my wide white bed
by Trish Harris (Publisher: Landing Press 2017)
Reviewed by Gill Ward
This book is Trish Harris’s first collection of poetry. It follows her ‘journey’ in a hospital bed recovering from surgery.
Harris has written theses poems using the hospital almost as an extended metaphor for her stay there. I say ‘almost’ because she starts off by introducing the hospital as sailing ‘like a tall white ship’ which of course is a simile, but you feel throughout this book that you are sailing with her on a huge ship.
A ship which is bursting with passengers, crew and associated engine noises and machinery.
The crew is ever busy and obliging, the passengers are in varying stages of undress, anxiety and acceptance. The engines are vibrating with words that rush us from bed to bed, from hope to hurting. We go along on this expedition with Harris and her roommates – you can hardly describe it as a tourist brochure; never the less it is colourful and filled with humour, realism, observation and emotion.
Harris chooses her words carefully and is a shining example of something with which I concur – a poem doesn’t have to be lengthy to have impact (or be a poem).
Visitor and visitee
keep their smile in place.
until we become
one big electric bulb
and no one can see
any contours or shapes
At this point I will admit to a personal reluctance when reviewing poetry books because I feel hesitant about quoting ‘bits’ of poems. In a poem words relate to other words, first lines to last lines, the shape and stages of a poem makes the whole. However Harris’s compact poems make it easy for me. Throughout the book her humour is ever present but always in tandem with her empathy and compassion for her fellow travellers and her appreciation of the hardworking hospital staff.
A poem about people who have no close family visiting but along come friends neighbours or ‘even a kindly hairdresser’. The last verse:
But if none of them
sit close to your bed
there is always the tea lady, who says sometimes
when she’s finished her evening shift
she stays back to chat
with the patients who have no one.
Trish Harris spent eight weeks in hospital, she said that having a journal was like ‘adding a new room to your house; it gives you private space.’ Harris made good use of her ‘private room’; from it she was able to watch people, absorb and record the sights and sounds and idiosyncrasies of her surroundings and share them with her readers. She speaks it all with affection and an accommodating sense of amusement. She portrays the absurdity as well as the problems and sadnesses.
Yesterday the ‘seasonal green vegetables’
were frozen peas.
Throughout the verses Harris never loses sight of her ‘ship’. The beds are dinghies, the white sheets are flapping sails and the language makes us roll within a ship, ‘up and down, over and under’ ‘flick flack go the sheets’, where the bed jackets seem to become life jackets. We can imagine the birds she hears daily, and loves, are seagulls following an ocean steamer until
the last lines in the last poem in the volume:
We are stepping hopefully
out onto the gangway.
my wide white hospital bed has many faces. You can read it is as a warm understanding of hospital life or a dire warning of how hospital life can be. How you read it will depend on whether you have had a long stay in hospital or spent many hours there with a loved one or have no knowledge of the inside of a hospital, so I’ll end with a poem that should help you any way you interpret these poems.
Humour is handy
and so is courage.
They will keep you sane.
If you haven’t packed them
for this visit, don’t worry
it’s ok to steal and scavenge
You’ll find traces everywhere
other patients’ visitors
birds serenading outside your window
the bright tie adorning the shirt
of the friendly pharmacist.
Trish, I was with you and engaged every word of the way!