Hannah Hodgson’s latest collection of poetry, 163 Days, powerfully bridges the gap between body and mind, the lived experience of disability and the medical establishment’s version of it, writes our reviewer Clare Moore.
We have all heard that words have power, but one of the most difficult things about language is that words very often lose their innate power through insensitive and superfluous cultural use. Identity politics, I think, is a victim of this phenomenon (were you triggered when I used those words?). How we define ourselves via our sexuality, religion, class, political affiliation, etc., etc., etc., becomes a vocabulary list of labels that can start to mean very little both to our own selves and the people we engage with. But these words do mean something – some more than others, perhaps. Disability means something beyond identity. I am disabled is not a simple classification but a lived physical, psychological, and emotional experience both for the disabled person and the people they interact with. It is easy to forget this: that disability is often, I would say usually, an intense lived experience. The beauty of Hannah Hodgson’s poetry collection 163 Days (Seren Books) is that she uses language to remind her readers of the visceral, lived experience – physical, psychological, emotional – of her disability, and in doing so she re-empowers disability as an identity and inspires a better understanding of the disabled experience in her readers.
The most innovative aspect of Hodgson’s collection is the structure. The first section, ‘163 Days’, follows an almost diary-like format, which cannot help creating the sense of a finite ticking clock, a sense of running out of time, and simultaneously an infinite wait for diagnosis, treatment, relief, hope. Beneath each date of her 163 days, Hodgson begins her daily entry with poetic lines describing her 163-day stay at the hospital during a difficult and painful journey of diagnosis and treatment. These poems are then followed by the medical-ese notes of a doctor or nurse. This structure is laden with meaning for disability and medical humanities literature, and deftly handled by Hodgson. She reminds us of the seemingly binary divide between her poetic self – the mind that struggles to understand and make meaning out of and communicate her experience, a reflection of her own being and its experience of the world – and the medical professionals who attempt to use scientific labels like neutropenia and NB 118g/l – MCV 86 – WBC 5.7 x109/L – Neuts 3.7 x109/L – Lymph 1.5 x109/L to define and understand her.
This dichotomy between a thinking, feeling self and the medicalization of a doctor/patient relationship is probably not unfamiliar to those who are disabled, those who study or are familiar with disability or chronic illness, or even the laity among us. This divide is real, but the art of Hodgson’s work is that while she presents this familiar divide between the patient and the doctor, between the brain and the body, between poetry and science, she subtly bridges the gap. While reminding the reader of her human experience of this hospital stay, she uses these sections to describe medical procedures, introduce other patients, and integrate medical terminology. Her use of complicated medical terminology reminds the reader that this is not a foreign language to the disabled or chronically ill, that this scientific framework has become an inseparable part of the poetic self. This crossover nudges the reader to remind them that what we accept as binary is more interrelated than we may think, or remember, at first glance.
Disability studies – which is simply how we (namely scholars, activists, and hopefully the rest of us too) – has a long history of this dichotomy, going back to the debate between the medical and social model of disability. The medical model suggests the ‘problem’ of a disability lies in the person – her legs do not function as they should and so she cannot go up the stairs. The social model – a society that has created stairs in a world where some people cannot use them – suggests that disability is the result of a deficient social environment. Both of these models raise the same important question: where is disability located? Is it in the person? In the stairs? It is – both in my lived experience of chronic illness as well as my own studies of disability theory – found in both. Disability, or I should say most disabilities since the category incorporates such a vast and diverse range of conditions, is both a physical and social experience – and a psychological one.
Hodgson’s work blossoms in this intersection. The often harsh medical descriptions of procedures are visceral. I feel the pain and discomfort of her condition and procedures. Her words take me back to my most uncomfortable medical experiences. But she also relates her encounters with friends, family, nurses, and doctors. She does not shy away from portraying the mental and emotional toll of her experiences. She uses language to weave these elements together and creates an integrated picture of the disabled experience.
After her 163 days, Hodgson shifts the structure of the collection into a more recognizable poetic mode. In her section ‘After Care’, Hodgson shares traditionally formatted poems, which shifts both her writing and the reader’s attention. These poems relate her experience leaving the hospital and continuing her life at home. In some ways, the format conveys the feeling of a return to normality, but Hodgson’s language continues to follow the pattern of the entire collection – a weaving together of the physical/medical, social, and psychological/emotional.
The beauty of Hodgson’s work is not simply structural, though. Poetry is language, and in a review of a poetry collection I always share the lines that struck me as the most beautiful and powerful: ‘I’m a farmer with a plough, / as strands of hair bundle together / on my brush. I show my tumble weeds’; ‘In this life / I have just turned one, / my body a regressing flip book’, ‘Sometimes I wish to be powder – / to move without pain in the breeze, / to have a small chance at arriving home’; ‘Teach me how to pray to my flesh, / worship every breath, / wear myself like a Cathedral again’; ‘I’ve been keeping to myself – / treating my memories as flowers / pressing them between pages of a medical dictionary, / in a prolonged funeral of childhood’.
In her notes of thanks at the end of the collection, Hodgson writes that she thinks of her mind and body as two separate entities most of the time, and I think this is how many of us who experience disability and illness view ourselves. It is a way to cope with pain, to cope with nostalgia for wellness and previous states of health. But while we, as Hodgson writes, can grieve our bodies and locate our sense of self in our minds, Hodgson’s poetry captures the tension between the mind and body in the disabled experience. Her work tells us that the reality of disability lives in both.
Hannah Hodgson’s 163 Days is published by Seren and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
This review was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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