my wide white bed by Trish Harris.
Wellington: Landing Press (2017)
RRP: $22. Pb, 70pp.
Reviewed by Liz Breslin.
The hospital sails
like a tall ship
down the crease of the valley.
I am stabilised
laid out on a wide white bed
head facing east.
So begins my wide white bed distilled from journals that Trish Harris kept in her eight weeks as a patient in the Orthopaedic Ward of Hutt Hospital. The central metaphor is that of the bed set sail. It’s explicit in the poems that bookend the collection and anchors the poems throughout with references to moorings, sheets tossing and the eventual freedom of a gangway.
Harris explains, in ‘How the poems came about’ that, “While other patients came and went, I stayed put. I felt like the room keeper. One day a visitor gave me a book, a journal. A journal can be like adding a new room to your house; it gives you private space. That’s a rare gift in hospital.” Harris used her private spaces to make copious notes about her hospital stay. Names have been changed to protect the other identities that weave in and out of the 70-page untitled sequence of poems.
Poems. Or are they? They have been transcribed from thoughts, frustrations, observations, fantasies and sketches. The pages read like a narrative: untitled, undated, left-justified diary entries, breaking off on occasion into indented lists or italicised conversation. A poem pedant might want to see more tension in the line breaks, more depth, more attention to the ways the words are placed on the page.
Still, there are some memorable snatches and phrases, even as you read the whole lot through at a cracking pace, absorbing characters, commentary and ‘the thing.’ This last comes from advice that Harris received from Jenny Bornholdt, ‘if you’re stuck, write about ‘the thing’.’
Writing about ‘the thing’ ensures that Harris gives us concrete details as we navigate the familiar/unfamiliar setting of the hospital stay. Often these things are sorted into list poems, such as on p 61, which starts,
Let’s have a competition! What’s in the nurses’ pockets?
a thank-you card
a flight attendant’s demeanour
sachets of food for cut flowers.
The viewpoint from the wide white bed means that the things which are the things are seen/unseen from a static position, as is highlighted on p 4, in a poem that gives close and intimate details of ‘The new woman next to me.’ This intimacy is skewed because although Harris knows all about her ailments and her ‘chronic constipation’ –
… the fabric bunched at the wall
hides our faces, our chins, our chests.
Except for two small fractures in the pelvis
she says she is well.
She is hoping for a short stay.
I see her arm tug at the bedclothes
her skin loose round the bone
and covered in sunspots.
Maybe before she goes I will see
her face and we will exchange names. (p 4).
The one real character invoked by name is Marvin, or ‘a Marvin,’ as in he from the Hitchhikers Guide. Or a hospital version of a Marvin –
A monotone, pill-toting machine
who in less than 15 seconds
fires medication directly
into your mouth, offers you
a consoling phrase
(from a store of 1,005)
and pats your head with
plastic hands. (p 10).
Harris uses plain language to make commentary on hospital services in New Zealand, with recurring homage to the support staff, such as in this poem on p 49, quoted here in its entirety.
did three knees
and a shoulder.
the cleaner did
A&E at its slow time
5am, the gap between
last night’s accidents
and today’s emergencies.
She cleaned the admin offices
before they started work
and Coronary Care
and then Orthopaedics.
Now she says she’ll do anything
to hop in the spare bed in our cubicle
for a few hours’ sleep.
At times intensely intimate, curiously anodyne and softly political, my wide white bed is an odd, and oddly satisfying, collection. As Harris says on p 58:
Everything is familiar
everything is strange.
Liz Breslin writes poems, plays, stories and a column for the Otago Daily Times. Her first collection of poems, Alzheimer’s and a spoon, will be published by Otago University Press in 2017. www.lizbreslin.com