Drawn from her past observations while working as a psychiatric nurse in London, Sally Read’s third collection, The Day Hospital, contains dramatised accounts of twelve patients over one day in a psychiatric hospital in London. Despite their longings and compulsions triggered by different personal encounters, the obsessions of these patients bear a strange resemblance to each other. History looms in the background, as the patients come to terms with their past experiences and present reality – the invasion of Poland, Auschwitz, political unrest in Ireland, racism in globalised cultures. Compared to the notion of madness expressed in Plath’s works, Read’s approach comes across as a more philosophical enquiry, bringing into perspective the convergence between personal history and collective society.
The boldness and lyrical language in these dramatic monologues articulate the coherence and transformative power of self-obsessions. The fragmented stories of marginalised individuals in London are imbued with a drowning sense of loneliness and anonymity, set against an urban landscape where affection and understanding are lacking: ‘words are gunned down by cars’ (p.8) and ‘birds sing up here, for no one.’ (p.53) In ‘Maurice’, the Jamaican recalls a history of failed relationships and yearns for sexual intimacy. Through the story and language of Maurice’s self-delusion, Read parodies the untruths in the propaganda of social inclusion and acceptance:
the rightest person in the rightest place.
You got your Pakistanis and your
Bangladeshis and your Ghanaians
and your Indians, your Turks
and your Italians, your Poles
and Portuguese, all glitter…
after fifty years
who knows what home tastes like. (p.29)
In ‘Agnieszka’, the Polish Jewish immigrant is asked repeatedly to share details of her personal life (e.g. her age, her marriage, her children) and tested for her general knowledge (e.g. name of the prime minister). Seeing these questions as intrusive and pointless, Agnieszka turns her attention to the vivid surroundings: ‘if they had asked about a broken plate/ on a red floor/ I could have told it’ (p.19). Her ability to observe and recall, in painstaking detail, distinct episodes from the past and the present – her disappointments with Benny Best, the death of her father, wartime Warsaw – gives her voice authenticity. Agnieszka misses her homeland, the ‘normal Warsaw’ misplaced as a ‘dislocation of bone’, and recollections of fragmented conversations in Polish suggest an impenetrable past. The ultimate escape she seeks is portrayed as a necessary escape from danger, and draws sympathy from the reader.
I find it slightly disconcerting, however, that the sensitivity and textured quality of language so adeptly expressed in her previous collections The Point of Splitting and Broken Sleep, is missing from this collection. Perhaps the dramatic characterisation of voices and the search for a more assertive, confessional language have tilted the balance.
The poignancy in Read’s poems lies in her observation and use of bold metaphors. In ‘Bridget’, Read captures the protagonist’s fear of losing volition and individuality with the refrain ‘the unlocked door is jammed with post/ Everything outside will come in’ (p.37), and with her symptomatic reactions against an intoxicating world of rituals and acts (‘the nip of Jameson’s’), while her heart remains as tender as ‘melted butter’ (p.36), ‘the loudest thing in this blasted flat’ (p38).
In Read’s Far-Near blog, she refers to her new book as a piece of ‘verse drama’ rather than a poetry collection, highlighting the ‘visceral engagement’ in it and how ‘the full blast of God seemed to come at me over and over again’. Her interview with The Tablet informs the reader how religion has changed her as a writer. From an atheist to a declared Catholic, Read experiences religion as a sudden, dramatic epiphany when writing The Day Hospital – an inner space filled with poetry and intense emotions. In ‘Theresa’, despite the protagonist’s devotion to Mother Mary, rude speech from the external, brutal world interrupts her thoughts: ‘Eat shit and die!/ Feck the lot of yez,/ Cock-sucking bastards…’ (p.15) This creates guilt and necessitates redemption: ‘So my hours are strung and even there the darkness collects like muck.’ (p.18) Despite his religious appearance, Father John is corrupted by affluence and power, and bears a stark contrast with the blurry faces of ‘poor/ foreigners with the sandwich-boards and banners’ (p.16).
Written with ambition and fueled by an intense and unpredictable language, The Day Hospital is an intriguing collection that explores the inescapability of personal past and questions superficial understanding in society, while revealing the complex, hidden voices of the marginalised.
Jennifer Wong’s works have appeared in Warwick Review, Frogmore Papers, Orbis, Lung Jazz and other publications. Her new collection, Goldfish, is forthcoming from Chameleon Press in 2013.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)