Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Hospital Odyssey – Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis has undertaken an epic task with her narrative poem, A Hospital Odyssey. Maris’s husband, Hardy, is diagnosed with cancer and taken to a hospital. Maris follows, intent to stay with him, but she can’t keep up, and is forced to wander the hospital, where she encounters surreal allegories. Each vignette explores some aspect of love, disease, and the health care system. The work is infused with the spirit of The Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman. Maris encounters a Knight Templar who is resigned to wait eternally in heavy armor, the only gesture of solidarity and love for a terminally ill partner he sees possible; a woodpecker of a nurse who flits about and pecks, but is more concerned with paperwork than caring; a trolley handing out sympathy illnesses. Lewis’s creativity is unbound in her use of surreal imagery.

When I first realized that I was holding a piece of narrative verse, I rejoiced. I haven’t read anything like this since Wendy Cope’s The River Girl. Poetry has been so divorced from narrative and verse in the past century that a book such as this is almost audacious. A Hospital Odyssey is written in five-line stanzas, which keep up an irregular rhyme. Here a druid talks to Maris:
“Let’s cut to the chase. What did he do wrong,

to get the cancer?” “I don’t understand…”
“He must have done something awful to bring
this illness on himself, must have sinned.
Was it resentment? Was it love unbound

by the usual limits? Or was it fear
of relationships? Rage at someone?
His mother? You need to help me here,
give me a clue – half the fun
is working out what a person’s done

to earn bad karma.”
Through eleven “books”, one hundred and thirty-six pages, Maris journeys, with occasional first-person asides from the narrator. The book is interesting, and creative, and I admire it immensely. As a result I felt truly guilty each time I noticed something difficult or jarring, because to have written something this Herculean in scope amongst the tepid sea of so much contemporary poetry is already a victory.  I wish to assert that before mentioning two things.

Firstly, I found I liked it better when I stopped treating it like verse. The rhymes are too irregular, or too oblique (“tired” and “stirred”, “consultant” and “confident”), and the meter is too loose for either to become an organizing principle. Most lines are enjambed; very few end on the natural end of a phrase. This isn’t The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, where the verse is so regular it almost becomes a chant. This allows Lewis a lot of leeway and flexibility, but the effect of the verse was lost. Instead, I thought of it as an epic poem in translation and felt right at home. The story is so soaked in the juice of epics that most of us read in translation anyway, that it feels appropriate.

Secondly, I found it difficult to get into the story because the plot was not so much a plot as a series of stops along a journey intended to illustrate a principle. I know that’s like accusing ice cream of not being chocolate cake: Lewis never intended to write a novel. Nevertheless, I found it hard to get excited about talking symbols and clever allegories in the same way I get excited about real people. Of course, I found that difficult reading Dante, too.

In the end, I recommend Gwyneth Lewis’s A Hospital Odyssey – may we be graced with more poets brave enough to appropriate and recreate literary tradition in this way.

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