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163 Days

Hannah Hodgson
ISBN-13: 
9781781726471
Publication Date: 
Monday, March 28, 2022
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“Hannah Hodgson takes us to the paradoxical heart of poetry itself: to be held inside a pain both intensified and soothed by the sheer brilliant presence of the poet’s mind.” – Caroline Bird

Hannah Hodgon is an award-winning poet and a palliative care patient. In her compelling debut collection 163 Days, she uses a panoply of medical, legal, and personal vocabularies to explore what illness, death and dying does to a person as both patient and witness.  

163 Days is the length of Hannah’s longest period of hospitalisation to date. In this long poem, she probes various truths, personal and medical; truths which clash like a tray of dropped instruments in a silent operating theatre.

The speaker is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Doctors struggle to diagnose her complex conditions. Through daily, diary-like poems we see the children’s ward through Hannah’s eyes. It is decked out in primary colours. Volunteer clowns visit. At seventeen she is ‘too old’ to be here, ‘too young’ to move to the adult ward.

The mundanity of hospital life is marbled by a changing landscape of mood, hope and loss. Her symptoms are painful. She has numerous tests and procedures to keep her alive long enough to figure out what’s wrong. A gap yawns between the person she is, and the person in her medical notes.

In ‘Aftercare’, Hannah navigates the worlds of both nightclubs and hospice care as she embarks on a new version of her life as a disabled adult. 163 Days is an important collection, in which Hodgson’s true voice takes poetry into difficult places.

 

Listen to the BBC radio play adaptation of 163 Days on the New Creatives website here

REVIEWS

Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Hannah Hodgson’s harrowing new collection for Seren is the opposite of a forgetting: the ‘black box’ attached to the monitor which assessed the flow of her gastric acids might have outlived her. ‘Interpreted after catastrophe’, the box would have vouchsafed an immediate cause of death, post-mortem, revealed a detached biological record of demise no less thorough, but immeasurably less affecting, than the body of work in which the process is described.

If this brave, brutally honest record is to be valedictory, there could be no more direct, or exposed, means of ensuring the survival of language as celebrant, or of its heightened emotional connotation in times of crisis. Hodgson’s visceral connection with the demands of her body is laid bare in an enactment of her own suffering, as though, like Sinead Gleeson in the vascular scrutiny of Constellations, the painful rendering of truth might transfigure pain into a new purpose, like the threading of plastic ‘through a map of veins’.

But there is little sense of resignation in the frank entries of responses to invasive medical procedures, to head-scratching diagnostic confusion, and to laconic misjudgment of emotional vulnerability. Moved though we are by Hodgson’s journey, at no point are we left without the residua of hope, for a song of hope obviates threnody in the very stoicism of testimony.

Hodgson’s narrative proceeds in linear fashion: her daily ‘diary’ entries – which describe a relentless regime of treatments, both constructive and otherwise – melt seamlessly into a series of heartbreaking poems which find unity in anxiety. But first, the brilliant diptych which divides the narrator’s inner reflections from the observations of the attending nurses and registrars, is an object lesson in the measuring of irony, for the patient’s italicized words set up a desperate emotional counterpoint to the arid speculation of medical jargon. Thus, the poet exposes a palpable, suffering identity amidst a cacophony of nebulous, coolly-served suggestions, and, sometimes, near psychopathic negligence:

She knows I enjoy crafting
and smiles as my stomach tie-dyes my top yellow

An unfolding story is arrestingly delivered: bewildered, self-lacerating and frightened – the patient is seventeen and caught on the cusp of adulthood - 163 Days yields to the public gaze with the frank authority of open heart surgery. And, again in the manner of Gleeson, she finds the means to divulge her condition, and her relationship with those who cannot begin to understand the pain, the compromised dignity and the fear, in acute metaphors of physical necrosis, and of the body’s intransigence:

‘Auntie came today. Out of nervousness
she revealed a family secret.
It has calcified and fell out onto my bed like a molar.
My mother is reaching out an arm,
for now a crater is
threatening to swallow us’.

