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Having (and not having) faith

You discover that one of your children has a life-threatening health condition. A kidney replacement is needed. You donate one of your own kidneys — but the transplant fails. What’s left but prayer?

But what if you have no ‘faith’? What if your only spiritual symbol is a solidly pagan tree stump called ‘The Mud Man’? And then even he is removed by the farmer and replaced with ‘an access road’?

All the instinctive features of faith are tried and discounted here: prayer, pilgrimage, fortune-telling, signs and symbols of superstition. Soon science too, in the form of well-meaning surgeons, fails. It is a hard path indeed.

So yes, this sequence — which establishes its own lyrical grace — has a grim setting. But the poems bear witness with truth and rigour, and they are poems from which the reader learns.

Some of the learning’s factual. There’s material about the history of kidney disease, the science of transplantation, the possibilities that may yet transform lives. But there’s also the emotional journey, including worst fears realised when ‘the body rejects the organ, like a bad bean’ (‘in Miracle’).

The method of narration is at all times controlled, careful, expertly handled. I have faith in this poet, in her intelligence, in her careful analysis, in her determination to tackle reality, however difficult.

And all along, two protagonists are learning: the mother (who is also the poet) and her son. I would quote from ‘Fistula’ where that learning experience is beautifully evoked, but any partial quotation would reduce the way vital detail accrues, not to mention the importance of arriving at these hard-won stanzas through other poems.

In fact, if ever the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, it is in Human Tissue, where a glass of sloe gin becomes the bitter-sweet symbol of distilled experience. Context is hugely important here, but so is form. Its territory is staked out in the near-rhyming couplets (not a precise match) of the concluding poem:

Time matures the thing. At least, adds distance.
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense

and pouring a shot of sweet liquor into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous

reminds me of sour plum, of undergrowth,
the scrub, the blackthorn, and the hard path.

Helena Nelson