163 Days

Hannah Hodgson
Publication Date: 
Monday, March 28, 2022
No votes yet

Longlisted for the Barbellion Prize


“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


Review by Rennie Halstead, London Grip

Saturday, September 17, 2022

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

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]

   3rd May
       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—–.——————

   14th May
       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 your 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
     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.

Review by Kay Channon, Disability Arts Online

Sunday, September 11, 2022

163 Days by Hannah Hodgson provides a long-awaited blend between a patient’s mind and body. Published this year (2022) by Seren Books, this debut poetry collection, sparks an intimate two-way conversation between the seriously ill body and the internalised emotions such an experience can create. The first part of this deeply moving collection, recounts Hannah’s longest hospital admission to date in the form of both a daily report and a diary.

The reader relives each of the 163 days as if they are standing beside Hannah’s hospital bed, listening to her unspoken thoughts, whilst reading the doctors notes. Each entry acts as a detailed snapshot from a photograph album, brought to life by language which mirrors the fine stitching inside a piece of crochet. For example, we are told ‘It’s becoming evident that the nasogastric tube is ineffective’, and on the same day, ‘It’s winter inside my bones’.

This surprising blend of the medical alongside the metaphorical is created by Hannah through the rewriting of her own medical notes (as the hospital retains the copyright of the originals) and micro poetry. Hannah’s ability to switch between the two styles, creates a wonderfully vivid collage that ‘speaks’ of the disconnection between how a patient’s body is described by the medical profession, and how it really  feels to be seriously ill.

The medical notes act as sterile bullet points. For example, we are informed that her skin is pale and her ‘blood pressure very low’. In contrast, the micro poems provide steady injections of pain and describe the removal of precious objects that reflect life beyond the hospital walls. Such as a glitter pot and cards from friends. These micro poems are not only well crafted, but emotionally raw. Make no mistake, these poems have no intention of attending a ‘pity party’. They are full of unapologetic tactile imagery, a feature which appears in abundance when Hannah reads them live. There is no denying that the blankets ‘smell of vinegar’ and that ‘Normalcy is long gone’ through the presence of a ‘badge maker’ and ‘Cath Kidston tissues’.

The second part of 163 Days focuses on after care. In this part of the collection, hope is often in a state of flux. Or, to put it another way, always changing. It grows and then dwindles, through the act of sending flowers or sleep disturbances. We learn, as readers, that for Hannah, comorbidity, that is having more than one medical condition, ‘isn’t death’, but a train with ‘the same passengers’, surprised by their ability to keep moving. Such concepts are presented in stand alone poems. These are just as powerful as the previous bedside snapshots, providing a window seat that looks out onto both fresh and rotting roots. Although uncertainty grows, so does Hannah’s imagination. For example, we are treated to images such as a ‘candlestick’ body ‘dancing’ without a ‘clutch bag’, alongside mundane paperwork to evaluate our time on earth. These inventive depictions, increases awareness of the blood flowing through our own veins. As a result, we are forced to question the rhythms and state(s) of our own body(s) in both the present and the future.

Whether you have experienced lengthy hospital stays like myself or Hannah, you will feel not only intimacy but empathy. The side effects of this collection will linger long after you turn the final pages, re-awakening questions around the mind, body, spirit, and human mortality.

163 Days may depict a fragile body, but it brings to life the voice of a truly gifted, bold, and gritty poet, who more than succeeds in weaving creativity with the bare bones of reality.

Review by Caroline Bracken, Nation.Cymru

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Hannah Hodgson’s new collection ‘163 Days’ from Seren is written from the perspective of a palliative care patient. If this sounds like it might be hard going it is absolutely not.

It is a collection full of life and humour. There are difficult subjects but the poet’s craft and expertise carry the poems and the reader.

The first section ‘163 Days’ is a 44-page sequence reflecting on the poet’s longest stay in hospital. Its brilliance lies not only in the writing but in the structure of the piece.

The diary-entry form is perfect for conveying the passage of time. On the left-hand side of the page are the speaker’s thoughts in italics and on the right are the medical notes and comments in traditional font.

Wednesday 4th February

It’s winter inside my bones,
this body a snow globe.
My scars are purple,
my faith in medicine frozen.
I try to bring it to temperature slowly
before it shatters out of existence.

Low Blood Pressure, Fainting, Vomiting. No change.

This format of internal/external call and response uses the white space on the page to great effect. I found the idea of insider/outsider fascinating. The patient is an ‘inpatient’ but also an outsider to the medical personnel.

They are insiders because they have vital information but are also outsiders because they are not experiencing the conditions they are treating. The level of ambition in this sequence is astounding and something I have not seen done in poetry before.

The second section of the book ‘Aftercare’ is a series of poems about the poet’s illness but also about friendship, love, family, the body, food and all sorts of things.

Each poem is a self-contained world for example ‘Window Eating’ where not a word is wasted, quoted in full:

‘every now and then
i get this craving
for something sweet or salty
so go to the bakery at M&S
as a voyeur of scent
to listen for donuts
gaining their skin
in the fryer
to hold the warmth
of cookies in my nostrils
unable to partake’

This poet is not afraid to experiment with form, ‘Creation’, ‘post pandemic britain’ and ‘The surgery phoned to say the nurse who gave me my flu vaccine’ are fine examples of a poet pushing boundaries, her poems bringing us to places we didn’t know we needed to go.

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.

User Reviews

Sorry there are no reviews yet for this book