Gareth Writer-Davies turns his sardonic, minimalist eye life, illness and a linking thread of a diagnosis, where symptoms get taken seriously when doctors realise your family history. “Christmas Lights” is set at a time of anticipation of potential gifts but the poet is “waiting/ for my diagnosis” as well as the big switch-on,
thumps down the switch
I will try to be good
please don’t send death
in his fat red suit”
“Mrs Eliot”, presumably the second one, muses,
“but in the unremembered green plots
are bones of those
never in the first rank of celebrity
in the biographies of their more famous other halves”
She concludes, “most poetry is forgotten// it is the troublesome dead/ whose words are written”. The implication seems to be that you need to play to the gallery and create a dramatic life to be remembered since your work will be forgotten. I’m not convinced and suspect those who are not forgotten were both talented and troubled. However, it’s true those in supporting roles who enabled the celebrities are rarely remembered.
The diagnosis thread is clearest in the poem of that title. A family history of cancer gets your doctor’s attention,
“but I am alert to aphorism
it can tell
what I want to hear
I’m sorry; there’s been a mistake”
Most patients want to know what’s wrong. But when the answer to that might be the disease that sent your father to an early grave, what the patient really wants is to be reassured that the doctors and consultants might be wrong. The symptoms might be explained away as something else, something non-terminal and the answer might be a course of anti-biotics. The possibility of misunderstanding is raised again in “Gas” where a quote from one of Sylvia Plath’s letters suggests a rejection or misunderstanding but further reading reveals a story of a nursed baby bird who didn’t make a full recovery so Plath and her husband ended its life by gassing it,
“‘plucky little bit of bird’ she writes ‘I can’t forget it’
which is both touching
Ted doubtless felt differently about the matter”
It’s Plath’s letter so Ted Hughes’ reaction is not revealed, merely speculated on. Plath is made the sentimental, nurturing one, Hughes the rational, realistic one. These roles have elements of truth. Plath’s “The Rabbit Catcher” takes a horrified view of discovering poachers’ rabbit traps. Hughes’s poem about the incident in “The Birthday Letters” mostly records Plath’s reaction, implying it’s natural to find poachers’ traps in the countryside and this shouldn’t be shocking.
There’s a wry humour in “Dead Poets” where editors think of poets “the same way that doctors dream/ of a hospital/ without patients” and death might increase sales so editors plot with more than a red editing pen. “Twisting the Sheet” is wise after the event, so easy for people tot up the symptoms with the benefit of hindsight that they overlooked in life. However, there’s a sensual metaphor too,
“twisting the sweaty sheet and gathering myself
in a grimace
of concentration, wrinkling my brow
flaring like an engine
as I came back down to earth, with a shudder
nobody knows which bed Death
for a small death unnoticed”
La petite mort, ambiguous as to whether it’s a brief loss of consciousness or a post orgasmic shudder in a daze of fever.
The title poem, fittingly, is at the end, focused on when the credits roll at the end of a movie and cinema-goers have the chance to move out into daylight again. Likewise a cancer diagnosis need not be fatal.
“The End” is a collection of poems with gallows humour and a soul of brevity. Gareth Writer-Davies’s wry observations and minimal expression suit the overall tone of the poems. The short stanzas, with some lines pivoting on one word, offer plenty of space for readers to engage and think around what’s being said.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.