When I took my wife’s call, I thought she was trapped in the wreckage of a car. Her brain was wired to the pain and nothing was making sense. She was, in fact, on our bedroom floor and, minutes later, we were in A & E where we were told that all was well and went home for paracetamol. Later, she was screaming in the GP’s waiting room. She was too noisy. She was upsetting the patients. She couldn’t stay there and soon she was bucking on a bed and injected with pethidine. It did nothing for the pain, so the GP shrugged (yes, really), told us he could do nothing more and suggested that we go home. My wife lost her temper. In that case he’d have to call an ambulance, he said. (This line delivered like a threat to someone wasting police time). Six hours after she had first presented herself, we were back in A & E, waiting for the scan that would reveal a cyst the size of an orange in pethidine-shrugging torsion. The cyst was a chasm above the shadow of our ten week old daughter and, minutes later, the consultant would be prepping her for emergency surgery.
Olivia Byard’s Strange Horses is eloquent on the subjects of pain, loss and the institutionalised impotence we experience at the hands of healthcare professionals. At times, her poems are almost unbearably painful to read but put us in touch with moments which we rarely see clearly. In Intensive Care, the first poem in the sequence HEART CHILD, our rituals and customs are exposed, defamiliarized and rendered as strange and arbitrary as those at the court of Versailles: ‘At least / there are manners; their elaborate rules. / So we play, near despair, a game of courtesy, death on the advantage point’. The caesura after ‘manners’ suggests the timing and precision of a courtly dance. Anyone waiting at a bedside for the promised blood test, unsure whether the doctor intended that it should be taken in twenty minutes or twenty hours, knows how this caesura feels. Behind the clinical facade and the mutual smiles sits something darker and primal, as ‘Outbursts only give hostage / to the slavering beast beyond the door’. The hospital threatens us with horror: the benign smiles hide B movie grindhouse splatters.
Faced with facts of mortality, Byard suggests that we retreat into the irrational. In Intensive Care, the family cling to the karmic qualities of extreme courtesy. In The Crimson Scarf, all of our conceits are stripped from us. ‘When I first kissed the puckered skin / that had been breast, it was to make you / better. We always kissed to make it better’. Time telescopes away as the mother’s motherliness is stripped like her breast, as her daughter usurps her place in the world, symbolised by the kiss. In this poem, the stanza breaks open a void of inexorable time – time for rogue cells to divide and divide. ‘For a while you sported a crimson scarf – / a slash of colour defying dark and all its / weighty terrors’. Again, Byard presents our defiance as a game where even the ‘slash of colour’ carries ominous echoes of the scalpel and the ritualised violence of the operating theatre.
These poems enjoy a troubled relationship with the collection’s landscape poetry. In FLOOD, ‘Fields lie buried beneath this water, / a shimmering expanse a boat / could pole across avoiding // only bare trees marooned above / the ripples and terns bobbing / like exotic bait to lure the unwary eye’. The universe is upended as we think of fields buried like a dead thing. Careful line breaks leave the ripples and terns bobbing like a pastoral idyll, Byard skilfully concealing the bait that lures our unwary eyes in the proceeding line. We are all like the reader, caught in a helpless journey along the line of life. We will all be ensnared by the hidden traps beneath the gaudy show. In MAPPA MUNDI, Medieval cartography appears as more than a little ridiculous: ‘There are the dog heads, / the sciapods, and those weird souls / with heads down in their chests, / just where they were rumoured to be: / on the edge of the unknown’ but at least their beasts were ‘corralled / behind a stout fence of biblical words’, whereas ours are ‘roaming monsters’. In a post Christian world, Donne’s ‘Death thou shalt die‘ just doesn’t cut it for most people. The corral has been breached and the monsters stalk the Earth. Ironic really, since ours is the supposedly enlightened world.
This is a dark, painful collection of poems. However, there is nothing self-indulgent here. Byard muses on the lives of animals (Auden’s torturer’s horse from his Musée des Beaux Arts) and the English landscape, as well as upon our mortality. Strange Horses is a walk through a cutting breeze on a beautiful winter’s day. Your cheeks may smart by the fire afterwards but you’ll be glad that you momentarily stepped into the cold.