Book review by Laura Grace Simpkins
Tiffany Atkinson. Bloodaxe Books, 2021. ISBN 978-1-78037-530-4.
Morphine, ‘magnolias of paperwork’, and hammocks: these are a few of the things touched on by Tiffany Atkinson in her fourth collection of poems, Lumen. The publication is divided into two parts: a sequence followed by standalones—including many that star Otto, Atkinson’s ‘red dog’. Most relevant to this blog is the sequence, ‘Dolorimeter’, which is, therefore, what this review is focused on. Comprised of nineteen ‘readings’, ‘Dolorimeter’ was written during a residency at Bronglais Hospital, Aberystwyth in 2014, and won the poet and Professor of Creative Writing Medicine Unboxed’s Creative Prize of the same year.
A dolorimeter, we learn from Atkinson’s first poem, is an ‘instrument used to measure pain’ (11). Several lines below, Atkinson suggests ‘We might also call it [a dolorimeter] language’, thus positioning her sequence as an investigation into the efficacy of poetry as a similar pain-measuring device (11). In my previous book review, on Kathleen O’Shea’s anthology, So Much More Than A Headache, I voiced my impatience at the prevalence of this usually circular line of inquiry—whether language can represent pain (also known as linguistic philosophy)—within the creative medical humanities. There must be more to think about! I cried, throwing my toys out of the pram. Indeed, what is most interesting about ‘Dolorimeter’ is not how Atkinson questions whether language can represent pain but is, instead, her world-building of the hospital, her evocation of its architecture as magical, whimsical, and impossible as a castle in the sky.
Atkinson spent three weeks in Bronglais Hospital, shadowing nurses, talking to patients, quietly observing. Its everyday goings-on give many of ‘Dolorimeter’s’ poems shape and structure. For some, Atkinson reproduces and abridges materials such as found texts (pain questionnaires, drafts of a patient’s last poems, laminates depicting seven types of shit, DON’T DIE OF EMBARRASSMENT posters); for others, she records and transcribes fragments of fleeting conversations, those that are imagined as well as overheard. Many of the poems are stylistically experimental, firework displays that positively spit with caesura, crackle with enjambment, and cartwheel with shift key punctuation. It is, perhaps, surprising then that the same voice emerges consistently out of each, one that is deliberate and Romantic. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), ‘Dolorimeter’s’ narrator is a voyager charting unexplored mythological seas; the nineteen poems, read together, form an epic, Odyssean whole. Four lines from ‘Accident & Emergency’ succinctly illustrate Atkinson’s balance between classicism and the contemporary:
Only the smokers
as the doors sucked in / out
strung us to the outside
on a burnt thread (17).
In ‘Accident & Emergency’, as well as in ‘Clean Windows’, ‘A Bad Cold’, and ‘The smokers outside Bronglais Hospital’, Atkinson transmogrifies the hospital into a set teeming with mischievous, weather-beaten, and regal characters:
Pinky shucking a glove
with a smack (32);
The consultant has a bad cold
He is like a shot of mercury
that’s woken up in a glass tube
Keeps hitting the roof of himself (34);
The nurse in her peppermint uniform (38).
Atkinson’s magical realist descriptions, rich with gleeful, onomatopoeic imagery, swirl together and satisfyingly pop with anachronistic flashes. Patient, nurse, administrator, doctor, every one of them vibrant, enchanting, and persuasive. Full of life, even in the midst of death.
In the penultimate poem of the sequence, ‘Last’, Atkinson’s presence as narrator is called out, materialised abruptly, by an impatient consultant. ‘And what were you hoping to find here’, he asks, rhetorically, anticipating an answer he won’t care to understand (36). Atkinson imagines what she wishes she’d said (but didn’t): ‘Formulate what’s inside’; like ‘an endoscopy’; ‘You could say we have the same concerns’ (36). This exchange sadly typifies medicine’s still-lingering scepticism of the creative arts—why do we need this poet getting in the way again? ‘Dolorimeter’s’ answer to that question lies not in its regurgitation of the can language represent pain loop, but in how Atkinson shines a light on the insides, the guts, the underbelly, of the hospital itself: our castle in the sky, both miraculous and far away. With humour and real affection, Atkinson pulls the hospital in closer towards us, sheering it from its foundations laid on the peripheries of cities and the edges of towns from the mid-nineteen-century onwards, when illness, dying, and death was removed from the home. In ‘Dolorimeter’, the hospital is more than close-up scenery though, more than an effective backdrop for its characters. It blinks at us in the ‘huge panes / six floors up’; sighs through the glass of the vending machine that has ‘un-/ invented itself’; shudders in horror at the recent disturbance in the ‘loo’s bleached font’. Atkinson’s hospital is animated, alive.
I would have liked more commentary about the residency contained within the pages of the publication, in an introduction perhaps. Hearing Atkinson speak during a book launch for Lumen (and several other Bloodaxe titles) about the opportunity, albeit briefly—it was facilitated by a local government initiative, for example—not only added a splash of colour to my second reading of the sequence but was invaluable for fully accessing its deeper levels of meaning. Notwithstanding, ‘Dolorimeter’ is a cleverly and lovingly told tale of three weeks at Bronglais Hospital. I hope its patients, nurses, administrators, and doctors (especially that consultant) have had the chance to discover what Atkinson found there, and marvel at its significance.
Laura Grace Simpkins is Medical Humanities’ blog Book Reviews Editor. See her profile here.