Thursday 20 May 2021

Review by Kate Durban of "The Day My Head Exploded: Poems About Healthcare" by Rob Gee

If you haven’t discovered Rob Gee and his wonderful poems you are in for a treat. Rob is a nurse and a poet. Until recently he was retired from the nursing profession but returned to help out during the Coronavirus pandemic, an action that seems typical of the generous and committed nature that shines through in his poems.  As a fellow nurse I jumped at the chance of reading and reviewing this collection. What a voyage of discovery it has been.

Rob’s approach to nursing and life are irreverent, comic (sometimes deliciously and darkly so), compassionate, inclusive, poignant and political. All at once!  How does he do that? One of the keys to Rob’s success is the desire to share not only his own voice and perspective as a nurse, but also those of his clients, their families and his colleagues. Hence many of the poems are group poems.

Rob’s work is seriously insightful and seriously funny. Who couldn’t laugh out loud in delighted recognition to read: 'the receptionist had all the social skills of a neglected commode' (from the title poem). Rob uses wonderful imagery, which conveys observations about the world of mental illness and its related care environments with great clarity. For instance: 'Ben’s psyche is unraveling / like the thread on a crap cardie.' And: 'Herman prattles on forever / Each word knitting his brain back together.' These images say so much in so few words. They linger in the mind.

Rob’s poems don’t shy away from the huge costs paid by the people suffering with mental (and physical) illness and those caring for them. In 'Elsie’s letter,' a woman with dementia pleads with those who look after her that: 'When I finally lose it all / please give me somewhere soft to fall.' And in the poem 'Our loss,' Rob describes the response of staff and patients on a ward after a suicide as: 'The grief went through the ward like a horrific ripple.' We all grieve.

It is this sense of community on the wards which is as authentic as it is heart-warming, and as I read the poems I felt deep vibrations of recognition and resonance, both as a nurse and as a human being. The poems are full of stories all the more beautiful because they are true. In the poem 'Psychiatric Crash Team,' Rob is called in when a patient becomes aggressive because he wants to go out and buy cigarettes. When Rob bumps his head on the doorframe this patient stops what he is doing, leans down and holds out his hand to help him up. Then, the whole ward have a whip round, not for money, but for tobacco to give their fellow patient. As Rob says, we are all 'part of each other’s journey.' The lines between patient, nurse and carer are blurred but in a good way. Except, that is, for the awful 'Dr. Brice.'

Whether you are a nurse, or  someone affected by mental illness as a sufferer or carer, or you just like good poems, don’t miss Rob Gee’s wonderful new collection. It will make you laugh and teach you a lot about how to live life with compassionate generosity, integrity, and a large dose of irreverent humour.

About the reviewer
Kate Durban is a Cancer Wellbeing Specialist Nurse who lives in Northamptonshire with her husband and two dogs. She is currently an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

You can read more about Rob Gee's The Day My Head Exploded, as well as a sample from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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