Thursday, May 23, 2013

A poem for Rambert

On Monday I sat with hospital patients to ask my final set of questions about love - how do you carry the memory of love? Can you describe your parents' faces? 

The questions were my solution to the impossibility of running a poetry workshop on a ward. I sat and took notes as people who were able talked about family, partners and children. At the beginning of the project I read people poems but by the end felt that my questions might have the same effect. Ten hours isn't really enough to know what works and experiment with different approaches.

Each week on the train from Brighton and walking along the Fulham Road to the hospital - Chelsea and Westminster - I was conscious of the barrier: a patient in a bed, me coming in from outside. Add poetry into the equation and sometimes I felt like an alien, although the staff were all so young, at least I had age in common with the patients.

Now younger patients will take the poem and work with Rambert on choreography in response to these lines that have come from those 10 hours questioning what love means when you're confined to a bed in a ward, sometimes exhausted, sometimes frustrated by your own body.

Photo by Giya Makondo-Wills

I ask

What is your heart and what is it carrying?

            It's not about the heart,
            it's the whole body, you answered -

            a tree - almond or apple -
            and inside, the background music.

Are some people harder to love?

            My sister laughed behind my back.
            There was someone I trusted with a secret.
            In six months we tiptoed from fun
            to arguing. I told her I'd been on a date.
What journeys did you make and what did you find?

            I walked the backbone of Ireland -
            from Dublin to Cork - dogs barked from kennels,
            joggers overtook, pigs stood in my way.

                        And I crossed the Sahara for two days,
                        took a train to Nguru,
                        heard a general as he beat a young boy.

            I met her in London, 1954,
            a  year after the earthquake on Kefalonia
            killed her father and sister.

How do you carry the memory of love?

One sent her vegetables, all kinds of vegetables
others said in my daughter, my partner, my god

            one held the light on the water in Venice
            another Barbados, her grandmother's voice

one heard a mobile ringing
another, the roll call of all 14 siblings

            one felt rough tweed against her tired face
            another feared she got back less than she gave

one smiled - my mother, 92 and still dancing -
another hummed his dad's favourite song

            and the last said when he was young
            love was spelled lust.

Describe your mother's face, your father's

            First comes the shape of the mouth,
            curve of a jaw, then laughter lines,
            ears, smooth ovals of skin

            and only then, the eyes' colours -
            blue, brown, grey - until,
            as if under that gaze again

            they are led to the exact day
            of a soldier's haircut, his stutter
            and in the hallway, the draught

            of parents' softly spoken
            shorthand, her Norwegian,
            and for another, the affair, divorce

            until he has a photo of his father,
            a child, in his hands and she can admit:
            "In her dementia, my mother loves me at last."

And what are the tokens of love?

It happened so fast, the results, diagnosis
how much we needed to send him to Boston.

He's only seven. Hand to mouth, we went,
site to site, Facebook and Twitter

one told another, at work and at school,
in football crowds, post-office queues,

we grew like a flock of red-billed quelea
folding around him a soft cloak of feathers.