(Bloodaxe Books, 2012); pbk, £8.95
Sally Read’s new collection, The Day Hospital, comprises twelve monologues in the voices of elderly psychiatric patients inspired by patients at the London day hospital where she had previously worked. Of these twelve patients, two are indigenous Londoners, four are Irish immigrants, and four Jewish refugees. Separation from family and friends through migration is just one aspect of a general theme of loss which runs through the collection – loss of health, youth, loved ones and, sometimes, end of hope.
Read’s first collection, The Point of Splitting, was published in 2005. The Day Hospital is her third book; the poems collected within were written several years after she stopped working as a psychiatric nurse when the voices of her patients became poetically more lucid. Indeed, as she wrote in a recent blog: “It was as if I was listening to dictation and had only to transcribe.” It is also intriguing to discover that, having been a lifelong atheist, she converted to Catholicism during the writing of The Day Hospital; she wrote in the same blog, “The saving element for many patients I would, now, call grace. The moments of lucidity, and even joy, in patients, I would also call grace. Even in pain, I would locate the divine.”
From my perspective as a former psychiatrist, I found it disconcerting that three patients had not received psychiatric diagnoses. One such is Maurice, an ageing Jamaican:
I spend my life
in hospitals. Hospitals is like some
intact galaxy. You get born in them,
you work in them, you occupational
terapize in them, you sick in them,
you die in them. You don’ need
leave the place at all.
Another patient, Barbara, also describes an unhappy life and one wonders how therapeutic psychiatric day hospital attendance may have been for either of them. Perhaps one of Read’s motives was to suggest that the boundary may sometimes be blurred between stress-induced and psychiatric illness.
My favourite character was Bridget, a depressed Irish widow with agoraphobia:
It is years now I wear
the old flat like a coat,
its pockets stuffed
with screwed receipts.
Bridget retains vivid emotional images of a life outside her flat:
The nip of Jameson’s washes
through me like a man’s
five o’clock shadow on my cheek.
The man’s shadow goes through me
like a cold walk in winter fields.
She seems resigned to her continuing agoraphobia through the repeated refrain that: “Everything outside will come in.”
To write about schizophrenia is challenging but I feel that Read meets this challenge skillfully with subtly nuanced changes of topic and rhythm. Anna is a Jewish woman who left her mother in Germany and engages inkriah, the tearing of one’s clothes in grief and anger at the loss of a loved one:
I keep blood from letting
I keep questions from being
answered and the sun from
weakly darkening, I rock
and tear and rip the buttons
from my shirt.
To write from the perspective of a patient with dementia is an even greater challenge; this is a condition from which people do not recover to write accounts of the experience, and in which insight manifests itself only in the early stages. Read, however, very successfully captures the repetitive, fragmenting, tenuous hold on memories which is such a feature of dementia:
How quick a man’s mind
Down the dock.
Down the dock. Down the dock.
Clank. Fast-moving feathers, smell of mud
and fish, crack of ice, pint of bitter,
a hot black window.
These poems are moving, empathetic and insightful. While it might be a pity that the author no longer works as a psychiatric nurse, her poetry might yet have wider and more enduring effects.