Martin Figura’s new collection was created as a project at Salisbury NHS foundation trust. These powerful poems offer a unique insight and perspective into the life of a hospital, and its inhabitants, during the pandemic. They convey the impact of Covid-19 on patients, families and staff in telling detail, resonant metaphors and poetic eloquence. The poems give us a moving glimpse of personal perspectives with great honesty and poignancy.
The collection opens with a poem about the journey to work in "Morning," which describes the stark emptiness of streets against the menace of the hospital chimneys. This evocation of place amplifies the collection. There is a sense of different worlds: the pettiness of people fighting over toilet rolls against the daily sacrifice of those battling Covid, patients and staff alike.
The experience of the illness itself is devastatingly captured in "Mother’s Day": "each deep breath coughed, the retching blue lit trip," and the fear brought by hallucinations in "Fever." There is death, but recovery too, reflected in the return of appetite: "delicious want, a little mash and gravy."
We see the experience of the health workers caring for the sick. In "Protection," the hot claustrophobia of PPE is a tempest, which soaks uniforms and leaves "faces run with rain." In "Night Shift," someone’s reflection is like an astronaut adrift from the world, in a universe of flickering monitors, once again conveying a sense of other worldliness. There is the raw grief of an end-of-life nurse who cuts short her maternity leave to come back to work and copes with seven deaths in a day. Everywhere there seems to be profound sickness, isolation and grief.
And yet even at the heart of the conflict, hope shines through these poems. There is a great sense of optimism and strength in the theme of teamwork. The poem "Notes Left Behind for a Newbie" offers encouragement by a team bound together like a raft. The perspective of staff in a variety of roles is important because it reminds us that doctors and nurses are not the only people who work in hospitals. We hear about the chaplain who ministers where he can in "the emptying out of anger or bedpans." There is the voice of the unseen pathologist in the lab and there is the care for a member of staff who has succumbed to the infection - "one of us," who expresses gratitude for "this family, these friends, this work." We hear of kindnesses - the holding of hands and the talk of home and the joy of online connections. And at the end there is the hope of new life in the Christmas day birth of Ethan.
Martin Figura’s collection is a mighty accomplishment and by reading it I have been educated, moved and inspired.
About the reviewer
Kate Durban is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester and a part-time Cancer Wellbeing Nurse at Peterborough City Hospital. She lives in rural Northamptonshire with her husband Philip and two dogs.