Poetry Review: 23:11:18
by Ben Barton
Our reviewer finds a brilliant collection of poems evoking both compassion and fear in The Hospital.
Ben Barton’s The Hospital is the kind of poetry collection you would like to feel remote from: to be completely unable to empathise with because it falls so far outside your field of experience.
Anyone who’s ever stepped inside a hospital – ever felt a flicker of worry about their health or the health of someone they love –will recognise with uneasy dread, the claustrophobic world Barton takes us too.
The individual poems are great – often brilliant. But the collection is so much more than the sum of its parts. It takes you on the darkest kind of hospital visit where you lie beside – and sometimes within – the body of the patient. This isn’t a fleeting visit either; Barton makes sure you know you’re there for the long haul.
There’s the macabre in Gas Panic – so early in the collection that when it grabs you by the guts, it’s sickening – the stuff of nightmares. And it doesn’t let up.
In Warning Signs, Barton strips the language right back – no need for frills or fuss – a hospital is functional and he won’t let us forget it.
Hospital food, the stench of disinfectant and the enforced proximity of men whose bodies are failing, make for an honest and oddly lyrical journey through this particular hell.
Life is clearly a circle – the image recurs as Barton observes beginnings and endings in this strange sterile building: public witness to the biggest moments we humans can manage.
‘Birth and death served together
in one meal.’
Lullaby is a tender poem until the snake swallows its own tail. 360 is angry – the patient unavoidably involved in the last struggles of another. (See Zoetrope for angry too.) Patriarch is far gentler: a moving observation of the death of a father. In its unexpected ending, is it longing or loneliness our patient feels? Then there’s Colin’s Final Scene – so evocative and playful that I might laugh if it wasn’t so simple and sad.
And yet somehow, sneaking in – slipping alongside the stark medical, the middle of the night despair, the disconnection, disconcertion and death – there is a tender hopefulness. There is salt and rain. A sharing of something human – something more than blood and bile. If you don’t believe me, skip to We Laughed Anyway, Friends or Never Born.
Reading it for the first time in the park – vaguely grumpy after waking with a stiff neck – I found myself breathing in deep gulps of autumn air: kicking like a kid through the leaves. I’m not sick, I chanted softly. I’m not sick.
But the nursing homes stared back at me. And the sirens told me Medway Maritime was just a stone’s throw away. Someone is. Someone is.
And so, these poems evoke both compassion and fear. They flood through me until I feel the selfish pulse of healthy blood in my veins – the desperate affirmation of life. Fish and chips. Sex. A pounding race to the end of the street.
Ben Barton – The Hospital
Cultured Llama, October 2018
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