Ovarium, by Joanna Ingham
The Emma Press, 2022 £7.00
Body viewed as a stranger
I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a pamphlet dedicated to the subject of a giant ovarian cyst. I do like bodily-themed poems, I like the blood and guts stuff, but I wasn’t sure this rather specific subject was for me.
But first and foremost, these are poems full of wonderful sounds, as well as being cinematically clear. There are plays with sounds that made me smile and immediately re-read. For instance, in ‘Nuclear medicine scan’ Ingham rhymes ‘narrow one’ with ‘scanner room’, as the narrator looks at her kidneys ‘glowing gold on the screen / like twin cities at night / when seen from space'.
Broadly, the poems move in chronological order from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. Each poem approaches its subject from a fresh angle. They are confident and experimental, seeking to discover through the act of creating.
Ingham manages to strike the difficult balance of adding humour without undermining the weight of sorrow. The poems feel vulnerable and honest, but unashamed about the entire experience: ‘We haven’t been this animal since childbirth,’ she writes in ‘Bay 1, Elizabeth Ward’.
We also see the history of surgery, including an account of the first woman to survive an ovariotomy. It is fascinating to be given the scope of the subject, including how the history of medicine relates to women at the hands of a predominantly male profession — we still experience the effects of this today.
The opening words of ‘To my belly’ are: ‘Ah, my soft white enemy’. Why this enmity? For years the speaker didn’t realise her protruding abdomen was due to the cyst. The poem goes on to depict all the ways the speaker sought to hide, or get rid of, what she presumed to be unflattering fat (stringent diets, avoiding pool parties). In this way, she invites us to reflect on how we view our bodies, how we can be moved to punish them and act as if they’re separate from ourselves.
Despite my initial reservation, I found these thought-provoking, moving poems a pleasure to read.