Talking to the Dead

For the past five years the poet Gordon Hodgeon has been confined to his bed. Following a series of unsuccessful operations on his spine, he is now unable to move his arms and legs, and cannot breathe without the help of a ventilator. In the last few months he has lost the power of speech. Today he can only communicate with the outside world by blinking at a Dynavox computer screen.

Condemned to painful silence, Hodgeon has continued to write, recording the changing seasons of his disability and the changeless seasons outside his window. The result is this extraordinary series of poems from the furthest edge of human endurance. These are the words of a man who cannot speak, the poems of a writer who cannot pick up a pen. Talking to the Dead is a book about disability and mortality, a painful study in helpless silence. But it is also, movingly, the defiant song of a personality still open to the world and its endless futures. Gordon Hodgeon is not sailing to Byzantium. Instead, he takes the hands of the anonymous and inarticulate dead in ‘the glorious dance of the earth’, talking to those who have gone before and those who will come after, reminding us ‘how little changes in our lives, / the loves, the losses, hopes of song, / songs of despair.’

Sample Poems

Talking to the Dead

I am talking to the dead,
who are sullen, not responding.
I try their silent language, fail
over and over. Who can teach me,
guide me through their dark palaces,
their ungrowing fields? Sometimes
one seems to speak to me, but there is
no air to carry the utterance. Faces
are blank zeros, sighs, unfathomable.
This might be a welcome, a warning.
Should I tell them what it is
I need to know or turn my back on them,
talk to the living while I can? These
seem just as incommunicado,
standing off, not wasting breath.
The sunlit living, they witness how I slide,
though they will follow me down.
I must talk with the inarticulate dead
again, learn to be one with them,
wear the common habit, nameless, and innumerable.


Never a star shining
down in the cold of earth.
There they are scattered,
flesh-flakes in the soil’s stir,
the worm-whirls,
do they still dance it,
that thick dark winter?

Do yellowing bones still clutch
traces of DNA like an old tune
round and round in the head?
Do these spiral up in me?
If so, my connection’s made
with register and census glimpses,
a few papers, family Bible,
some of their heart in there.
Infants who waltzed away
before they knew their names.

But this is not the book of the dead,
no gold leaf, no spices, no precious stones,
no feasting. Their after-life
a deep ditch, not Dante’s,
paupers’ graves in a crowded churchyard
in the slums they were born to.
I can only dig so far: field labourers,
mill hands, servants, colliers.
Down below that they fade
into no names, invisibility
of toil, of famine, of poverty.
They were serfs, peasants, wage slaves.

Who owned the land they lie in?
Those who made the chronicles,
history books, T.V. documentaries?
Barons, queens, factory owners, all the rest,
these in their tombs and sepulchres
with the same orchestra,
the same Okey-Cokey.

My plan is to join with
the anonymous dead,
forgotten soon enough,
no memorial stones,
I’ve seen too many.
I will hold hands with death
and all of you, my folk,
in the glorious dance of the earth.
Nothing but earth.

The Words Man

Another month and two more old friends gone,
so two more empty places in my head
that won’t be filled in any later season,
if any comes before I join the dead.

My brain is ageing, shrinks and gapes,
it loses systems, names, so many words
that won’t leap to my clumsied lips
as they once did like young cats after birds.

This way the hole behind the eyes
gets more profound, a dizzying drop
into a last and lingering demise,
the end of all I am, have been. Full stop.

So many words, they made my voice,
but here I count the last of them,
the final drips of my rejoicing
from broken gutters of the brain.

A plenitude of rain, they filled
my seventy years with blessing,
made my soil rich and fertile,
the voice I thought unceasing.

They grew my life, from the familial
first stumblings to what I understood
was me, student, scholar,
reader, teacher, reader, poet,

made me spill volumes from my store of words
in pulpit, classroom, on the stage,
in love, in poetry. But now the clouds
have emptied, emptied most of Hodge.

The final croaks drip like a dodgy tap:
the washer is at last worn out,
syllables drown in spouts of sputum,
sputtering, secretions.

The words man. So they said,
but now, would not take the chance.
My words gone sullen, lumps of lead
misshapen gobbets of utterance.

Their ghosts stay quiet in my skull,
I’ll work them secretly, bequeath
these death’s head poems, rush them all
out to the deaf world, in one last breath.

January Twilight

for Mike

Sun wants off
quitting this grey, raggedy,
old overcoat, the garden.
Too cold out there for me,
shrivelled flowerbed,
brittle birds.

I retreat under my blanket,
again read Lawrence’s
impassioned plea,
a new spring

My dark night, I still see
flashes of our love
the bright colours
our meld of ancestors
field hands, weavers
foundrymen, colliers.

Even here, even now,
out in the garden
you can read helpless signs,
the firstblind shoots,
snowdrops, a miniature iris.
A new world. Always.


‘A remarkable book.’

John Cassidy

‘This reviewer cannot recommend Talking to the Dead highly enough, and if any slim volume today deserves prize-winning recognition, it’s this one.’

The Recusant

‘extraordinarily life-enhancing... a stunning and memorable testament which deserves to be widely read.’

Mistress Quickly’s Bed