Following a series of unsuccessful spinal operations in 2010, the poet Gordon Hodgeon was confined to bed and wheelchair, unable to move his arms and legs and unable to breathe without the help of a ventilator. Coming to terms with a gradually narrowing view on the world, he began writing a new book of poems. Some were dictated to visiting friends and to staff in the rehabilitation unit in Peterlee where he has spent the last two years. Others were typed using Dragon voice-recognition software.
Still Life is the result. It is partly a study in disability and mortality, partly a praise-song for the 'paralysed jellyfish' of the quadriplegic body. It is a book about learning to live in a new element, about helplessness and loss. But it is mostly a book about living, a wonderfully energetic and sharply humorous celebration of the fact of being alive - the birth of a granddaughter, the slow changing of the seasons through the hospital window and the strange music of the ventilator filling and emptying his lungs through the night.
This bed is the bed of dreams, they all start from this bed, a white hole swallowing the collapsing star. They pulverise memory, compound my tenses in a nightmare play. This bed flies over the realities of day, it ignores the world's exploding cries, bedsides of sighs, of soft expiries, the molten craters of birth. This bed and me, we hovercraft, we swish our skirts across too numerous, too predictable agonies. And you think I should care for them? Even this bed sobs, gutters groan with tears, the world a flash flood, cars elbowing bridges. And tomorrow will bear down heavier, will bend the earth's back. We lie in wait for it, watching the sky, never knowing what we must muddle through, this night's throw of the diazepam dice. As if, this bed and me, we were life's burden. And down below us, sufferers making moan, I hope you will sleep, every last one, quiet and deep as the many dead, with never a swift or little owl to wake you.
My room's at the end of the wing in the unit, hers indeterminate, its window to the east. Easy to move from here to the imagined there of this postcard, from TV's clapping-happy hymn through the wall, as deaf as any gospel choir to argument, move to where she bends, ink almost dry on her last word. That sideways light, the chequerboard tiles, and hung behind her table the dusky painting, its darkening oils. The blackened frame bisects her world between the fixed old dispensation and shifting new, where paint is not quite dry, anything could move, the dark fold in a skirt, that cambric sleeve, a delicate lace cap. The darkness is my hide, the sun out there catches its fiery breath. My lines on screen thicken and thin in crystal mist, carers change shifts and busy in with medication, cups of tea, snatch glances at summer through the glass, talk of a lottery win. Pale wraiths of women lift the infant Moses, Pharaoh's daughter, handmaidens, his deceiving mother. There is the beginning of something, a shiver in the gauze curtain, shadow of air, the pale geometries of the window glass, the maid at the still centre, arms crossed, her gaze subdued, whatever stirs out there. The light telling the hours. The woman writes, her shoulders angled to the task. One sheet of paper, all that is required. Send for a new Vermeer to catch the silence, the little window's light, my laptop's scratched dull metal, the cheap pine desk, the frame of the wheelchair, the carer beside me. Watch as the distant leaves change bright for dim, shadows relax on lawns, walkers on the unseen path go home. Nothing amazes like the garden we have lost, the naked baby before us, the severity of each moment, errors folded, unfolded. The words not sent, not spoken.
I am making a hymn, a praise song for this body, which floats inert down from my brain. I want to thank it, this shivering blancmange, this paralysed jellyfish, for all it has done these past seventy years. It has given my mouth so many meals, it has shifted me over many miles, it has made love for me, run itself out of breath, it has undergone surgeries to keep me alive. I cannot put a number on all its services. Now it trembles at each whim of the tide, alert to all sensation, but has lost its sting. Only my voice can shock you, electrify. So I am helpless, but still a trifle dangerous.
You get a sense of what it's like to lie alone and in the earth, set to decay. The regulars will visit hallowed ground, a few old friends include you in their rounds from time to time, but most will let you rot, forgetting they already have forgot. Of course we can't know that for certain sure, but some were coming and have missed the door, while others phoned or emailed, sent a card and, duty done, went shopping or abroad. A few more didn't ask or realise you'd disappeared from view. Whatever lies beyond horizons can't be their concern, they live for what's in range, don't seem to learn what lurks outside their urn-shaped biscuit box where sweets compacted lie, day's paradox: it's not all-things, though beautiful and bright, inevitably swallowed up by night. Well, I might rattle on like this some time, preferring home-grown groans to the sublime of poetry, art, music, friendship, love. Fact is, out there or, my conceit, above, are many folk who care for me, who worry about, pray for, want to help, will scurry over if I call and ask. They'd lift me if they could out of the grave, at least out of the mud I have to blunder through just now. They can't and that's the sod of what is most sincerely meant but does not work, which makes me curse and blame my well-wishers, for whom I'd do the same if our roles were reversed, me up, them down. Send them a card or flowers, a Get Well Soon.
for Libby at seven weeks old I met this new-born under April sun where the year's days lengthen, stretch limbs to the warmth. She a few hours short of seven weeks, me few days short of seventy years. For her everything is new, she is new herself, every face, every voice fits to her understanding, each tissue of response. And here I lie, my old thinking, we have seen and heard all there is. Then her mother, my daughter, lays her against my shoulder. And warm against my cheek her breathing slows and eyes drift down to sleep.
'hugely moving... an affirmation of the joy of love, life and living.'
'an extraordinary achievement combining wit and seriousness in even measure with no small amount of courage.'
'a profound and moving tribute to the poet's physical and psychical bravery... beautifully judged verse... a book to be treasured and reread. This is one of the most engrossing and beautifully composed poetry volumes this reviewer has read in years.'
'Poets who complain that they have writer's block, and those who can't put pen to paper without a writing course or a band of supporters ought to read this book. And then they should consider whether poetry is as central to their lives as it is for Gordon Hodgeon.'
Rennie Parker, Critical Survey