What use does poetry serve? It is a literary form which almost defies description or definition. We read poetry for several diverse reasons: to connect with the thoughts and feelings of others, even from different ages and civilisations; to learn through the words of someone else about an experience that we have also had; to hear someone express emotions that we feel too but which we find hard to verbalise ourselves; or to simply enjoy patterns and textures of words which have been so constructed that they touch a nerve within us.
This collection by Michel Faber is his first, and in an interview recently on Woman's Hour, he firmly maintained that it would probably be his last. He is, of course, a well-known novelist, author of The Crimson Petal and the White. His latest work, The Book of Strange New Things, was particularly well received. So why poetry, and why now? The answer is simple, and deeply poignant: his wife of many years, Eva Youren, had a particularly virulent form of cancer, and after six years of treatment and subsequent hospital care, died. Michel had nursed her during her final months, and in a quiet moment by her hospital bed, as Eva slept, he wrote two poems. After she died others poured out, sometimes, he says in his introduction, at the rate of five a day.
Of course, poems of remembrance and loss are commonplace. However, where these have a special resonance lies not simply in the subject matter, difficult though that obviously is, but in the relentless confrontation of a reality which lies at the edge of what can be verbalised. Some emotional experiences are so intense that we live through them but cannot easily describe what they actually feel like— the birth of a child, the intense power of new love, or, as in this case, the long, slow decline of a much-loved partner.
This collection is neatly divided into two parts. The first concerns Eva's long battle with the disease and her hospitalisation, and in the second Michel responds to the after-effects of her death. In the hands of a lesser writer these subjects could result in self-indulgent soul searching with little poetic merit. Revealing painful emotional experiences is something which many writers attempt, but few manage successfully. The territory is simply too harsh. The literature can so easily descend into a kind of bathos, as shown in the misery memoir genre alarmingly popular today, which can often commercialise and thereby unintentionally trivialise the tragedies recounted.
These poems are different. They are brutal and tough, but shot through with the love that Michel had for Eva, and her love for him. It is as if we are witnesses of a journey where the terrible consequences are laid out before us and we must watch, mute and silent, as it unfolds before us. Michel mixes the mundane ordinariness of hospital care with the emotional volcano which simmers below the surface, waiting to explode. In the poem You Were Ugly he writes about the time shortly before Eva’s death, describing in harrowing detail the ways in which her body had changed. He called her ‘Gorgeous,’ a pet name that lovers use, a lie that both of them needed to share.
The opening poem in the collection, Of Old Age, In Our Sleep is a powerful introduction to what follows. It is one of the few poems which predate Eva's illness, and yet it is prescient to a remarkable degree. Michel writes about God, in whom he does not believe, but he exhorts us all to pray nevertheless, for us to avoid:
....endless days of torture forced intimacy with a body that is not our own;
and the poem ends with these words:
Yes, let us not leave off praying. Not for God our soul to keep but just to die, of old age, in our sleep.
It is a wish with which most would concur. For Michel this is a theme which keeps recurring. Eva's body has been invaded by a malignant force, which will ultimately kill her. He does not romanticise her traumatic battle. There are many medical references and terms with which the couple had to become familiar, largely unknown to those who have had no contact with such an illness. Their use almost becomes a secret language which only the lovers can fully understand. He even begins one poem with the simple line:
You have achieved zero.
In another poem he says of her:
your body will become a death chamber disguised as a woman
There is a continuity in the content of the first set of poems which is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Behind the ever-worsening disease with the graphic descriptions of physical deterioration lie obvious love and mutual connection, and behind that, rarely made explicit by Michel, is the bravery with which Eva endures her illness. He documents the changes which she has to undergo with a sharp eye, but two constants are always in the background: devotion, and uncomprehending anger that such a vicious disease is inexorably pulling them apart. The way in which Michel focuses on the ordinary effects is perhaps one of the most powerful techniques at work here. He laments the fact that she cannot wear her wristwatch, and struggles when he has to brush her teeth. The final poem in this section, Tight Pullover, is an appropriate end in so many ways. It is a basically factual account of what happened after Eva passed away. The mortuary van arrived and two strangers tidied and wrapped the body and took it away, while Michel watched from the corner of the room. There is no anger, no reference to the horror and despair that he must have experienced, which makes the writing that much more poignant and powerful. He ends with these words, which in their very simplicity seem to encapsulate the long and painful journey which has now ended, at least for Eva:
I thank them, these strange men. These men you never knew and did not wish to know. These men who take you with them to their van.
The second part of this collection recounts some of the events which occur after Eva's death. Again, it is their sheer ordinariness and the impact that they have on Michel that are so striking. He calls one of these poems Don't Hesitate To Ask, in which he outlines his response to friends and acquaintances who want to help but often don't know how to go about it, and say things like “don't hesitate to ask if you need something.” This prompts Michel to launch into a wild raging internal diatribe which ends with him asking God:
why it was so necessary to torture and humiliate and finally exterminate my wife
And then the rage ceases and he states that he will not say any of those things as the question itself is not really genuine. The offer “to do anything” is, of course, not practicable. Michel himself qualifies it, suggesting that it only means a cup of tea or a lift into town, and concludes the piece with the devastating:
if you're going that way anyway
As in the first part, Michel uses as his starting point the seemingly ordinary, which then triggers emotional responses out of all proportion to the immediate cause. He sits next to a stranger on a flight to America, and misses Eva's hand as they take off. He remembers the sixty-two steps which lead up to their flat, how easily Eva first managed them, and how later she needed a chair on each landing. He notices how the cats have stopped looking for her, and then calmly reports that one “curries favour” with the neighbours, while the older one has died. He even lists the contents of the food cupboard — rice, bizarrely shaped pasta— which he either eats himself, or throws away.
Finally he reaches the anniversary of her death, the 7th of July. He recalls how Eva watched on TV as Syrians were caught up in the civil war, and made the observation that they were of equal worth and had a right to life and a safe home. Michel then narrates a list of terrorist killings that have occurred in the year since Eva's death, and ends by remembering that July 7th 2005 was the date of the London bombings. Unlike the public outpourings of grief for the unfortunate victims of such attacks, there has been nothing similar for Eva: in the great wide world her passing has gone unnoticed. He finishes the poem with the most beautiful, definitive declaration of the love that they shared:
All I can do, in what remains of my brief time, is mention, to whoever cares to listen, that a woman once existed, who was kind and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget how the world was altered, beyond recognition, when we met.
Not everyone will enjoy these poems. The subject is too raw and harsh, there is no happy ending, no miracle cure. However, there is an honesty of perception which is mightily impressive. Along with Eva's bravery, there is Michel's courage in confronting the most distressing of emotional situations, both before her death and after. I have used this phrase before, but can think of none better with which to finish this review: if you are going to buy one book of poetry this year, make it this one.--Paul Flux