POEMS THAT TOOK OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD #5: The hospital café is almost empty

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The above poem can be found in the Ver Prize 2016 anthology; it won 2nd prize in the competition judged by Andrew McMillan, and is my absolute favourite piece in the pamphlet. It’s a poem which creeps up on you and pushes you along from behind; it’s described in the judges report as ‘slippery’ which is the perfect word for it.

The hospital café is almost empty is a great example of using a title to outline context, so we’re already situated in the hospital when we start reading, diving straight into the poem’s stream of consciousness. It also forgoes punctuation completely, something which can easily misfire and become distracting, yet here it works extremely well with the theme and tone. Because this is a poem about lack of control; the impossibility of shielding yourself from the inevitabilites of ageing and illness. The opening observation of the pavement and  floor sets this up: ‘just a thin skin / between me and out there’, signifying vulnerability; symbolising how close we always are to disaster, or disease, no matter the psychological or physical defences we might create for ourselves.

The midsection – ‘when we are young chopping wood / digging this is unimaginable someone else’s life / poor chap’ – feels like the heart of the poem, skilfully evoking the physical vitality of the young, along with the way in which none of us ever really think we’ll get old, until we do. The surreal leaps in thought, and the wit (‘poor chap’) prevent this from becoming overwrought; I love the ‘golden columns’ of sunlight in the imagined scene, lending the youthful past a mythic, majestic quality.

I enjoyed re-reading this. The first couple of times I read it through I was so overwhelmed by the haunting closing couplet that I think I skimmed the rest, but it’s worth paying close attention to how the conceit is set up and ran with, as well as its use of plain language (always just enough – we know what a ‘white room’ in a hospital looks like; we don’t need anything else and the poet knows this), which has great power and integrity.

You can read more about Margaret Wilmot here. I highly recommend her pamphlet, Sweet Coffee (Smiths Knoll 2013).

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