddle you and cradle you
safe from the way your mind has stolen you
Mutti, I hear you say, and who are you?
It’s Ann, I’m here. I’m standing next to you,
sad the way you live is so fraught for you,
the time is gone when I could talk to you.
by Hilary Menos
Exploring the tension between our need for spiritual comfort and the stark realities of science, Human Tissue tells of one family’s experience of kidney donation — their fears, hopes and losses — together with the history and future of organ donation, and the hard truths that people who live with chronic kidney disease have to face.
There is a genuine pressure of content in the best of these skilfully managed and imaginatively engaged poems. The evidently real life story as it unfolds is quietly told and affecting. – Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt, Amy Wack
Hilary Menos was born in Luton in 1964 and studied PPE at Oxford and an MA in Poetry at MMU. She has worked in politics, journalism and theatre, and co-ran a 100-acre mixed organic farm in Devon. Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. Her second collection, Red Devon, was published by Seren in 2013. She lives in France with her husband and one of her four sons.
The Mud Man
The Mud Man squats in the copse,
his one long leg slung out like a telegraph pole.
From the back he looks like a minotaur having a massage.
From the side he looks like a bull with a bone in its mouth.
From the front he looks like a gymnast doing the splits,
a one-legged gymnast with no arms.
Close up he looks like old cake
his shoulders shedding crumbled chocolate,
his face a slipped scree of icing,
the side broken open to reveal the darker sponge,
a slurred mess weeping, the crust and flake
caught up in his firework hair.
We must fed him every weekend, says my son,
and we do, even the dog, who sniffs his face
then pees on his branched foot.
The Mud Man looks at me through struck flint eyes
and mutters a requiem for you, for me, for us all,
through broken slate teeth.
Tonight, after the bath and the bedtime story,
somewhere in the space between hanging
and folding damp towels, I kneel down. From here
it is barely a breath, a slow tipping forward,
until my forehead rests on the tiled floor.
In our story the children thrown down a pebble trail,
escape from the woods and find their way back home.
I fold the corner of the page to mark our place
and smooth down the hair from a sleeping face.
Nobody knows how a story ends.
Here’s a pocketful of pebbles, and a mountain of crusts.
Here are small white pills to be taken every day.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
I follow your trail to the copse and kneel down,
rest my forehead on a damp carpet of moss.
The Mud Man whispers to me in a dead language.
Noli timere, he hisses. But I am afraid.
I do not know how I got here and I will not pray.
Lying on the hospital bed late at night
with the cannula in my arm starting to sting
and a bag showing fluids into me at a rate
that tightens my wedding ring
I write a letter to you, at home with our son,
and bury it deep in my notebook
between special diets and rest results and plans
where only you would look
just in case anything goes wrong.
Up at six, down at eight, out by twelve, recovery till two.
I’m counting hours. It won’t be long.
I love you.
They are going to come and wake me in ten minutes.
I examine a spatter of old blood on the wall.
I am preoccupied by the precise arrangement of sheets.
Look after our boy. I know you will.
They say the gift blesses the giver.
Blood pressure, temperature, pulse rate, blood sugar.