The Body as Anarchist and Anchor 

Queen of Hearts by Hannah Hodgson 

The Poetry Business 2023 New Poet’s Prize was declared opened a couple of weeks ago; it is open to 17–24-year-olds and will be judged by Kim Moore. This declaration has nudged me finally to review a pamphlet from the 2021 competition, also judged by Moore, which I read earlier this year and has been sitting on my bedside table for six months waiting for me to find time to write about it. 

The pamphlet in question is Queen of Hearts by Hannah Hodgson, which seems to me as good as – and better than – work by much more established poets that gets far more social media publicity and acclaim. I don’t know why this is (well, I do: poetry readers, including reviewers, tend to wait until any given writer has hit a certain critical mass of praise before they join in) but it should be rectified because Hodgson’s work – and that of 2021’s other winners Safia Khan, Karl Knights, and Charlotte Shevchenko Knight – deserves a wide readership (I’m very pleased to find that Hodgson had a full collection, 163 Days, out this year from Seren, which I will be sure finds a place on my necessarily curtal Austerity Christmas list). 

Hodgson’s collection particularly startled (and then sank into) me, not because she is a palliative care patient who brings an unusual, difficult and inspiring perspective to the big subjects like life, death, love, and dildos, but because her imagery, pacing and sheer clarity of thought are just so arresting (“We specialise in living when we shouldn’t. / Death between our teeth, a cold black flag.” she says in ‘Colonel Mustard is Waiting in the Dining Room’). Somehow, Hodgson manages to create a surreal world from hospital and house interiors, where the psychological turmoil of her family comes through as clearly and movingly as her own – perhaps more so.  

While the physical pain of her condition is not ignored (‘Last Night, I Finally Remembered the Screaming’ is a shocking journey into the agony behind the anaesthetised mind) neither is it highlighted or played for pity. And as for fear – surely there must be fear if you live in such a position – but if that is part of Hodgson’s experience, when we look for it (and this is one of the marvels of the pamphlet) we find in its place fury and humour, the former sharpening the latter, and the latter leavening the former. 

There is the fury at her betrayal by contemporaries (“Eight months // of his pretending to be dying, whilst I actually was” – ‘Year 11’), fury at the church (“Our vicar left the Church of England upon legislation / of gay marriage, and when I saw him in ASDA / he walked right through me, a miracle of mine, I guess.” – ‘Jesus Loved Men Too’) and fury at the lack of Covid provision for the disabled (a poem that is difficult to quote from, entitled ‘Do you ever think about all of the photos in which you’re accidentally in the background?’). 

The humour is, perhaps inevitably, dark and generally understated, but there is a wry surreal smile sitting behind many poems here, and which (like Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat) fades in and out leaving only its general sensation until it finally takes on its full form in the Caroline Bird inspired hallucinatory madness of ‘A Family Christmas’ towards the end of the collection. Before that, Hodgson’s humour serves many purposes; for example, to take the edge off the potentially over-depressive ‘Beauty’ where she brackets the central five couplets (which begin “Summer is heavy in painful bones” and end “My mother couldn’t look at me without grimacing”) with two grimly amusing comments (1) “Emptying a stoma bag is a transferrable skill – // an icing bag of shit piped down the toilet” and (2) “Tesco had given me priority delivery – / until I spent two weeks in hospital, // where I was briefly pronounced dead,  / cancelling my slot automatically.” The effect of this is interesting, the archly raised eyebrow almost heightens the power of the poem’s central theme, which is the poet’s own body image, by sucking out of it any trace of self-pity. It is, I think, a deft and mature move. 

The surrealism evokes something, perhaps, of the in-and-out-of-consciousness daily experience of those living with constant serious illness, where the reality of an ‘anarchist’ body and the ‘void’ of being either passed out or sedated appear – through Hodgson’s sharp use of metaphor – to blend with each other into a heightened rather than a diminished level of awareness. In ‘Clairvoyant for the Unconscious’ she describes her bedroom as “the space used to come back / from transparency, reclaiming autonomy / from the void” as she and her parents wait “for the breeze of oxygen to leak / through the window seal of my brain”. This room-within-a-room (both within the stanzaic room of the poem itself) create an almost claustrophobic sensation which heighten the relief of the ‘breeze of oxygen’ for the reader and turn this short poem into an HD evocation of the movement from ‘transparency’ back to consciousness. 

One of my favourite poems here is the wonderful ‘translation & interpretation’ of Jules Laforgue’s ‘Complainte d’une convalescence en mai’ (‘Convalescence in May’), where the poet’s body is “an anchor on a seabed” and her brain “sits pickling in a jar” but both she and her tragic ward mate are “so sick (they are) disembodied”. Hodgson takes Laforgue’s images and reimagines them to her own symbolic purpose, weaving a world between her parents’ “unmedicated” pain and her own dreams, where she wanders “along the coastlines of (her) imagination”.  

Something else I like about this collection is the way the imagery leaps from the expected to the leftfield and back again with ease and grace. Many poems use metaphors and similes that emphasise the body as part of the natural world and the natural world as part of the body as she considers both her internal and the external physical worlds (“my body retreats and advances, tidal”, “organs like obstructing hawthorn”, “I waited there / for someone to pluck me / like a fresh egg from the coop”, “Doctors, wasps.”), which both serves to increase the sense that the poet is inhabiting a hinterland between life and death, and also gives priority to life over death – not a position that can always come easily to someone on palliative care. Hodgson only occasionally allows herself to play on the old ‘vegetable’ insults thrown at the mentally unwell (“We wait to soften as vegetables must / in boiling water” she says in ‘The Mark Holland Trust’, one of the few poems where bitterness seems close to despair).  

But in between such images we hear of her relationships with her family: “The three of us are like fine bone china”, “We operate as a carriage clock, our minds / equal, opposite, unable to touch”, and the unbearably moving (for me as a father) “Once this is over / I’ll surrender every candle he hates; embrace the familial equivalent / of a fireman’s lift – saved from this awful void of space.” From the organic natural images she keeps for her own body, to the small, intricate, utilitarian objects that symbolise her family, the reader gets a sense of a small, precious human world at the mercy of a capricious universe – particularly during the Pandemic, to which a lot of these poems relate. 

The loss of autonomy that comes with serious illness is another central theme, and some poems feel like attempts to wrest back some self-determination from her situation. In ‘Exhibitionist’ she refers to herself as an “exhibit” in “this museum / of self”, and during what is presumably an operation she is almost sinisterly objectified as she says “Somewhere, a doctor / is live streaming this / to his students.” And in ‘Missing Posters’, she finishes “I’m a blow-up version of myself; my valve belongs to someone else.” but even here it feels as though the very writing of the poem, the expressing of this humiliation, is an act of defiance. 

The body, the poet’s body, the disabled body, is inevitably at the centre of the collection, and the variety of ways that Hodgson describes the body is like an artist trying various angles to find the right way of expressing what they need to express – perhaps even like Picasso where all the perspectives are integrated and merged. From “the entrapment” of the body, to the body as “a car aflame”; and, wonderfully, from the body as an “anarchist” to the body as an “anchor”.  I wrote out all the direct refences to ‘body’ to look for themes, and as I saw them written in the order in which they appear in the collection, it occurred to me that they are a poem in themselves, which I include here (let’s call it a found poem) as a final way of recommending this excellent pamphlet:  

You can buy Queen of Hearts by Hannah Hodgson from The Poetry Business New Poets List, here

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