Hodgson’s overwhelming by an unimaginably cruel illness cleaves towards paradoxical completion at such moments, as if an axis of stability might only be maintained by further immersion in the body’s propensity for suggestion. Some of the most moving passages, here, are honest to the experience of mental collapse. Hodgson’s retreats into a kind of introspective, outwardly uncommunicative, distress are the conditions of engulfment of the kind that consumes the individual, whilst denying, in one telling example, the simple pleasure of food. The straitened, desperately moving lines of the poem ‘Window Eating’ yield a synaesthesial reminder of enforced abstinence, listening ‘for donuts / gaining their skin / in the fryer’. The patient’s suffering is known only unto itself; a journey of one, between uncertainty and palliation, played out to a dramatis personae whose scientific knowledge signally fails to provide the emotional heart that is often most needful.

That the mechanical process of pain drips into the poet’s ideation of self should come as no surprise. Numbness to the worst excesses of infliction enables a detached overview; Hodgson always finds the right metaphor to pinion the labile chambers of biological existence in identifiable terms:

'The Heart MRI opens my chest like a gated garden,
shows the doctors the paths of my arteries,
the automatic doors of my valves and oxygen'.

For there is a forensic component to all medical speculation: truth is often obtained at the cost of language, and it is entirely fitting that Hodgson should instal figurative architecture in a landscape of enervation, as though concentrated reflection might deflect the depressing omnipresence of pain. The work demands an act of separation, of body from mind, as the poet herself suggests in an instructive postscript to her book. Increasingly conscious of the value of cerebral reflection beneath the carapace of biological decline, she reinvents a process of erosion in a language that is consonant.

Hodgson’s unusually perceptive sequence of poems, which conclude this fine narrative, continue the impressionistic naturalism of her voice towards a kind of compromise of hope and expectation. But the setting of limits need not prevent a bursting through of the old self, a craving for colour and energy in a body scarred by an alphabet of debilitation:

‘I want them to forget I’m a cardiac arrhythmia,
forget I’m a venous system, forget I’m necrotic tissue.
Tonight, I am sequins. I’m a lost clutch bag’. (‘Dancing with a Doctor’)

And where the body is inclined to give in to a relentless round of cannula-fittings into non-existent veins, or blood-pressure cuffs that underwhelm the spirit by virtue of repeated application, Hodgson might turn to the darker corners of humour as a counterweight. ‘Death Inc.’ provides an insurance policy for those who might wish to maintain, albeit residual, contact with the living in a negotiated afterlife. This witty inversion breaks, as it must, in the dark concluding line whose question resounds into the long night: ‘Haven’t you realised yet, where you really are?’.

Bleak final lines are a characteristic of Hodgson’s need to come to terms with unresolved fears. The ‘linen white’ of ‘A Blue Jug of Daffodils’ drains the poet’s tableau of energy, turning the comforting womb of home into an alabaster mausoleum, and strewing her way with funereal lilies: ‘Flower roots turn white / shortly before death’. And elsewhere, the weight of decline – illness bears down on the narrator from many simultaneous angles – precipitates a sense of dissolution which yet does not admit of resignation. If ‘Under One’s Hat’ takes a near-sardonic mirror to the limitation of the NHS to rewind the ‘unspooled’, to, as it were, rectify everything in its Hippocratic gift, then ‘What Happened?’ imagines the body’s flight towards fragmentation, towards a frightening sense of nothingness:

‘I stuff newspaper into the gaps left.

Padding my skin, a cabinet of slowly disappearing valuables.’

Perhaps we set the bar of our expectations too high. The poet, artist and musician, Greg Gilbert’s, eloquent examination of his own terminal condition, and of his changing relationship with those around him, in Love Makes a Mess of Dying is framed in a narrative of reinvigorated clarity. The subtle strength of 163 Days is made tensile by the uncommon tenure of Hannah Hodgson’s experience, and harvested in poems that give definition to a complete refocusing of perception.
 

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