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.’
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.
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.
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 bluebell-singing primrose-shouting. 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.’
‘This reviewer cannot recommend Talking to the Dead highly enough, and if any slim volume today deserves prize-winning recognition, it’s this one.’
‘extraordinarily life-enhancing... a stunning and memorable testament which deserves to be widely read.’
Mistress Quickly’s Bed