Poetry on Lockdown is a blog series in which writers and Library staff reflect upon poems chosen from our website. They’ll write about how the poem is providing comfort and inspiration during the lockdown. Today, our Projects Co-ordinator Samuel Tongue looks at Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Healings 2’.
At midnight the north sky is blues and greys, with a thin fissure of citrine just above the horizon. It’s light when you wake, regardless of the hour. At 2 or 4 or 6am, you breathe light into your body.
A rose, a briar rose. A wild rose and its thorned stem. What did Burns say? ‘you seize the flo’er, the bloom is shed’.
To be healed is not to be saved from mortality, but rather, released back into it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change.
As one of the editors of Tools of the Trade: Poems for new Doctors, an anthology of poetry gifted to every graduating doctor in Scotland, I’ve read a lot of poems that explore the relationships between the body and disease, and how we turn to healthcare professionals for support and healing. As we now enter the fourth week of ‘lockdown’, haunted by a disease that is frightening in its tenacity and indiscriminate severity, we are now more aware than ever of the bravery and professionalism of NHS healthcare workers at every level of this unique institution.
And yet, I’ve been troubled by the narrative that has grown around these workers, one where they are depicted as heroes and angels, not least because this narrative can erase governmental responsibility to ensure that they are properly resourced and protected with the correct safety equipment and, more widely, financial support. Although the passion and commitment with which they discharge their responsibilities is truly incredible, our healthcare professionals are not miracle workers.
This is why Kathleen Jamie’s short fragment ‘Healings 2’ speaks so powerfully to my sense of our fragility and finitude. It comes from a beautiful collaborative work, Frissures, where Jamie worked with artist Brigid Collins to document a new line on Jamie’s body: a mastectomy scar after treatment for breast cancer. As she describes it:
I saw it as a site of change, of injury. But also, something in its shape made me pause. As I turned this way and that, I thought it looked like the low shores of an island, seen from afar. Or a river, seen from above. A bird’s-eye view of a river. Or a map. Then, I fancied it looked like the stem of a rose. With that, a line of Burns arrived in my head. ‘You seize the flo’er, the bloom is shed’.See full essay here.
Lines of poetry, lines drawn or sketched, lines becoming letters or roses or a ‘thin fissure of citrine just above the horizon’ as in the poem-fragment. I am having trouble sleeping at the moment, waking at ‘2 or 4 or 6am’, and Jamie’s thought of breathing light into the body is a calming one, a line of light in a dark time.
A line can be a flat-line, signifying the end of a heartbeat. It can map out the loss of a breast. But it can also grow into a rose, as Jamie explores, drawing its shape and definition from the language itself, first a hint, then a full description: “A rose, a briar rose. A wild rose and its thorned stem.” And, if you have a look at the illustrations in the Granta essay, you can see how Brigid Collins’ work twines through the lines, strengthening its twist. There are echoes of Gertrude Stein’s ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ but, instead, it is Burns’ warning against grasping the flower too tightly or ‘the bloom is shed’ that marks Jamie’s words.
In this reprise of Burns, I hear a warning against miracles. Jamie writes cogently on how lucky she was to have her cancer diagnosed early and that she was spared chemotherapy. And yet, mortality is still a thick line that runs through all of our experience, from pauper to king. Avoiding trite claims of ‘we’re all in this together’ that are trotted out by commentators – some are clearly in safer, more secure positions during this Covid-19 crisis than others – Jamie does strike a profoundly resonant note: ‘To be healed is not to be saved from mortality, but rather, released back into it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change.’
During this pandemic, I am praying that as many patients and their loved ones as possible are ‘returned to the wild’, into the possibilities of life and change. Jamie’s poem-fragment helps remind me that mortality remains a part of this return. And, with that reminder comes the awareness, in the face of fragility and mortality, of the practical lines of support that we must constantly weave into a social net of mutuality, care, and compassion.