The publication of this new anthology of poems by UK National Health Service (NHS) staff could not have come at a more apposite time. The coronavirus pandemic has made we who live in the UK acutely aware of the vital role of our free health service. Appreciation of the hard work and dedication of its workforce is paramount and sales of the anthology have rocketed. I am privileged to have had two of my poems included so this review cannot be totally unbiased and objective.
These are the Hands is the brainchild of Dr Katie Amiel, GP and the Emergency Poet Deborah Alma, well known for touring the UK in her converted ambulance and prescribing poetry for support and enjoyment. You might wonder if we need yet another anthology that deals with the everyday drama of illness, recovery or death. But this collection is different and refreshing because it gives voice to ‘unseen and unsung’ people in the NHS such as cleaners, library and managerial staff as well as healthcare students and clinicians. It allows those providing nursing and medical care to show us their own vulnerability. The poems are in a variety of forms and voices, often unpredictable but easily accessible and engaging. The Foreword to These are the Hands is by Michael Rosen, well-known writer, broadcaster and poet, whose own poem, written for the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the NHS, gives the anthology its title. He describes the contributors as revealing ‘the hidden places of their minds in these intimate moments’ of clinical and workplace encounters. The final poem is by poet Lemn Sissay titled “Making a Difference”, a performance piece that should be read in a loud voice from every hospital balcony, GP surgery or Care Home doorstep. It is celebratory, life-affirming and splendid, as you might expect from this skilled, outspoken poet.
The nine themed sections of the book take us on a journey, beginning with Look At How We Start, the opening line of oncologist Sam Guglani’s moving poem “Fingerprints”. There are poems by students and junior doctors early on in their careers and by senior doctors, reflecting on their life’s work and choices. In the following section, Your name is written on the palms of my hands, is a phrase from medical social worker Iora Dawes’ poem “Children’s Ward, Week Two”. An anxious father is searching for belief and prayer ‘at a place he’s long ignored’, perhaps the hospital chapel, while his child is having surgery. The plain language and short stanzas convey huge emotional turmoil succinctly and poignantly. In the hospital corridor, he ‘passes a woman carrying someone’s effects / in a black bin bag’ a chilling premonition of death. This theme continues in the next poem “We mourn your children too” by paediatrician Vicky Thomas. I was lucky enough to hear her read it at a recent Zoom meeting of contributors to the anthology and we were all reduced to tears, including Vicky herself. Good poetry touches us emotionally and her use of repetition, with ‘We cry. We do. We try’ appearing in a different order each time throughout the poem, highlights the anguish felt by doctors, as well as parents, when a child dies.
In case you think that every page of the anthology will make you reach for the box of tissues, let me reassure you that there is plenty of humour and cool observation of NHS procedures in many of the poems, particularly in the section titled Unsung and Unseen. For example, “Gondoliers” by midwife Anna Bosanquet, is a triumphant celebration of hospital porters:
They have big muscles and sing beautifully
while balancing the beds with professional splendour.
And medical laboratory assistant Sarah L. Dixon’s poem on the facing page, “Media Room” is a visual feast of colour and sound as she loads up the autoclave and fills the preparator with ‘bottled blood and small secret vials’. Her matter-of-fact tone and delight in naming different substances that tease the tongue such as Selenite-F broth. Mackonkey and Mannitol make this poem delicious to read out loud. We also rarely hear poetry written on this subject. Another delight is “Slow Waltz at 2 am” by medical scientist Caroline Stewart, who captures one of those extraordinary moments that can occur on a ward when there is a sudden connection between the very old and the very young as they cast off their personae as patient and professional. In this case a 90 year old dances with a care assistant. I loved the lines:
They have escaped the air, heavy
with disinfectant, boiled cabbage and urine.
That distinctive combination of smells immediately transported back to any of the hospitals I worked in as a junior doctor.
There are too many poems, wonderful poems, to discuss in any depth. I was delighted that some of Julia Darling’s work was included. She died prematurely at aged 48 from breast cancer in 2005 and is remembered for the unflinching courage and honesty of her poems as well as her insistence on the importance of poetry at times of difficulty in our lives.
These are the Hands is a celebration of ‘our shared humanity’, as described by its editors. Human frailty and vulnerability are evident in many of the poems and the emotional content is often raw and fierce. That is why it is such a good collection and a tribute to everyone who works for the NHS. Katie Amiel and Deborah Alma also emphasise that the poems included provide a stark reminder of the human cost of trying to offer compassionate care in a system that is underfunded and understaffed and the importance of showing the same compassion and support to its employees. This has become even more evident in the current crisis. All proceeds from the sale of These are the Hands are going to NHS Charities Together. It is published by Fairacre Press. Do order a copy.
Hear These are the hands by Michael Rosen, poem read by Sophie Raworth.
Dr Emma Storr has worked as a GP and Senior Lecturer in General Practice in both Dunedin (NZ) and in Leeds (UK), where she currently lives. Since turning her attention to poetry she has completed an MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales. Poems by Emma Storr were commended (2016) and placed (2018) in the International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.