Sodium 136, Carole Bromley

Calder Valley Poetry, 2019     £7.00

We are people

In this series of poems charting her stay in hospital for brain surgery, Carole Bromley does not mention her hospital number, or describe the surgery itself. No, what she does so well is chart her physical and emotional reactions to the approaching operation and then its consequences. She illustrates hospital experiences that, from time to time, many people have to face alone but in company.

She gives us insights into the reactions of her family, remembers her dying parents and shares glimpses of other patients and staff peopling the circumscribed world of the hospital.

The relationships with other patients and staff are necessarily fleeting: people are represented with first names and sometimes with physical or behavioural identifiers that individualise them. There is an over intimacy in these first names. They represent almost all we know of these people in their vulnerability — pushing drip stands, going to the toilet, or in their night wear.

These are people in need of each other while facing what is almost impossible to face. Through them, Carole Bromley quietly celebrates our humanity, vulnerability, interdependence, and individuality. There are touches of humour and a number of the poems end with stinging or poignant last lines.

Bromley reveals her own vulnerability and strength in ‘The Unpacking’, the central poem in the collection (it literally straddles the centre pages) and shows us the effect on her family in an equally charged poem, ‘High Dependency’. Having described the noise and confusion of the ward, she touchingly concludes:

We are people. The Polish man is Mika,
the screamer Audrey, the old man Barry.

The wards and beds have numbers — one poem is called ‘Neurosurgery Ward 4 Bed 8’. Sodium levels have numbers — 117, 118, 123, 124, and 136 at which she says, ‘I weep with joy’, and the last line of the final poem reads, ‘SODIUM 142. I’m going home.’

Although this moving collection is centred on Bromley’s own personal experience, I looked up from it with renewed appreciation for our shared humanity and, sometimes painfully won, love.

Peter Wallis