Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: Beauty By Hannah Hodgson


Emptying a stoma bag is a transferrable skill –
an icing bag of shit piped down the toilet.

Summer is heavy in painful bones. Heat
and urgency, my body a car aflame

on a hard shoulder. When I get naked
for the first time with my girlfriend

she doesn’t comment on my lingerie;
my body’s lace of scar tissue too distracting.

When my life became a symptom
I became an informational campaign,

like those on the back of cigarettes.
My mother couldn’t look at me without grimacing.

Tesco had given me priority delivery –
until I spent two weeks in hospital,

where I was briefly pronounced dead,
cancelling my slot automatically.

It is a characteristic of Hannah Hodgson’s poetry to face the music head-on. An endurance course of unimaginable proportions, her relationship with terminal illness and with palliative care defines her approach to poetry, has become her métier. A witness to the fragile intractability of her own body, Hodgson is uniquely placed for self-examination, for harrowing exposure to the gaze of others, like a life model made of ‘scar tissue’ whose figurative lacing transfigures the viewer’s preconception of the perfect form into another kind of aesthetic judgment.

Beauty, here, is double-edged, supremely ironic, subordinating considerations of form to the declension of identity, even of physical presence. The spare couplets are morse for gradual disappearance, almost as if the poet were a function of her illness, her life measured in drips and stoma bags, and, in an heroically sardonic dissolution, ‘an icing bag of shit piped down the toilet’. The reader is not prepared for this degree of honesty, but it is an uncomfortable truth that demands to be heard.

Hodgson’s bravery in bringing this inventory of physical deterioration before her audience contributes further to the separation of subject from object, making of her narrator an open book, a ‘symptom’, a medical curiosity whose organic necrosis might subsequently become a case study. Fag packet warning images are an entirely apposite simile - the more visibly moribund, the nearer to the corrosive reality of carcinoma.

That Hodgson continues to catalogue her experiences is one sure sign of resistance to a natural proclivity for abandonment, not least to the commercial dispassion of companies who turn off the lights, send bills to the deceased, or cancel supermarket priority deliveries with the brusque efficiency of absolute disinterest.

Beauty is a poem of rare, invaluable insight.

‘Beauty’ is taken from Queen of Hearts, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher, smith|doorstop

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