Saturday, December 31, 2011
The Day Hospital
October of this new year sees the publication of my third book of poetry with Bloodaxe Books. Of all three books, it's the one I'm most happy to see in the light of day. It's the one I hoped most to write, but found most hard. It took a decade of sweat, and a screening of Mamma Mia, for me to give birth to it.
It all started more than ten years ago when I was working as a psychiatric nurse in a day hospital for the elderly in North London. North London elderly psychiatric care turns up some gems as patients: writers, actors, politicians, ageing ballerinas. It wasn't uncommon to stumble across things like a note from Samuel Beckett on yellowing paper, or a George Cross, as you steered a frail body to the bathroom on a home visit. Another striking demographic was that all the patients had lived through World War Two, and most were immigrants-- meaning a huge number had fled Nazi persecution, often as small children. Those few years I worked in the day hospital I began to feel I was living the war, albeit vicariously. Hitler was often spoken of; the horror of the gas-chambers would often encroach on afternoon tea.
One day I was presented with a new patient: an 85 year old woman, Anna, who could barely walk with two sticks, and who spoke so infrequently she was labelled mute. Her mother, a Jew, had died in Nazi occupied Germany while Anna was working in an office in London. The guilt and horror she felt at her mother's death had driven Anna out of her mind-- to auditory hallucinations and frequent suicide attempts. She never married, and had no friends. Her clothes were in tatters-- new tweed skirts were ripped; shiny brogues were torn up from their soles. The best I could do for her, I was told, was to weigh her, and check she wasn't dehydrating. It's fair to say that at this point in my brief career in psychiatry, I'd torn up the rule book and followed my (sometimes crazy) instincts. She wouldn't speak, but I insisted we sat together for certain periods to conduct a one-sided chat, and listen to the London traffic outside. After a while, the rips in her clothes bothered me, and I smuggled a needle and thread into the counselling room, and began to sew up her skirt. She allowed me--in fact made much silent play of appreciating my trouble, patting me on the arm. But as soon as I'd finished, she gravely unravelled my toothy stitches.
It was on an Arvon course, I stumbled across the meaning of these ripped clothes: Kriah, the Jewish ritual of rending clothes in grief. It is, of course, a limited rite, taking place during the funeral. But for this woman, in her guilt, with all her terrible imaginings and unanswered questions about her mother, it could never end.
From there it was easier to broach such subjects, I suppose. I'm sure I planted my naive feet right in her wounds, but it loosened her tongue. She began, slowly and falteringly, to tell me her fears. There were even tiny gestures of affection between us.
When she died, as a young poet, I felt a responsibility to write her story in a poem. I couldn't do it. I tried it at university in South Dakota and produced ten pages of reasonable creative writing, but it wasn't right. I was writing as the nurse, as I often have, but I couldn't give breath and voice to what had happened.
I tried off and on for ten years to write the poem about 'Anna'. It was after 'Broken Sleep' was sent off to Bloodaxe I went to the cinema to see Mamma Mia. I hadn't wanted to see it, but my hair was torn out from checking and double checking the final version of the book, and my family pushed me out the door, claiming it would be a tonic. I did enjoy it. I did laugh. And I couldn't get over Meryl Streep who, even in that film, displayed the emotional authenticity she did in films I grew up on--Kramer Vs Kramer, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Plenty. The book put to bed, I decided to have a Streep-fest, and I started with Sophie's Choice. You couldn't pay me to watch it again. Streep is utterly convincing as the concentration camp survivor. She got inside the mouth, the brain, the gut, and the heart of the woman. Almost without thinking about it, I sat down next day and wrote Anna's monolgue. Yes, of course, a dramatic monolgue. I had to get into her skin.
Next night I watched The Bridges of Madison County, and another voice came to me-- Agnes from Poland who had dementia and believed the Nazis were coming for her. Almost superstitiously, I garnered as many Streep films as I could--The Deer Hunter, The Hours. It didn't matter what the subject or character was. The way she knew the workings of their very tongues and found, in every soul, the deepest pain--that hollow place in the heart--helped me hear voices, and more voices: Bridget who never left the flat, Pat who'd had a lobotomy, Maurice who felt so rootless, Daniele who threw himself off a roof. They came as if dictating to me.
I finally ran out of good Meryl films, and, eventually, the voices stopped. But here were twelve men and women, talking over the course of one day in London. Twelves lives, and a voice given back, I hoped, to Anna.