In Safe Hands: Susan Jane Sims Reviews Intensive Care by John Hirst

Sunday, 25 August 2013

“Life is rich for most,

For a few it’s a bitch”


Beset by ill-health from early childhood, John Hirst has obviously derived great comfort and enjoyment from writing poetry. In his collection Intensive Care, John gives us a vivid, poignant and sometimes quirky look at life through his eyes. The subject matter is varied. There are a few love poems here to his devoted wife Wendy, an attempt to reconstruct the tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, comments on works of art admired by the poet, the commerciality of the modelling industry and more.

However of particular interest to me as both a consumer of NHS medical treatment ( as at times we all are) and as a mother to young doctor sons, is the section entitled A Patient’s View. Here John explores the frustration, the pain and indeed the sheer boredom of being bed bound for weeks at a time. Hospital life is depicted too, and in the poem From Inside Red Box Ward, John John employs a little humour to good effect in the refrain “ITU, no sleep for you”. I love the startling images ofhanging bags like cows udders”. Exactly right. The psychological aspects are visited too. In the moving poem Deep Depression we hear about John’s own Black Dog, a term used by Winston Churchill to portray his own depression. Body and mind are inextricably linked and sadly chronic illnesses like John’s take their toll on mental health.

Moving on to another section of the book called intriguingly Taboo, the poet begin with four poems that I would like to highlight relating to his mining community background. As the son of a miner John declares  in the first that he shared his father’s “God awful existence”and years later can still vividly remember the” gut wrenching/hacking, wheezing cough” that plagued his father. It is possibly no coincidence that it is respiratory problems that plague John as miners would have brought back dust and debris and introduced it unwittingly into their homes.

The last of this quartet is Bye Dad, a poignant memorial to a dad that we hear was such a “good listener”, and an ironic look at death; the hard working miner’s hands at last “clean”, albeit “stiff”, “the hands that guided and supported his son now at last allowed to “rest”. Hands are an essential part of what makes us human and to witness them stilled is a sobering experience.

This collection is well worth a read and you can do so knowing that all royalties are going to the Acute Brittle Asthma Department at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. Good on you John.

 Susan Jane Sims, Poetry Space Editor

John Hirst. Intensive Care. Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd. £7.99 ISBN 9781907401886