Litter Home Page

 Header image

Neil Fulwood

“Spring in the Hospital” by Luke Palmer, pub. Prolebooks. 30pp. £5.50

I work in a healthcare facility. Granted, in an admin rather than a clinical capacity, but I’d like to think that I’ve picked up a wealth of medical terminology over the years. Still, just the titles of some of the poems in Luke Palmer’s stark, honest and coolly unsentimental debut - ‘Schist as Diffuse Axonal Injury’, for instance - sent me scuttling to Google. Anyone approaching “Spring in the Hospital” with no other experience of the medical profession beyond the occasion check up at their GP’s surgery or a few half-remembered episodes of “Holby City” might want to have a browser open to a medical website. Knowing that the hippocampus is “a complex neural structure (shaped like a sea horse) consisting of gray matter and located on the floor of each lateral ventricle ... [and] ... has a central role in the formation of memories” (1) gives ‘Pictures of Trees’ extra weight, as well as strengthening Palmer’s playing off of neurology against leaf anatomy (“All trees have a twist in them;     a turn / to catch light - a phloem ripple”), a juxtaposition that jolts the poem towards its weighty final line.

The natural world threads through the pamphlet like carefully applied sutures. An earlier poem, ‘A Fine Hospital’, trades on the kind of self-promotional sloganeering that has started to crop up on some healthcare providers’ websites, particularly in the private healthcare sector where the online imagery, terminology and blandly interchangeable customer feedback quotes are evocative of upmarket hotels rather than places dedicated to the messy business of rebuilding fractured bodies and lives:

          I can’t remember a better hospital
          Certainly it’s the finest on record ...

          If every hospital was like this one
          we’d want for nothing

The hospital nestles in a seemingly idyllic setting (“Trees too are waking to the hospital”; “the river sings hospital”), but it’s a landscape into which a Ballardian sense of decay and subversion comes crawling. The device Palmer uses is ruthlessly simple: he substitutes “coma” for “flower” and vice versa.

          You were dead on your way to the spring
          In the deepest flower on the flower scale

          Sometimes      the smell of a coma overwhelms me
          It’s like the hospital is in my gut
          We must be thankful for all these beautiful comas

Technique-wise, it brings to mind the Columbine section of Simon Armitage’s “Killing Time” but handled with infinitely more grace and benefiting from the kind of commitment to concision that Armitage all too seldom allows himself. The poem is also part of a larger canvas of language and imagery that not only defamiliarises the hospital setting but reconjures it as psychological architecture: a headspace, as it were. In ‘Post Traumatic Amnesia’, a hospital room warps into something that might have given M.C. Escher a headache or David Lynch an idea for a set-piece:

          The room argues with him      thrusts its edges out
          sharp and furnitured and square with furniture that speaks
          says that it isn’t his room and he isn’t its     The room

          has pictures on the walls of its eyes and it shows him
          photos that look familiar      faces from dream
          or memory or yesterday as the room occurs 

          puts him in his place ...

Why we’re in the hospital, who we’re visiting, is made clear in the fourth poem in the sequence, ‘Things I Cannot Ask my Brother-in-Law about his Car Crash’. This is the list poem as howl of frustration, the concept of litany as understood by anyone who’s ever wanted to punch a wall from of the sheer inability to say the words that need to be said, ask the questions that need to be asked.

          did a sudden lightness | loss | slip in the steering wheel
          charge the crash like lead in your gut | did it jump |
          drop right through your arsehole to the seat | did you
          brace for impact ...

Poems like this and the aforementioned ‘Schist as Diffuse Axonal Injury’ nail the impotent anger of the relative, the visitor, the survivor, the one lucky enough not be in the hospital bed. The sequence progresses via small signs of recovery ...

          We try your face for clues      I see
          you’ve started tracking us

          ... to the reality of the relative’s new role as carer, as described in ‘Answers on Intimacy’, a piece which manages to be both sensitive and admirably direct:

               I bring the cardboard bottle’s open end
          and guide you forward      ease your bud
          into its mouth and cup it       feel something
          in me flowing ...

“Spring in the Hospital” is a sobering read. Palmer’s approach is austere. To use the obvious comparison, language is used with scalpel-like precision. The effect of delineation and negative space - most notably in ‘Rain’ and ‘Lookout’ - evoke the blunt images of radiography or notes jotted in the spiky staccato of a consultant’s handwriting on a medical record. Accordingly, it is a sequence to be read in depth and deliberated over. It is a reminder of the fragility of things and the exhaustive human cost of their repair.

  1. Definition


Copyright © Neil Fulwood, 2019